Like Diluting an Essence
Nick Kent Interviewed by Karl Whitney.
3:AM: Where did the decision to reissue The Dark Stuff come from? [The book was reissued by Faber and Faber in April 2007.]
NK: It was released in 94 by Penguin in Britain, and then it was available, if you went to the right bookshops, until about 98-99. It was in the top ten for about a month in 94, in the bestsellers, fiction and non-fiction lists. It did quite well, but I don’t know if Penguin really understood what they had. Anyway, it came out in America around 96, and it has stayed in print in America, but for eight years there wasn’t an English publication.
I approached Faber through my agent — or my agent approached Faber first of all — with other books. I’ve pretty much finished a novel. And also I’m doing a book for Fabers, in fact, on the seventies: basically an autobiography of the seventies starting at midnight December 31st 1969. If you’ve read The Dark Stuff, the bits on the Rolling Stones, it’ll be more like that. It’ll be more about people like Led Zeppelin, who were the biggest group of the seventies, and Bowie and Roxy Music; Iggy Pop will still be around, obviously.
But it’ll be particularly about the punk thing. I have a particular perspective on the English punk thing, the American punk thing: they’re all different.
3:AM: Your own experience, in terms of your time in London with the punk scene, seems particularly violent and horrifying. [Kent says he was attacked by Sid Vicious at an early Sex Pistols concert, and was later stabbed by a group of youths near King’s Cross]
NK: Well, it didn’t start out that way. I mean, it started out for me in 1972 when I met Iggy and the Stooges. I met Iggy Pop first of all: David Bowie and his manager had brought him over to England, and he [Iggy] was looking around wondering what to do. He had brought this guy James Williamson — who was his guitar player — with him, but he hadn’t decided to bring the other guys over.
To me, the Stooges were the first and the best punk rock group. It all starts there. They’re the tap: if punk is an ocean, they’re the tap that was turned on to create that expanse of water, if you like. So it all starts for me there. My own downfall, or misfortune, would have been to get too close in with Malcolm McLaren.
You know, the first time Malcolm McLaren heard the phrase ‘punk rock,’ he heard it from my lips back in 1973. McLaren, at the time I met him, was purely on a fifties, teddy-boy revival trip. He had a shop called Let it Rock which was purely drape jackets and Gene Vincent records: it was a retro concern.
And the first time I met the guys who became the Sex Pistols — which would be 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, who came from the same area, and the Who. They played — I wouldn’t call them obscure — Small Faces and Who songs. That was their repertoire.
So, both these people were locked into the past. McLaren was locked in the fifties until he met the New York Dolls, and then he was like: ‘Oh, right, this thing can still be alive’. He understood that rock wasn’t dead.
3:AM: And the phrase ‘punk rock’ had come from the Creem writers, right?
NK: In my opinion, yeah. I mean, Lester Bangs was very important in that respect. Back in 1972, as well as the Stooges who’d made three albums by the end of 1972, there was the MC5 were more like a really advanced garage band, who were into Chuck Berry — that’s when they were at their best, the MC5. They did a bit of James Brown, they did a bit of Sun Ra — a bit of experimental stuff — but if you saw them live, they were at their best when they were going for that four-to-the-bar Chuck Berry thing. An American Rolling Stones, in other words.
Who else? The Velvet Underground, who were art rock. There was a studied punk vibe about Lou Reed’s leather jacket, dark glasses, which was very gay as well — it was more gay than punk, in my opinion. But what they were doing really was art rock, what was original about it was that they played art rock with a sort of studied nonchalant ineptitude — the drumming, in particular, by Mo Tucker was amateurish. There was a sort of studied amateurishness about what they did which you can say — well, that certainly — had a big effect on the early punk rockers.
But it was the Stooges who created the whole ball game: the whole sound, and particularly the attitude. When I worked with the Sex Pistols in the studio, and when I worked later with the Damned — in a very early version of the Damned without Dave Vanian — both groups were locked into recreating the… that’s what I was saying to them, basically: forget all this retro stuff: the Stooges is what’s happening. If you can get that really hard flamethrower sound, then you lock in to the future. If not, you’re just stuck in the past, and you won’t get anywhere.
3:AM: Did you play guitar with both groups?
NK: I played guitar with both of them, yeah. I wasn’t a great guitarist, to be honest, at the time. I got a lot better as the decade progressed. I mean, Steve Jones: it was fascinating working with the Sex Pistols for those three months I was going in the studio and playing with them, trying to bring new songs in and what have you, because in that time I saw Steve Jones go from a guy that had literally learned three chords. When I started playing with him he had been playing guitar for literally three to six months, I’d say. And he knew about four or five chords, and he knew how to play those chords, but it was fascinating to see him develop. He learned everything he knows. He hasn’t developed as a guitar player since, I don’t think. But at that time, it was like: whoa!
