Sunday, December 26, 2010

Apathy for the devil - a 70s memoir (review)

I just finished reading Apathy for the devil, the autobiography of Nick Kent. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I read it twice through in one sitting.

Buying this book was a no brainer for me. I was head-over-heels in love with Nick Kent during his first few years at the NME – I mean, look at the cover picture of this book. Wouldn't you fall in love with the man?

Nick Kent book

In my defense, I was fourteen years old. And that's what I went for back then. Kent knows how he looked – he describes himself time and time again in the book as "like a girl" or "effeminate" or "androgynous" and estimates he won the 1970s prize for being called a pouf (faggot) by strangers in public. Oddly enough, he wasn't a pouf, but his looks were perfect for the times. In 1972, Glam Rock had just been invented, Kent was in the London musicians' orbit, the NME needed to get writers on board who could double the youth circulation within 12 weeks, and bingo! Mr. Kent became a shining example of being in the right place at the right time. Just as my own musical taste was developing – mostly a chimerical mashup of Led Zeppelin and Marc Bolan, with a side order of the Stones, Captain Beefheart, Roxy Music, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, the MC5, Can, and so forth, most of whom Nick Kent managed to interview or write about within a short few months of arriving at the paper – the NME metastasized into an organ that delivered information on my kind of music. Or perhaps it told me what to listen to. I don't remember it being that way around – I don't think it had much sympathy for Marc Bolan, for instance – but in the pre-internet, pre-torrent days the very best you could do was wait for the NME (and Sounds, and Melody Maker) to reach the newsagents each week and scour it to find out what was happening.

I love reading what people write. I put it that way because I don't really read much literature – Kent, who went to university and struggled with Chaucer (Canterbury Tales is like a bad Carry On script written by a halfwit, he says) and Milton, has me beat there – and I can really do without poetry, but journalism and opinion writing really float my boat. Other crushes included two other NME scribes, Charles Shaar Murray and Mick Farren, and from there I didn't branch out much. I loved Steven Wells (Seething Wells) for instance, but I think he was an NME writer off-and-on too. There's something I get out of a good description of a situation or a description of a thought or emotion that I can't get out of anything else in life, and when you love music, it's natural to gravitate to those who have access to musicians and music that's unavailable to you.

Kent had it better than me. About eight years older than I am, he remembers growing up in a world where you could get a student grant, buy affordable records and see the greatest rock bands the world has ever known in sub-2,000-seater auditoriums for a few quid. I had the grant and could afford a few records, but the Stones and the Who were struggling, the Beatles were long gone and the Stooges, the MC5, and the rest of the panoply were sidelined by drugs, drug busts or other problems. Nick Kent chronicles how this all happened, how the decade started out so promising (albeit with Performance and Gimme Shelter its first big rock-related movies, harbingers of what was to come) and then slid into mighty suckage.

But wait, you say, did not punk rock come along and save us all from the dinosaurs and their coke habits? Well, Kent has an angle on that too. He was a friend of Malcolm McLaren's, a (short lived) Sex Pistol and a man who played with the Damned pre-them becoming the actual Damned, so he was as well-positioned to observe punk as he had been to hang out with Keith Richards and Iggy Pop. It turns out he was not a fan of the punk scene and the punk scene was really, really not a fan of Nick Kent. He was attacked by Sid Vicious with a bike chain, and many wannabees over the next few years attempted to finish the job. Besides, by this time he was a full-blown heroin addict, living in squats and spending his entire income on either heroin itself or other drugs to go with it for their additive or calming effects. His path crossed that of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen a few times in assorted nasty drug dens, and Sid apologized for his attack - and Kent accepted.

In a way, this is the classic rock story – fame, fortune, drugs, rock-bottom, redemption and reflection – except told by a rock journalist instead of a rock musician. I love those stories and I love Kent's story at least as much as I enjoyed recently reading Keith Richards' autobiography, Life, which I've forgotten to post about here. I've seen a couple of bad or so-so reviews of this book, none of which have anything substantial to say, and basically boil down to "who is Nick Kent and why does he think he's all that?" To which I can only reply, people who write autobiographies do tend to showcase their own story. Nick Kent was demonstrably there as all the things that made the seventies The Seventies unfolded, and he puts it all down in the book. He got caught up in very bad drugs and writes about that too, but makes it very, very plain that so did pretty much everybody else, and the effects on the music scene, whether it was American Punk, American singer-songwriter music, English classic rock or English Punk, were profound and devastating.

Now Kent had something besides androgynous good looks and a backstage pass, and so it's good to note that his phenomenal writing is almost back to its early-seventies glory, straining and soaring against the entire dark ages of music journalism (© Tony Palmer). There are metaphors and similes in this book that made me laugh out loud. He manages to work in several classic lyrics and many rock references without going out of his way to set them up, including the wonderful feat of quoting a Spinal Tap lyric as a description of one of his hard-won lessons on life. "You know where you stand in a hell hole."

On the other hand, there are several passages that sound as though he was dictating into Dragon Naturally Speaking and never went back to clean up the sentences in writing. "This quaint spectacle were known as Tyrannosaurus Rex and they quickly came to enjoy the patronage of… John Peel", he writes. This quaint spectacle were? I know transatlantic travel completely screws up a writer's ability to tell whether a group is a singular noun or a plural noun, but that's too much. Later he tells us that he had been afraid of full penetrative sex with a woman as a young teen, "because so many of my school-going cronies had gotten their girlfriends pregnant." Once at college he says, "[b]ut I'd finally escaped that sorry fate and was now free to make up for lost time". But, my brain kept telling me, you can't be sure you've finally escaped the sorry fate of getting a girl pregnant when you are 19 years old. You're in the middle of that predicament for the next 60 years or so. "Fate" is the wrong word to use here. There are several sentences that take the form, "a thin young man with long Pre-Raphaelite hair called John May", which lead you to wonder what the man was called and why the name of his hair was more important. And in relating the otherwise hilarious story of man-mountain Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant once accidentally sitting on Elvis Presley's father, who was unfortunate enough to be quietly occupying a chair Grant wanted to sit in, he writes that it might not be true as, "Grant could have broken every bone in the poor man's body if he'd descended on him from behind." And I'm sure someone the size of Grant could have, except in this case, of course, he would have descended on him from in front, not from behind.

And weirdly, at one point Kent says that he came up with the term that defined the rock aristocracy in the seventies, "wastedly elegant". No, you didn't Nick, FFS. The term you came up with was "elegantly wasted". I know, I was there in the seventies.

1 comment:

Carol said...

Poor old Nick - not much gets past Peromyscus,eh?

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