Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Dark Stuff

NICK KENT DOES THE NASTY

Elvis Costello once famously cracked that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture," but while that dis against pop music critics may well be true, I have to admit that there are certain rock scribes who are able to rise to the challenge of describing the indescribable, who are neither too over analytical (it's only rock & roll, after all) nor too gushing a fanboy/fangirl. Brit rock writer Nick Kent is one of them. In fact, not only is Kent the polar opposite of a fanboy, he actually seems to be one of the very few guys in the pop press to actually call the rock idols of his generation out, and he does so in a style that makes him one of the greatest "architectural dancers" of his times, one whose celebrity profiles - as England's Evening Standard put it - "are essential reading for anyone who has refused to take rock music at face value." Maybe it's because he's been in the club himself, having played guitar with the Sex Pistols in 1975 (he claimed to have turned them on to the Small Faces, Stooges and Modern Lovers), fronting his own band the Subterraneans (with Rat Scabies and Bryan James of The Damned), and even later becoming the ultimate rock cliche, the re-habbed drug addict.

I was always a fan of Kent's writing in NME and other British music mags and recently picked up The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings On Rock Music (2002), an updated collection of his best articles that Iggy Pop has rightly described as "a nasty book." (The Igster meant it as a compliment, of course.) In fact, in his preface to the 1993 edition, Iggy wrote:
I read this nasty book with an unusual degree of interest. I found it to have a feverish effect. By the end of each chapter I experienced an exhausted, depressed feeling, coupled with a desire to relisten to the music of the subject/artist...Such, I suppose, is the strange relationship between the repulsive and attractive poles of human beings. I love you, I hate you, you disappoint me, you elevate me." - Iggy Pop
The Dark Stuff contains great writing about both ends of that strange pole, about both the legends (Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Kurt Cobain, Syd Barrett, Iggy Pop, The Rolling Stones) and the lowlifes (Jerry Lee Lewis, Brian Jones, Sid Vicious, Guns 'N' Roses) of rock & roll. Most times, Kent discovers, the line between legends and lowlifes is razor-thin. A mixing of "the Byronic and the Moronic." Or, as the text from the back cover so accurately describes it, "In the cut-throat marketplace of rock 'n' roll music-making, there are two classes of people: the Superstars and the Slaves, the Living Legends and the Lowly Burn-Outs."

And speaking of razors, Kent is almost as famous for being the victim of rock star backlash as his is for his words, being famously attacked by John Simon Richie (AKA "Sid Vicious"), at the goading of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and with the assistance of future PiL guitarist Jah Wobble. Writing of the "glory years" of UK punk circa 1976-77, Kent debunks the hindsight-is-golden hype about the merits of Punk's "liberating force":
"After the aforementioned knife-chain Sid incident, I became an ongoing victim of mindless punk brutality throughout 1977. I was stabbed repeatedly one night in an open field close by London's King Cross by four youths clearly overwhelmed by the liberating force of punk rock and their ardent desire to ape anything Sid did. Another time I was attacked in the toilets of the fabled Roxy by a guy with a knife...I can distinctly remember...wondering to myself, did Greg Marcus get to find himself in such life-or-death situations when out reviewing Randy Newman?"

Apparently rock star familiarity breeds indignation, if not downright injury. But then Nick Kent was always just as much a part of the story as his reputed subjects. No wonder a nervous Brian Wilson quipped upon meeting him, "Maybe I should interview you. You look more like a rock star than me." Such was his impact that, as Barney Hoskyns observed in a 1994 profile of Kent for Vogue, "For any callow, maladjusted youth growing up in the early-to-mid-‘70s with the New Musical Express as his bible, Nick Kent was unquestionably the coolest rock scribe on the planet." Or as Iggy put it, in greater detail:
"It needs to be mentioned that Mr. Kent has a side to his history as sordid and generally unsavory and sometimes downright hilarious as anyone described in this book.

An unlikely, ungainly figure, well over six feet tall, unsteadily negotiating the sidewalks of London and LA like a great palsied mantis, dressed in the same tattered black-leather and velvet guitar-slinger garb regardless of season or the passing of time, hospital-thin, with a perpetually dripping bright red nose caused by an equally perpetual drug shortage, all brought to life by a wrist-waving, head-flung-back Keith Richards effect, and an abiding interest in all dirt. That's Nick Kent for you in the seventies and eighties. In short, a true rock'n'roller: someone who cared.

Which brings us to the end, It's hard to care anymore. The 'music industry' is fat and satisfied. They can buy anything, and turn anyone into a spiritual eunuch. That means no balls.

Yet, reading this creepy book, I wanted to hear the music again. I was interested. As for 'today's music industry' and its bed-mate 'music journalism,' I just don't care anymore. How could I?"