It was really interesting to see. It was really interesting to see the raw ground level of something that was going to blow up into such a big phenomenon. We all knew, or at least McLaren and I knew, that something was going to happen to these guys, because they had the young… you had to remember that in the early seventies all these groups that played rock were taking too much cocaine and they were into funk music, and they were just losing the basic four-to-the-bar joyful drive of the music.
3:AM: It was just becoming very overblown, basically.
NK: Yeah. People like David Bowie were taking it into new areas. But, you know, he was doing a lot of cocaine as well at that time, but at least he still had a white hot talent. He was listening to European music, he was listening to funk, and he had the talent to pull it all together and make something original with it. The rest of them were just copyists.
For me, the bane of the seventies was white guys trying to play funk music — and that includes the Rolling Stones — and white guys playing reggae music (and that also includes the Rolling Stones). I’d find myself in recording studios with these guys, just as an observer or a journalist, and they’d be like: ‘let’s get a funky riff together, let’s steal a riff from a recent Al Green record, but let’s not even write a song, let’s just take the riff and improvise some complete rubbish over it and think that we’re doing something really great, ‘cos we’re taking so much cocaine anything sounds great’. And that’s really what it was all about, and you’re just watching this thinking that this is going to hell in a handbasket.
3:AM: It must have been frustrating to sit by and watch this.
NK: Well, it was also amusing, because I wasn’t averse to taking cocaine myself. But I never got into a state with that particular drug: heroin was my problem, it wasn’t cocaine. I never got deluded by it. I could see that this drug deluded people: when I toured with Led Zeppelin, for example. I toured with Led Zeppelin in 1972, and then I went to America with them in 1975, and the difference was shocking just because of the availability of cocaine. There was cocaine on the English tour, but like one or two lines. And so, these guys would play for two hours, and it would be great, because they were playing together.
In America what they were doing was they’d play for three and a half hours and think they were giving the audience this incredible gift, but at the same time what they were doing was they’d very rarely play together. What you’d get was the bass player John Paul Jones playing a keyboard solo for 40 minutes while the others went off and took drugs and had groupies. The drummer John Bonham would play a 40-minute drum solo. Jimmy Page would play a 40-minute guitar solo without the others. Do you know what I mean?
3:AM: It looked great from where they were standing.
NK: It sounded great from where they were standing. And, frankly, the audience didn’t know the fucking difference as well. But having seen Led Zeppelin: I mean, Led Zeppelin were a phenomenal group, I mean those four musicians together, when they were playing together with the really good material: they were fantastic. Them and the Who were the hardest, toughest, best band I’ve probably ever seen in terms of four guys really banging it out.
But there was this self-indulgence that came in, and it was a fairly self-indulgent decade. There was the prog-rock legacy of virtuosity for its own sake, and audiences falling for that shit and standing there and wildly applauding while people play for over half an hour on a bass solo or something, for god’s sake. So there was all that, and the fact is that groups like the Stooges weren’t liked, because they didn’t do that, because they were just against the grain, basically.
3:AM: That’s what’s astounding about the Stooges’ records: that they just didn’t sell. The records stand up even today, but to read that they didn’t do anything back then is kind of shocking.
NK: You can imagine how surreal it was for me. In 1975 I went over to try and get the Stooges back on their feet in some way, and how I got over to America — what paid my ticket — was I had to do a thing for the New Musical Express on Jethro Tull, who were selling out the big place in Los Angeles — the Forum — a 20,000 seater place. Led Zeppelin were playing five nights there, and Jethro Tull were also playing five nights there, so they were playing to a hundred thousand people. Them and Led Zeppelin were the biggest groups in America at the time.
Now, if you take a young person, if you take a teenager now, and you play them a Stooges record, and then you play them a Jethro Tull record, particularly those concept albums that they were banging out in the seventies, it’s a no-brainer. That teenager will tell you straight away what’s happening: it’s the Stooges. But it wasn’t like that then, it was just a different time, a different context. Damn, it was very frustrating. But it’s all come to rights now.
3AM: On reading The Dark Stuff, particularly a quote in the Brian Wilson profile at the beginning from Tony Asher [Wilson’s songwriting partner] when he says that Wilson was “a genius musician, but an amateur human being,” there’s a feeling that the legacy of the sixties was not just great music, but a lot of broken lives as well.
NK: One of the main things about the sixties concerned the whole idea of bohemianism, which became beatniks, which then became hippies. The bohemian thing was basically stuff that happened on the outskirts of town: if you wanted to hear blues music in the 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s you went to the outskirts of town; you may well find some marijuana there, you might even find stronger drugs there. That whole culture, the whole bohemian culture, which is one of hedonism and artistic endeavour put together, was always on the outskirts.
In the sixties, through the work of the Beatles and Bob Dylan particularly, it seeped into the mainstream, particularly if you see Woodstock, you see the festival in England on the Isle of Wight, DVDs of it, and you see loads and loads of young people — teenagers and people in their early 20s being drawn into the whole bohemian ideal. The ideal of smoking dope and talking about freedom, etc, etc.
