Interview with Nick Kent

By Karl Whitney

April 2007

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The dark side of the rock and roll myth is something that fascinates fans, journalists and, especially, rock musicians themselves. From the destructive glamour of the latest pretender to the throne, Pete Doherty, to the seemingly doomed genius of Phil Spector - currently on trial for murder in Los Angeles - rock and roll seems to attract and encourage stars who are drawn to the darkest corners of the human soul.

For a journalist who had written so much about those dark corners of rock and roll, and who sought to document the destructive power of addiction in the world of music, it is perhaps unsurprising that Nick Kent fell prey to such addiction, and, in the process of writing about the myth, became something of a mythical figure himself.

Kent was the star journalist of the New Musical Express in the early to mid seventies, an era that is now referred to by many journalists who worked on the paper at the time as a 'golden age. It was a writer's paper, where Kent could have a 40,000 word profile of Brian Wilson published - something that was previously unheard of in a rock weekly.

But, as Kent's star rose, he became a target for disgruntled younger bands. A highly visible presence on the London scene (he was described by Julie Burchill as looking 'like a six-foot three-inch lizard standing up on its two back legs and dressed head to toe in leather') he was also infamous for his prodigious heroin addiction. One night at the 100 Club, at a Sex Pistols gig, a worse for wear Kent was allegedly attacked by Sid Vicious, an incident that fed the Pistols' mythology, but seemed to give Kent pause for thought.

He later wrote that his addiction 'practically ruined' him as a writer, yet it is undeniable that this experience provided the journalist with an unvarnished insight into the rock and roll world of addiction. In 1988 he moved to Paris, where he still lives with his French wife and teenage son. At this point he put his drug addiction behind him.

In 1994 Nick Kent published a book called The Dark Stuff, a collection of his interviews with, and profiles of, legendary musicians. It is still talked about in hushed tones, as one of the greatest works of music journalism. Out of print in the UK for some years (it has remained in print in the USA since its first publication), it is about to be reissued in April by Faber.

Based on many of the interviews published by NME in the 1970s, The Dark Stuff also draws from his magazine work in the 1980s, and the republication of the book allows the inclusion of some valuable later articles, including a recent interview with Iggy Pop and a short profile of French rock provocateur Serge Gainsbourg.

His extensive article about Brian Wilson in 1975 set the tone for subsequent writing about Wilson and the Beach Boys. It reveals the fragile talent at the core of the band, and how that talent was crushed by bullying and Wilson's extensive use of hallucinogens in the late sixties. An extended version of the piece opens The Dark Stuff. At one point, Tony Asher, Wilson's co-songwriter on the album Pet Sounds tells Kent that Wilson was 'a genius musician, but an amateur human being', a definition that could be applied to many of the musicians Kent went on to write about.

Brought up in Wales, Kent had moved to London to go to university, but instead became a writer for the underground magazine Frendz. Recruited to the NME as part of a mass overhaul of staff there, his new position allowed Kent to go on tour with the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, and to write profiles of such figures as Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd and Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground.

'I created a pretty unique situation for myself. I was very lucky in that I had the might of the NME when it was at its peak. It was selling 300,000 copies a week, and so it had a lot of power. It was right at the time when the glam rock thing was happening, and glam rock was moving into punk. The NME was on top of that, whereas Melody Maker wasn't. So we really ruled the roost, so to speak. And we were the paper that American papers like Rolling Stone were looking at. We were really controlling the zeitgeist in terms of rock music. 'So, me being the main guy there, who was interviewing all the big groups, and writing about the young groups coming up, I had a unique presence in rock journalism that I don't think anyone has been able to have since.'

After six months writing feature articles for the NME, Kent, still only 21 years of age, made a pilgrimage to the Michigan headquarters of Creem magazine, where the legendary rock writer Lester Bangs took him under his wing.

'I wanted to get good really fast, because when you start you're still taking from other people. You're still kind of a wannabe, in the sense that you take a little bit from Lester, a little bit from another guy and put it together. I hadn't found my voice, in other words. I knew that Bangs had the gift.

'I just went to where Bangs lived. I got his address, turned up, knocked on the door. I just asked him straight out: 'listen man, I really need your help. I've got this situation where there's this readership, and yet I don't feel I'm giving it to them. I don't really feel I have the talent. I want to develop into a real writer'.'

And what was his reaction?

'He was like 'okay, well, stick around'. He was really cool about it, and I'll never forget that. It touches me just to think about it now.' There was a subsequent falling out between Bangs and Kent, which Kent blames partially on Bangs's reaction to Kent's increasing fame as the decade wore on. Yet Kent speaks with genuine emotion about the man. Bangs died in 1982 from an accidental drug overdose. He was only 33 years old.

Dave Marsh, a journalist working for Creem, coined the term 'punk' when writing about garage band Question Mark and the Mysterians, and the word soon spread, being applied in turn to primal bands like the Stooges and more glam inflected groups like the New York Dolls. As a visitor to Creem's offices, Kent says he was privy to this new term, and duly passed it on when he returned to England, to the ambitious manager of the band that was to become the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren.

'The first time Malcolm McLaren heard the phrase 'punk rock' was from my lips back in 1973. McLaren, at the time I met him, was on a fifties teddy boy revival trip. He had a shop called Let it Rock, which was purely drape jackets, Gene Vincent records. It was a retro concern. The first time I met the guys who became the Sex Pistols - Steve Jones, Glen Matlock and Paul Cook - they were playing sixties retro pop. Because they came from the Shepherd's Bush/White City area, they related to the Small Faces and the Who, and that was their repertoire. Both were locked into the past. McLaren was locked in the fifties, until he met the New York Dolls, and then he understood rock was no longer a dead thing.'