- Iggy Pop

But obviously Kent cared, which is why his articles describing the sad plummeting of so many high-flying rock luminaries is so poignant. And why Kent calls it like it is, holding no punches. Because he cares. It matters to him that Keith Richard squandered his promise with too much drug use, becoming a wizened caricature of his stage image, one whose musical ability was stunted by settling for a drug buddy (Ron Wood) as second guitarist in the Stones rather than a maestro who could challenge Keef (like Mick Taylor) and make him grow as an artist. (One can only imagine what the Stones would have sounded like if they had called up fanboy/guitar whizkid Nils Lofgren, whose "Keith Don't Go" made it obvious what his answer would have been to an invite - but then Nils would ultimately squander his talents playing second, and third, fiddle to The Boss and Little Stephen in the E Street Band.) It matters to Kent that Lou Reed likewise dissipated his promise in "The Wasted Years" of the 70s and 80s before death and sobriety gave him a new lease on life in the 90s. And it matters to him that Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett suffered mental meltdowns so severe that they short-circuited the bright promise of their youthful genius to become barely functioning mental vegetable in their middle ages (both seemingly stemming from insurmountable dysfunctional family upbringings, combined with the obvious drug over-indulgence).

IN PRIVATE LIFE

And while we're dishing the celebrity dirt, in 1974 Kent had a brief fling with fellow NME writer Chrissie Hynde before she formed The Pretenders and while she was still working at Malcolm McLaren and Viviene Westwood's Sex Shop. Hynde later told Jon Savage - in his essential history of British punk, England's Dreaming - that a jealous Kent came into the Sex shop looking to whip her with his belt, causing her to flee to Paris (where Kent himself moved in 1988). Savage also claimed that the "typewriter god" mentioned in the Sex Pistols' B-side "I Wanna Be Me" (You wanna ruin me in your magazine/
You wanna cover us in margarine
) was none other than Mr. Kent:
Turn the page and it’s the scoop of the century
Don't wanna be L7
I had enough of this
This is brainwash
And this is a clue
To the stars who fool you
Tell me why you cant explain
You're only looking for vinyl
Yeah, didn't they fool you
They wanna be you

Gimme world war three
We can live again
You didn't fool me
I fooled you
You wanna be me
Yeah, you wanna be me
You wanna be someone
Ruin someone
Yeah, didn't I fool you
I ruined you
Yeah, didn't I fool you
I sussed you out

I got you in the camera
And I got you in my camera
A second of your life
Ruined for life
You wanna ruin me in your magazine
You wanna cover us in margarine
And now is the time
You got the time
To realise
To have real eyes

Down, down, down, down
I'll take you down on the underground
Down in the dark
And down in the crypt
Down in the dark
Where the typewriter fit
Down with your pen and pad
Ready to kill
To make me ill
Down, wanna be someone
Wanna be someone
Need to be someone
You wanna be me
Ruin me
A typewriter god
A black and white king
PVC
Blackboard books
Black and white

- The Sex Pistols ("I Wanna Be Me," B-side of the 1976 "Anarchy in the UK" single)
And according to my friend Ray, Nick was also name-checked in Adam Ant's "Press Darlings": "If passion ends in fashion Nick Kent/Bushell is the best-dressed man in town." (Garry Bushell being a rival music critic for Sounds mag.)

Obviously, Nick Kent was quite the (beloved?) character. No wonder he's in my top 10 all-time rock critics list, along with fellow Nicks Tosches and Hornby, Chuck Eddy, R. Meltzer, Robot A. Hull, Matt Groening (circa his LA Reader "Sound Mix" column), "oral historian" Legs McNeil (of Punk magazine and Please Kill Me fame), local Shockwave scribe Todd Stachowski and, of course, Kent's idol Lester Bangs - the only rock critic as of yet to have a biography written of him (Jim DeRogatis' Let It Blurt). (To see Nick Kent's great obit for Bangs, click here.)

KENT CODA: SOME BON MOTS

I've selected some personal fave highlights from The Dark Stuff below, organized by artist:

The Sex Pistols: "Maybe you'll wonder...why I've kept from documenting my own experiences with the band in a special chapter. Fuck it, they were all absolute bastards. What else do you need to know?"

"...working with the Sex Pistols was like blending into some late-twentieth century update of Charles Dickens' portrayal of Fagin, the Artful Dodger and that wretched den of teenaged thieves out of the pages of Oliver Twist..."

Malcolm McLaren: "...he was the one who coaxed Sid Vicious into attacking me with a rusty old bike chain while the future "Jah" Wobble held a knife three inches from my face."

Sid and Nancy: "...when you break it down, decomposing was their greatest achievement. A mere seven hours after expiring Nancy Spungen was already smelling of death. It takes up to forty-eight hours before the putrefying odour commences in the corpses of the old. At the age of twenty both had wasted themselves beyond belief. Let them rot."

Brian Wilson: "A genius musician but an amateur human being."