And then very quickly you see Altamont happen, which is the other side; they’re two sides of the same stick in other words. It’s the outsiders moving into the inside and becoming almost an ersatz religion. Then you have the problem with drugs, because it is a drug-driven revolution… if you want to use that word. It was a drug-driven thing. It started with soft drugs. If you read the Brian Wilson thing, you can see that Brian Wilson, who wasn’t not a very sophisticated man, who didn’t have a sophisticated intellect but had an incredibly sophisticated talent for writing music — I mean he was a genius, really — being sucked into this. And he becomes completely overwhelmed by it. Particularly when you’re dealing with LSD.
LSD was very strong in the sixties, and it caused a lot of damage — a lot of psychic damage — to people. I didn’t LSD in the sixties, so I was immune from it, and I only took it late in the seventies when I was in my twenties and I had taken other drugs, but I realised it was a very strong drug. What you do when you take acid is you have a chemical create a sense of spirituality for you: a spiritual vision, but it’s a chemical thing. Now if you do that through meditiation, and you do it through some natural means, it’s going to be more gradual, and you’re going to be able to accept it more, and it’s not going to disorientate your psyche so.
I think it’s the same with Sly Stone. As evil as he became, I think he too was someone that had this flash in the sixties of: ‘it’s all going to be better, we’re all going to love each other, everything’s going to change.’ And, of course, it didn’t. What happened instead was that the drug dealers became far more professional and cutthroat and they brought hard drugs into the equation. And if you’ve been taking a lot of LSD, all of a sudden — as was the case with Iggy Pop and countless others like Keith Richards — one day after you’ve taken LSD and you’re coming down or what have you, someone says ‘well I’ve got this stuff, why don’t you take a line of this, this will cool you out maaan’. And they take a line of heroin and — boom! — this whole new situation is created and one where freedom really doesn’t play any part at all in your day-to-day existence.
When I started writing, I came onto the scene in 1972. I’d been a schoolboy in the fucking sixties. I was doing my mock O-levels in the Summer of Love. I was seeing this stuff just by going to concerts occasionally. I saw Jimi Hendrix and the Pink Floyd in 1967 in a wrestling hall in Cardiff. I saw Bob Dylan and the Band in a cinema where they were showing The Sound of Music in Cardiff. I saw the Rolling Stones in 1964 when I was 12, just a week before “Not Fade Away” came out. I was a kid going to school — there was no way I was getting involved in any countercultural sort of activity. I was just a consumer. I was one of those mainstream kids that was being swept into the belly of bohemianism by the Beatles and Dylan and the Stones and the rest. So I totally understood that, and so when I came in, it was all starting to fall apart.
As I say in the preface [to The Dark Stuff] one of the first times I went into the office of an underground magazine — Frendz — that they asked me to work for (and where I actually started writing), I encountered Syd Barrett there. This was someone I’d seen five years earlier and had desperately wanted to be. I thought: boy, when I grow up, this is the guy I want to be because he looked so beautiful. He was such a fucking golden boy and he had this incredible band and it was like: wow — you can’t get any better than being Syd Barrett. And if you’d seen him back in November of 1967 you’d have probably felt the same if you were 15 years old like me: he had incredible charisma, that guy. Then to see him five years hence just completely locked in…
NK: I don’t even know if he was broken — he just wasn’t connecting with the real world, is really what it’s all about. He just seemed incredibly fragile… and damaged, I think, more than broken. He is a unique case, Syd Barrett, god bless him. At the same time, there was another guy Paul Kossoff from the band Free. Free were this group who were a lot more happening than the Pink Floyd in England at the time. Paul Kosoff was the guitar player. He wasn’t much older than me at the time — he would have been 21. And he was already broken by heroin: I’d see him on the streets. And there were a lot of people like this; there were a lot of people who just had too much of a good time and they couldn’t deal… when the seventies arrived it was kind of a bit green to begin with.
3:AM: You write in the preface that by 1975 you were strung out….
NK: Yeah, I was.
3:AM: …And that it almost ruined your talent as a writer.
NK: Oh, it did, yeah.
3:AM: What was the process? People point to you touring with the Stones as the beginning of your addiction.
NK: It didn’t have much to do with touring with the Rolling Stones. The idea that the Rolling Stones wantonly corrupt people … it didn’t happen to me. I’ve read about this in relation to Gram Parsons and certain people that worked with them in the recording studio, engineers and stuff. That Keith Richards tried to get them into his game. But he never did that with me. Heroin had been around. Since 1972, I’d been offered it by people in the underground movement, not musicians. And I’d turned it down, because I was smart, at that time [laughter].
