Apathy For The Devil by Nick Kent (Faber & Faber)
In his own right, Nick Kent was a talented journalist, prepared to wade through the cultural flotsam of rock music whenever required, even if it put his very health at risk. Stylistically, he was full of groove and bite – his riffs on fame, hedonism and encounters with the darlings and devils of the era make his 1994 debut The Dark Stuff, a collection of essays, one of the seminal works of desperado rock lit. Kent stood out from his rock-scribe peers because he wrote from within the dirty bowl of 1970s excess, giving him an authentic voice. He complimented these musicians by being cut from the same cloth – he appeared in an early line-up of the Sex Pistols – but was also their most notorious scrutiniser.
He, however, would be the first to admit that his heavy addiction to heroin ravaged his energy and enthusiasm for writing, but that is not the reason he eschews The Dark Stuff’s tightly wound style here. Instead, Kent uses a confessional, simplified voice for Apathy For The Devil, a name-and-shame about his highs and subsequent lows throughout the seventies. He meanders through the decade, spending a chapter on each year, and goes off on enough tangents to paint a concise picture of those heady days.
After a quick look back at the cuddly idealism of the sixties – all feverish burgeoning sex and LSD – the author sets about quashing any romanticism associated with the seventies by those who weren’t there or were just watching from the margins of safety. Phrases like -spiritually bankrupt’ and -ugly arrogance’ appear. False friends and true enemies lurk around every corner as his profile grows as one of the NME’s flagship wordsmiths.
Kent drops names, but is careful to pick them back up again. He became something of a professional tag-along, snorting and swigging his away on the live circuit with heavyweights like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and The Stooges. In these segments, he raises an oft-neglected reason why you should never meet you’re heroes – they’ll use you and loose you, and possibly get you addicted to hard drugs at the same time. So it was for our author, who recounts sobering hotel-room yarns of supremely talented millionaires sinning and self-medicating with gay abandon.
Those memories are clearly more bitter than sweet for Kent. While the dying, drug- addicted stars and heady jolts of fine rock n’ roll kept him fed with assignments, his tone is rife with cynicism, regret and a touch of self-pity. This is not to say Apathy For The Devil is a sob story – there were diamonds in the rough, deranged as they might have been. Iggy Pop is the book’s co-star, one of the few friends not to outright stab Kent in the back, and who in one memorable passage revives the author after his first dalliance with heroin. Similarly, he recalls with poignancy the kindness and mentorship of Lester Bangs, king of the narcotic school of rock journalism, during a spell stateside.
Not everyone was so gentle with this -skinny and effeminate’ young Londoner. By the time punk had muscled its way into Thatcherite Britain, Kent was not only fully dependent on heroin, he was seen as a symbol of the music industry and subsequently reviled. The late Malcolm McLaren, someone he considered an ally earlier in the seventies (the author claims the svengali had never heard the word -punk’ before they met) showed his cutthroat colours during one Sex Pistols show. The psychotic Sid Vicious, whom McLaren had moulded into a sort of thug side-act, was ordered to attack Kent with a bicycle chain. On another occasion, he is brutally stabbed by skinheads on the street, they themselves a by-product of McLaren’s nurturing of punk’s violent aesthetic. Even Bob Marley, Mr -One Love’ himself, makes an
unprovoked physical threat to Kent in a studio bathroom.
His biggest regret, you feel, is the deterioration in his writing and respectability in the NME. Although hinting that the eighties will be dealt with in his next work, he mentions that in 1982 the NME sacked him for the second and final time. It wasn’t until later in the decade when he had cleaned up and escaped to Paris to find love and fatherhood that he undergoes an epiphany after a -suitably hellacious’ interview with Jerry Lee Lewis. That’s how Nick Kent got his groove back.
If he succeeds in producing a follow-up memoir of the eighties, one suspects it will tell of a more serene landscape for the most part. Engrossing as passages of this memoir are, you’ll find yourself reassessing that copy of Exile on Main Street. As he puts it, -if a time machine were ever invented and made easily available to the hoi polloi, the seventies would be the last time zone in history I’d want to return to’.