Roky Erickson: "Looking like a heavily sedated midget Rasputin with long crow-black hair and a lank beard to match, Erickson's barely capable of articulating more than two syllables every five minutes. The lights may be half on, but there is absolutely no one home...You can literally see the eyes beginning to fog over again: a strange chemical mist descending around the retinas. In three minutes he'll be back in the land of the living dead. ('Ah kinda liked that film. Ah love to see them zombies dance.') I meanwhile will be silently praying that the much-predicted psychedelic revival gets postponed just a little while longer."

The Rolling Stones: "The first thing you need to know about my adventures with the Rolling Stones is that they pretty much all took place once the basic thrill had gone out of the group and their music."

Brian Jones: "Dying when he did - frankly that was the best thing that could have happened to Brian Jones. For friends and fans alike, as sick as it sounds, it was a blessing because he was geting fat, losing his looks fast, and the image of a fat ugly Brian Jones was simply intolerable...For the Stones, of course, it was perfect because the dimension no replacement could ever hope to cover was suddenly filled up by his ghost. I mean, everyone knew the Stones were bad, but now they were so bad one of them was holding up a tombstone...Poor baby Brian Jones, so twisted, lost and loveless: the spirit that Jim Morrison and Patti Smith eulogized in public verse, the image that stares out provocatively, disdainfully from all those timeless sixties photographs. He will never grow old."

Mick Jagger: "He had this particular habit of adopting the dialect and accent of anyone he was talking to, just as he was talking to them. On one occasion I found myself in a room with him, a white guy from the American South, a black guy from Los Angeles and someone from the North of England, and everyone stood quietly aghast as the singer's voice weaved a reckless path away from his usual faux Cockney intonations to attempt a 'y'all' drenched drawl straight out of a particularly arch Tennessee Williams production before slipping into 'soul brother' black speak somewhat in the over-excited cadence of Little Richard. When he finally started talking like a Manchester bus conductor, everyone in the room looked utterly mystified because the whole performance was frankly ridiculous to begin with and ou really couldn't tell if Jagger consciously realized he was even doing it or not. But ultimately it didn't matter because it got him what he wanted, which was to be the centre of attention...But he'd only stay the centre of attention until Keith Richards walked into the room."

Keith Richards: "There was also this doomed poetic quality about him that Marianne Faithful pegged nicely when she talked about 'how if you're an over-imaginative schoolgirl who's read Shelley and Byron, well, that's what Keith Richards is. This perfect vision of damned youth. Even though he's turning more and more into Count Dracula.' "

"He consumed drugs like other people consume air, which is to say, unceasingly...But hard drugs - particularly in the amounts he was consuming - can only end up blunting creative instinct and stealing all natural reserves of energy and that's what was hapenning to him. Watching him on stage, it was like he was lost in this deep dense fog, but there was something so poignant about seeing him still standing there because there was always a very real possibility that it could be the last time. But it was also kind of sordid seeing him stumble through his signature tune, 'Happy,' missing half the lyrics and having Jagger conclude the thing by adopting his most sarcastic voice to remark, 'Uh, thank you Keith, that was really amazing!' As in 'not.' "

Iggy Pop: " 'I tell you, all the bitches - all these women - want me now because they can sense the strength in me. And they want it sooo bad. But they're not gonna get me. Uh-huh. Only on my terms. And my terms are simply phoning 'em up, telling them to be at such and such a place at such and such a time, in good physical condition, to be fucked. And then leave, goddammit.' "

[Woa! Terms of Endearment, indeed. Truly, A Man With a Plan!]

" ' This particular attitude I have...it all stems from Nico actually,' he continues. 'She was the one who took me when I was a skinny, little naive brat and taught me how to eat pussy and all about the best German wines and French champagnes. Anyway, one day she aid to me' - adopted doomy German tone - 'Jimmy, you have ziz one big problem' - I was just a little lad for chrissakes, but I was till game - 'You are not full of zee poison!...We do not want to see a person on the stage, no, no, no. We want to see a performance, and zee poison is the essence of the performer...' "

The Stooges: (circa Funhouse): "It was real "heart of darkness" music in the classic Kurtzian sense and a lot further down the river of no return..."

Syd Barrett: "First came the Floyd. Then came the void. And sometime in between this tragic passage the omens were there for all to see that something terribly wrong was happening to their golden boy but everyone was being too cool and 'laissez-faire' to accept them for what they were..."

[After Syd had doused his hair with a mixture of crushed-up Mandrax tranquilizer pills and Brylcream and started to melt under hot stagelights at a gig:] "His kohl-encircled eyes were glazed and sunken, and his hair looked even worse, bursting from his skull like a badly orchestrated explosion...anyone could tell that Syd, once the leader, was no lonegr inhabitating the same planet planet as the other three...It was then that everyone could see how desperately things were going wrong, for he looked like some groestque waxwork of himself on fire, a blurred effigy of melting flesh and brain tissue coming apart in front of his peers, his fans and his followers."

Related Links:
Nick Kent entry at Answers.com
Rock's Back Pages Library(Great rock articles resource)
Novelty Rock (great Washington City Paper article on rock criticism)