This went on for I don’t know how long. But then I remember going to Munich to do a piece on Can — the German group — and that was when I took it for the first time. The keyboard player offered me a line of it. It wasn’t very strong; it may not even have been heroin. But I was like: okay. And from there I found myself in another situation a few months later and someone offered me a line of heroin after a night of cocaine, which always made me kind of jittery if I took too much of it.
And from then I started getting in with a crowd of people, which I describe in the Stones chapter, of these rich young people who haven’t had to work a day in their lives — young aristocrats who were basically connected with Keith Richards at that time — who I’d met on that tour. And that’s when I started really getting into it.
But also, when I broke up with Chrissie Hynde [of the Pretenders, who was formerly a colleague of Kent’s at NME], that catapulted me into it on a big level. I may have been able to have — what’s that phrase that Bono uses in one of his songs? — to “slip down the surface of the thing,” do you know what I mean? But I had to go in there deep and it was a learning experience, and I wouldn’t advise it to anyone — my god, I wouldn’t advise it to anyone. I really wouldn’t.
And it’s true: what I found shameful, for me, and what disgusted me personally — self-disgust, I think — was that it kind of robbed me of my talent during those years. I couldn’t write in an inspired way. I was still there, rocking the zeitgeist; I was still the man in the centre of the scene, but I couldn’t express it in the way that… And the other thing was that in order to express it, you know the way I write, it alienates people [laughter] particularly the people that I’m writing about.
Because that’s the way I see it, and over and over again I’ve alienated people that I’ve cared about and that I’ve really liked. None of the people that I’ve written about are one hundred percent happy about what’s been written about them. They have respect for me, and they know in their hearts that it’s the truth, but they don’t like it. Because what I’m doing is I’m going past the image, I’m going behind the mask. Okay: what he’s trying to sell you is that he’s the wild man of rock, and he has no fear, and he just goes around and blah, blah, blah. But look man, the guy’s kind of scared, you know, this guy’s a human being. This guy has parents that he has to deal with, the guy came from dodgy circumstances and he’s still haunted by those circumstances.
Iggy Pop is the classic example of that person who, on the one hand, is half the time totally fixated on his role as the God of Fuck or whatever he considers himself, this carnal deity or whatever he sees himself as. And yet he can’t pull that shit with me, because I’ve met his parents, I know the guy, and I’ve seen him in many, many different situations.
3:AM: You get a sense that there’s a troubled relationship between the myth and…
NK: …And who they really are. Who they want to be, and who they really are. It’s who they really are anyway, because I’m not saying Iggy’s a wannabe in any way, because he has fulfilled that role. But there is a terrible conflict that creates an inner torment in these people, which haunts them and makes them very, very lonely. Even when they’re in company, even if they’ve got girlfriends or wives, these people are lonely people. Who, if you actually know them, are people who are solitary beings who are at their happiest when they’re reading a book, listening to music. They’re very solitary beings, they’re very introspective beings.
You have to be introspective in order to write good songs. You can’t be a hundred percent extrovert. If you’re a hundred percent extrovert then you end up like Jerry Lee Lewis, who isn’t a songwriter; who’s just: ‘Yeah, I’m the greatest’.
James Brown is another example of someone who’s just a total extrovert, yet I’m sure James Brown had his dark, solitary side. The guy was very lonely: however many people he had around, however many assistants he had around him, whatever kind of entourage. These people feel that fate has marked them out in a certain way, and they have to live up to it.
3:AM: This loneliness comes through in a later piece you wrote on Iggy Pop, but — probably because you know him better than most interviewers — it reveals a certain humanity too.
NK: That’s what I was trying to do with that particular piece. He was about to release an album called Avenue B: it’s an album that’s supposed to deal with his divorce. I knew his wife. The happiest times that I had with Iggy was when he was with his wife Suchi, this Japanese girl who was a very, very nice girl, and who really was a great influence on him. He became a very nice guy.
Jimmy — Iggy — is someone who is very easy to love, but is very hard to actually like. He’s that kind of person. He’s someone that you immediately feel a very strong — almost unnatural — sense of affection for. And this doesn’t involve any kind of sexual stuff, I’m just talking about emotion. I mean there’s that as well, for homosexuals and women, obviously. But, you feel incredible affection for him, because he’s out there on his own, and immediately there’s a vulnerability about the guy.
He’s got a very brilliant mind — you can sit down and talk to him and have the greatest conversations. And at the same time he can be very, very cold to people. Very, very cold: to all people, to everybody. You really have to fight; we’ve often been in conflict, I’ve often been arguing with him. I can’t let him off. Cos I know that if you don’t confront him in certain instances, he’ll just give you schtick. And that’s not enough for me.
3:AM: Is it a smokescreen that these people develop, then?
NK: Exactly, and it’s quite understandable — they’re sent off on these press junkets, and they have to do something like a hundred interviews in a period of ten days. I did it when I was promoting The Dark Stuff, and it’s very hard not to repeat yourself, and it’s very hard not to fall into the usual ‘I’m going to give you this schtick, and I’ve worked it out and here you go”. You’ve really got to dig, and it’s hard.