Kent went on to play with an early line-up of the Pistols, but they split, and his next significant involvement with the group was the attack on the journalist at a Pistols gig in the 100 Club. Kent was subsequently attacked again during the punk era, stabbed by a group of youths near King's Cross. Does bring on the receiving end of this violence colour his memory of punk rock?

'Punk rock didn't start out that way. It started out for me in 1972 when I met Iggy Pop in London. To me, the Stooges were the first and the best punk rock group. It all starts there. If punk is an ocean, they're the tap that filled it. It was the Stooges who created the whole ballgame, the whole sound, and particularly the attitude.'

Kent's love of the Stooges is reflected in a profile of lead Stooge, Iggy Pop, based on several interviews conducted over almost twenty years. It paints a portrait of an intelligent man, struggling with the image of the rock god he has in part created, an image that at times threatens to dominate him, and frequently pushes him to the precipice. At one point, Pop sits on the edge of a bed, an unnamed Asian woman in the room, a mirror and bag of cocaine beside him, telling scurrilous stories from his past. It is hugely entertaining rock journalism, but also paints a worrying picture of the consequences of a life lived on the edge. When writing about rock stars, Kent is always careful to engage feelings other than pure admiration.

'To me, these people I got to know really well, they were always in situations where they behaved to other people in a way that was bad. And if you behave badly to other people, there are going to be consequences. And all these rock star people always thought that somehow consequences didn't apply to them. They had the notion of: we transcend this. We transcend the very notion of karma, because we are famous. So when these consequences manifested themselves in unwanted children, drug problems, in a record industry that had enough of arrogant behaviour and was rubbing its hands with glee watching these people go down the toilet, it was very hard for them to get to grips with it, to really understand. That, to me is what it's all about: consequences. In life, whether you're a superstar or a dustbin man, you have to deal with the consequences of what you do and who you are, and life itself. And if you can't do that, if you run away and think that fame and celebrity will offer you a refuge from all of that, then you are really going to be a casualty.

'That drives a lot of The Dark Stuff, but also the notion of the tough man: Keith Richards, Jerry Lee Lewis, Iggy Pop. Let's see how tough they really are. What is a real tough man, is it someone who can go out and drink and drug more than anyone else? And yet who doesn't really look after their own children. Or is it someone like Neil Young who has devoted his life to making his son, who suffers from Cerebral Palsy, the centre of his life, to making him as loved and as wanted as possible? There's a big difference. That's what a man is. It ain't this guy who goes out and is completely in the bag all the time. And whoopee, man, you can drink more and you can take more drugs than anyone else. Look at his family life, that's what counts for me.'

A profile of profoundly satanic rock and roller Jerry Lee Lewis is included in The Dark Stuff. It shows a pugilistic side to Kent's interviewing technique, one that is usually kept in reserve when he pursues his habitual psychological probing. A seemingly dozing Lewis is shocked into a violent biblical rage by Kent's barrage of tough, extremely personal, questions near the conclusion of the interview. Kent asks him about his bankruptcy and about his alleged relationship with daughter of Elvis Presley, Lisa Marie. But it's the way he asks the question that seems to light the touchpaper in the old Jerry Lee: 'is it true you've been teaching her to play the piano?'

'There were nineteen other people in the room, and it was just like a wrestling match. And Jerry Lee Lewis was just being incredibly rude to the interviewers. He was putting on a show, and I had to go in and put on a show as well; because otherwise I would have wilted. You want a performance? Well I'll give you a performance, man. I don't actually ask him 'did you kill your last wife?' but I say that Rolling Stone alleged it. When I said that, there was this inhalation of breath in the room, and it was like being on an aeroplane when the window sucks out.

'Sometimes you have to go into a situation where you are in potential physical danger in order to get the story that matters. Jerry Lee Lewis had a reputation to keep up, but so had I.'

Kent's confrontation with Lewis reveals something about his attitude to his own legend: that of being on a level playing field with the people he interviews. His own ego is as important to the balance of his writing as the personality and fame of his subject. And yet, he rarely places himself centre stage. This, you suspect, will come with his memoir about the seventies, which he is currently working on, and will be published by Faber next year.

At one point in our interview, Kent mentions F. Scott Fitzgerald as a model for the way his writing deals with the tragedy at the heart of the rock and roll dream. Fitzgerald, like Kent, was drawn into the seductive world of his subjects. Now Kent has come out the other side, and has clearly come to a number of conclusions about the rock and roll life.

Writers are famously shy of saying that there is any moral to be drawn from their work, but I felt that Kent would be far less circumspect about this. Would he go as far as saying that there's a moral core to what he does?

'If you look up in the Oxford dictionary the definition for what a human being is, it's a moral animal. Human beings have a morality, whether you like it or not, and that's where art comes from. It creates a set of values that we can live by. And if you're going to be an outlaw, if you're going to step outside the law, and if you take hard drugs - or even soft drugs, to a degree - you are stepping outside the law. It's like that Bob Dylan line: 'to live outside the law, you must be honest.' And that's an important philosophy from the sixties.'

And, with that, he's gone: Nick Kent, the legendary young gun at the NME in the seventies, returns to his writing desk in his house in Paris, to work on his memoirs, which will survey the sound and fury of the seventies rock scene, the dizzying highs and the painful lows of a life lived on the edge. Like The Dark Stuff, it promises to be arresting material.

For a full transcript of this interview on 3:AM Magazine's website, go here.

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