I created a pretty unique situation for myself. I was very lucky in that I had the might of the New Musical Express when it was at its peak. It was selling something like three hundred thousand copies a week, and so it had a lot of power. And it was right at the time when the glam rock thing was happening, and glam rock was moving into punk, and the NME was on top of that, whereas the Melody Maker wasn’t. And so, we really ruled the roost. 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 going out and doing 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.
3:AM: The situation was unusual in that you were able to have a thirty thousand word piece about Brian Wilson published.
NK: It was forty thousand words. Thirty thousand was printed; I wrote forty thousand words. It wasn’t them saying to me: hey Nick, let’s have a big, big piece. It was me saying: okay, the next step now. That Syd Barrett piece that I did in 74, that was six thousand words and that was breaking — there had never been a piece of more than three thousand words in the NME — so we were breaking the mould there. So it was like: okay, let’s go one step further. So, yeah, boundaries were being broken. But Rolling Stone had been printing articles of twenty thousand words, so it wasn’t original, it wasn’t that innovative.
3:AM: But as a writer about music it must have been an ideal place to be.
NK: Absolutely. The early NME was fantastic. I was very lucky to find myself in that situation and to be able to take full advantage of it. Which is what I did.
3:AM: You flew to Michigan to meet Lester Bangs…
NK: I did — in 73. I had been writing for the NME for almost a year. I started writing in February of 72. And 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’ll take a little bit from Lester, and take a little bit from another guy and put it together. I hadn’t found my voice, in other words. And I knew that Bangs had the gift. And I knew some people in London at that time who lived in Detroit, and I knew the Stooges, as well — well, they’d gone to Los Angeles.
So I went back with one of these people to Detroit. I wanted to go to America, and I just went to where Bangs lived. I got his address, turned up, knocked on the door, and 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 that I’m giving it to them; I don’t feel that I really have the talent. I want to get some real potential here. I want to develop into a real writer.
3:AM: And what was his reaction?
NK: Well he said: okay, well, stick around. He was incredibly cool about it. I’ll never forget that. It touches me just to think about it now. Lester and I had a falling out, later. As I became more successful, Lester became a wee bit jealous, in my opinion. And then when I got into junk. See, alcoholics and heroin addicts don’t get on. There’s a big problem — don’t ask me why.
He started badmouthing me in the second half of the seventies, and you can see stuff in some of his articles where he’s taking a pot-shot at me. But, I’ll never forget him, and I love him deeply to this day for what he did for me back in 73.
He had a drink problem, as we all know, and he took pills as well. He was always driving around, and he needed someone to be next to him at the wheel in case he fell asleep.
He didn’t have that much of an audience at that time. He was frustrated, because he was doing this great work. He was getting letters back. He knew he was popular because he had correspondence. But he didn’t have a bunch of followers. Apart from me. [laughs]
He was respected, but he was also considered a bit of a buffoon, because of his drinking; he was a problem drinker. And if you’d have known him at that time, every time you’d see him, you’d think: is he drunk or not? Because if he had been drunk you probably wouldn’t have gone near him — he could be a problem in that state. But he was great, Lester. He was fantastic.
3:AM: How long did you spend there?
NK: I must have spent two or three months in America, and I spent one week in New York and two weeks in Los Angeles. So I spent over a month in Detroit. I went back and forth. When I say Detroit, it was Birmingham, Michigan. It was a few miles from Detroit, in a kind of suburban area.
I went to Los Angeles to see the Stooges again. They played their first gig there, with the Raw Power group, the James Williamson-era group. Heroin had got back into the equation.
I had met the Stooges first in England when they were recording Raw Power, and they weren’t on heroin then, they were pretty straight at that time. And they were a lot more pleasant to be around, frankly [laughs]. Heroin didn’t make them nicer people. But we always had a cool relationship. They were interesting times…
3:AM: What do you feel you learned from Lester Bangs? He struck me as someone who used an article to think about music rather than an interviewer.
NK: Lester and I were ultimately very different writers. My writing is character-driven. I write more… you know, that Scott Fitzgerald thing of character: looking at people and looking at the context of where they’re living and seeing how the context is ruining them. Or whatever it’s doing to them. It’s a character-driven thing with me.
Whereas with Lester, his main thing was writing about himself: his thoughts. And that’s what he did brilliantly. No one can really copy Lester. He was kind of unique. In the same way that a lot of people try to copy Iggy Pop, but Iggy Pop is unique. There’s a lot of guys making fools of themselves jumping around on stage, but they just don’t have it.
I’ve seen people try and write like Lester. I did for about three months in 1972 and it wasn’t worth it. Don’t try. Write your own thing. But what Lester taught me, which is what you asked me, was this thing I was saying about ‘go behind the masks’. That’s what he was saying: look, what they’re presenting you with isn’t the real deal.
Another thing he said that really stuck with me was that the really important stories in rock are about the losers. It’s not about the winners. It’s not about (at that time) Jethro Tull. It’s not about the guys who are selling out the megadome. It’s about the guys that have given it their all, and are stuck in some flea-bitten motel with a drug problem, and who are going to die soon. Those are the people who have the great stories to tell. And I certainly remembered that — that really stuck with me. I think you can see the influence of that statement on what I did in The Dark Stuff. That’s where Lester’s influence really resonated with me.
3:AM: You were talking earlier about the modern journalistic interview, where you’re trotted into a hotel room and you have to fire your questions at someone. Does this influence how you structure the sequence of your questions? I’m thinking specifically about your interview with Jerry Lee Lewis.
NK: Well, it was such a mad situation. I describe going into this room, and there’s like nineteen other people, and they’re all watching him and it’s like a wrestling match. And Jerry Lee Lewis is just being incredibly rude to everyone. He’s putting on a show. And I really had to come in there and put on a show as well. Because otherwise I would have just wilted.
The whole deal was set up so that interviewers would just be in a box, and they were going to ask a few timid questions and scurry out. I wasn’t going to do that. I had come in there and I was like: you want a performance? I’ll give you a performance, man. Let’s really talk. Let’s talk about going to hell. I don’t actually say: “Well, did you kill your last wife?”, but I do say that Rolling Stone wrote a thing about it.
And I remember that when I said that, there was this collective inhalation of breath in the room that I will never forget. It was like being on an aeroplane when the window sucks in. And he looked at me, and I was like: okay, well this is what I have to do. Sometimes you really have to go into a situation where you are in potential physical danger, in order to get the story that matters.
I mean, I don’t want to do that. I’m not a person who’s very good at physical fighting. I’m not a tough, two-fisted guy. Though, through my years as a junkie, I got a lot tougher than I was to begin with. I was like a classic eight stone weakling when I started out. And it just toughened me up.
So it just reached a point: well, fuck this, you know? Let’s do it. I’ve got a reputation to keep up. Jerry Lee Lewis has a reputation to keep up, but I’ve got a reputation to keep up as well. If someone reads a Nick Kent interview where I’m just kind of [makes cowering noise] buckling at the knees, they’re going to be like: forget it.
In fact, at the end of it, he came up and he shook my hand, and it was really cool. It was funny.
3:AM: You get the impression that you’re trying to reveal the essence of the person he still is, to get to the core.
NK: That’s exactly what I was trying to do: just get to the fucking core. Forget the press officer — what makes this man tick? What the fuck really makes this man tick? What’s really going on? Is he this fearless individual, or is he riddled with a kind of anguish.
To me, these people, the people that I got to know well and hung out with, 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. It was like: “We transcend this; we transcend the very notion of karma, because we’re famous”.
So when these consequences manifested themselves in unwanted children, in 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, very hard for them to get to grips with this, to really understand. And 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 just life itself. And if you can’t do that, and if you run away and think that fame and celebrity will offer you a refuge from all that, you’re really going to be a casualty.
That drives a lot of The Dark Stuff. Another thing that drives it is the thing that we were talking about: the big hard man, the tough man. Keith Richards, Jerry Lee Lewis, Iggy Pop: big tough men. Let’s see how tough they really are. What is a real tough man: is it someone who goes out and can drink and drug more than anyone else, but who doesn’t really look after their own children?
Or is it someone like Neil Young, who has two children — one in particular — who suffers chronically from cerebral palsy. And he has devoted his life to making his son the centre of his life; to making him as loved and as wanted as possible. He’s tried to create things to help his son communicate with other children. There’s a big difference. That’s what a man is, to me; that’s what a fucking man is.
And Neil Young also goes out and he does the stuff. Every show he plays. He’s not going to turn up and be too drugged out to perform. Now that’s what a man is; it ain’t this guy that goes out and is completely in the bag all the time. And whoopee, man: wow, you can drink more than everyone else, you can take drugs more than anyone else. But, look at his family life: that’s where it counts for me.
3:AM: Do you think there’s a strong moral core to your writing?
NK: Well, there has to be. If you look up in the Oxford dictionary what a human being is, it’s a moral animal, or else you’d be a spiritual animal. And that’s what it is: human beings have a morality, whether we like it or not. And that’s where art comes from, in my opinion. Real art. When we’re dealing with our shortcomings and our strengths in terms of creating a set of values that we can live by, you know, etc, etc. And if you’re going to be an outlaw, and if you’re going to step outside the law — and if you take hard drugs, or even soft drugs, you are stepping outside the law to a certain extent… It’s like that Bob Dylan line: “to be outside the law, you must be honest”. And that’s it. That’s a really important philosophy from the sixties.
3:AM: It seems that, perhaps because of your own hard drug use, you’re less likely to indulge musicians that other journalists would mythologize.
NK: Possibly. I notice with some of the writing about Pete Doherty. I wouldn’t go near that guy, frankly, to write about him, because I don’t think he’s talented enough. But it’s very intriguing to me just to watch his ascension in the media, because he’s learned a few tricks from the kind of people that I’ve been writing about. And he’s trying to take on the mantel.
3:AM: You get the feeling he hasn’t been listening to their records closely enough, though.
NK: Yeah. There’s something there, but it’s just not enough. And he’s fallen for the model girlfriend. It’s all in place, d’you know what I mean? I feel that he’s very much a child of the Sid and Nancy situation, and also the Kurt and Courtney situation. It started with Keith and Anita, and then it went to Sid and Nancy, and then it went to Kurt and Courtney, and now it’s Pete and Kate: the doomed… It’s like the Scott and Zelda thing in literature.
To me, that’s the way rock has gone: you start off with a Jerry Lee Lewis. Keith Richards — I know for a fact, because I’ve spoken to him on numerous occasions about Jerry Lee Lewis: he wants to be Jerry Lee Lewis. And Johnny Thunders wanted to be Keith Richards. Sid Vicious wanted to be Johnny Thunders. D’you know what I’m saying?
It’s a further dilution. It’s like diluting an essence. You start off, and it becomes more and more diluted. And it comes up in a different context, which makes it momentarily interesting. But what really interests me is the way people deal with their talent. That’s why the Brian Wilson one is the first and the biggest of those chapters [in The Dark Stuff]. Because his talent is almost a curse to him.
That first line in the book, which is a line from Brian Wilson saying: “It was a childhood dream of mine: I wanted to make music that made the world feel loved”. Well, that to me is totally heroic. I can’t think of a more heroic quote in the whole of civilisation than that.
And it’s true: there was this totally selfless feeling — you could hear it in the fucking records — of Brian Wilson just giving every atom of his being to make the world feel enveloped by this sense of joy and beauty from the music he created. And for him to lose his mind in the process; for me that was just a terrible, terrible tragedy. And it was one of the great stories.
People were saying to me: why are you writing about Brian Wilson? He’s finished. Because for most rock journalists, or most people who are observers in rock or pop, it’s all about what’s happening now. Right now it’s the Kaiser Chiefs, Arcade Fire, and there’s this and there’s that — and these people have merit.
But I think more and more, these stories resonate with people, and they listen to the music, and I think it opens up a dimension. I don’t think anyone needs to read any of my chapters to appreciate the music of those people, but I think it can help. I think you can find another dimension, or another angle, to appreciate.
But what I do stands apart from the music. For a lot of rock writers it’s all about the music, you know: “I’m just representing the music”. I’m not representing the music so much as I’m representing those characters. I’m writing about those people as personalities and the effect that fame and really wild situations have on them.
3:AM: With your piece about the Rolling Stones, you get a sense of emptiness: once you’ve got everything you’ve ever wanted, what then?
NK: Well, the thing about the Rolling Stones particularly, the thing about Mick Jagger and Keith Richards that I was trying to point out was that here these guys were, they were the biggest group in rock’n'roll. Led Zeppelin sold more, but the Rolling Stones, because they’d been around the longest, and they were still selling a lot of records and were selling out all theirbig concerts were still the biggest group in rock’n'roll. And they were omnipotent. And when either Mick Jagger or Keith Richards walked into a room they were the centre of attention, and so they had complete control of the situation.
Yet at the same time they were not in control of their personal lives; particularly Keith Richards. They both had dealt with real devil women. Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull are women that if you fall in love with them — particularly at that time — you were going to have a rocky ride, and you weren’t going to be in control of the relationship. They were going to be in control of that relationship. And they could torture the guy that was in love with them. And that was living with them.
So both Jagger and Richards had a rotten time, and they created their best music. It happened in 1967 that the two of them got in with Marianne and Anita, and they were really in love with those women, and they were just being tormented by them, because those women were wild. They were much wilder than Keith and Mick.
You look at Keith Richards just prior to him going off with Anita Pallenberg, and he’s still got those big ears and he’s a nice kid. There’s a nice side to the guy. He’s the guy that Andrew Oldham’s mother said was the only decent member of the Rolling Stones because he phoned his mother twice a week wherever he was, and he was kind to animals. You know, there’s that side to Keith. He’s a sweet-natured guy. And then when Anita arrived, bang, you know? The devil rides out. It’s like the darkness descends: the hair, everything; the look. And of course heroin arrives. And, of course, with Mick Jagger it’s the same. But it created their best music, because it stretched them — it stretched them emotionally. They weren’t singing about “stupid girls” anymore. They were dealing with women they were really enamoured with, who were really shaking up their worlds. And it made their music. That and the fact that they had the brains to get in Jimmy Miller as producer. He’s another big reason why Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street are the best Rolling Stones records ever, and the only ones that you actually really need to have, apart from the very early stuff maybe. So to me there was always a conflict in these peoples’ lives, an almost schizophrenic conflict.
3:AM: There’s an upside to their position, though, isn’t there?
NK: It can make you very self-confident. It can make you almost supernaturally self-confident: “Well, nothing’s going to happen to me, because I’ve been kissed by God”. They really do walk around like that; this sense that I am one of God’s chosen. Because they have won the pools, haven’t they? They’ve more than won the pools.
I remember going out to a club with Rod Stewart in 1974 — I did the same thing with Mick Jagger. They were like [in Jagger’s drawl]: “Do you want to come out to a club one night?” I sat with these two guys, on separate occasions, and women would come up to them, some in twos and threes. This was a constant stream of women — women they’d never met before — but everyone who was female in that club would come up to them and offer to have sex with them.
You’d be sitting there and Rod Stewart would be having a talk with two girls and they’d be saying: “She’ll lick your balls and I’ll suck your cock, let’s go”. And Rod Stewart was sitting there just laughing about it, because it happened to him so often. At the end of the evening, Rod Stewart had about six women lined up, and he was saying: do you want to come back with me and we’ll have an orgy?
I turned him down because my girlfriend had arrived, and I’m not an orgy kind of guy anyway. But to me it was like: okay, this is how they live. It’s like being a kid at Christmas every day. You go out, and you go to a club, and you don’t have to pay. Because you being there is going to attract other clients. And so they give you the best table, they make you the best food. All the women want to have sex with you. Everyone wants to come up and pay their respects like you’re the fucking Godfather of the mafia — d’you know what I mean? Is it any wonder these people start getting incredible delusions of grandeur? They’re not really delusions, are they? They’re being put on a throne to begin with. And it’s like: “Well, hey, I can’t help it if I’m lucky”. I mean, that’s the way they see it. Let’s ride it out for all we can. And the longer you ride it out, the more it becomes like: this is my right, this is not a privilege, this is my right. This is who I am.
I imagine your boy Bono, everywhere he goes he’s like the king of the hill, isn’t he? Every room he walks into it’s like — boom! — this kind of electricity, and it’s like “Whoa, Bono’s here!” I’m sure he deals with it better than some of the people I’m talking about as well, to give him his due. But it’s a condition that anyone that becomes a rock icon, in the real sense of the term, is going to have to deal with.
[Nick Kent & Laurence Romance on a poster in a Parisian boutique. The poster is part of an advertising campaign for a brand of clothes, 2008.]
3:AM: When did you move to Paris?
NK: 18 years ago, I moved.
3:AM: And you work for the French media?
NK: Yeah, I work for Libération, which is a daily paper here. And I’d been doing a lot of TV stuff, because I started doing directing. We had a show here called Rock Express for four years on a network channel, which was fun to do and make. It was like Rapido: it was full of reports, but it was mostly live. The great thing was we could go to virtually any concert by a rock band and film at least half an hour of their live show and put the best bits on, and do interviews. It was like Rapido but better, because this was rock.
It happened just around the time of Nirvana. Cobain was the first guy we had on the telly, just before his death. We picked up on that whole grunge scene, then it went into Oasis and britrock very quickly. For about four years it was really happening.
After that I’ve just been doing various projects. Sometimes they ring me up to do a rock festival, an hour and a half, for a network. It’s all music-based stuff.
3:AM: And is your novel music based?
NK: It’s music based. In its own way it’s a development of some of the themes in The Dark Stuff as well. It’s slightly tied into that, but it’s different. I’m really happy with it. It’s a development; it’s a progression.
And The Seventies is as well. That’s more just a straight autobiography. That’ll be funny. It’ll be autobiographical, brutally so.
3:AM: So you’re writing it right now?
NK: Exactly – right now.
3:AM: Even as we speak?
NK: Even as we speak.
NK: Yeah, that’s it.
3:AM: You must enjoy living in Paris a lot.
NK: I love walking around in Paris. I’ve got a 14-year-old son and a wife here. I’m very much at home here. I wouldn’t want to come back to England. The last place I’d want to live now is London. Can’t stand the place. It’s hard for me to be there; I just count the minutes when I’m there.
3:AM: Why is that?
NK: I just don’t like it. It’s just become so goddamn ugly and yuppified. I walk through London — I mean, I was born in London.
3:AM: Did you grow up in London?
NK: Until I was seven or eight, and then my parents moved to Cardiff and I lived there until I was 15 or 16. And then I moved to Sussex until I was 18. And then I moved back to London, because I was at a London university. I’ve been homeless a lot in London, and it’s not a nice place to be homeless. Anywhere if you’re homeless for long periods of time, it’s not going to stir up an appreciation of the place you’re in. Anyway…
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Karl Whitney is a journalist, researcher and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 3rd, 2009.