When a new edition of his anthology of rock writings ‘The Dark Stuff’ was being published (the original of which I read obsessively as a teenager), I jumped on a Eurostar to Paris and met Nick at his flat to pester him about it. (Another Man, A/W2007).
Photography Benni Valssen
In Nick Kent’s apartment in north-east Paris, a bookcase leans at the end of his living room, stuffed with novels, a few editions of Kent’s collection of rock journalism The Dark Stuff and, in the middle, a well-thumbed copy of revered Creem writer Lester Bangs’s Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. As a young writer in the early 70s, Kent – inspired by a story Iggy Pop had told him – flew to Michigan and turned up at the Creem offices unannounced; Bangs let him spend time with him, teaching him to get “behind the mask” of his subjects. It was this determination, Kent’s unwillingness to play the cosy publicity game, and his habit of going halfway to hell with the people he interviewed, that resulted in some of the most compelling and revealing writings about those strange, damaged, attention-hungry, insecure, and generally troubled creatures we otherwise know as rock stars. From touring with Led Zeppelin in their private plane, to taking heroin with Keith Richards and, notoriously, being bike-chained by Sid Vicious at London’s 100 Club, Nick Kent took things that bit further.
Nick is ensconced in a battered armchair, dressed in the same outfit he was wearing at a reading he gave in Brighton a month previously – ripped jeans, grubby white vest, worn-out suit jacket and a large black hat high on his head. Then, we had all ended up on the beach, struggling to skin up in the wind like teenagers, while Nick and John May, his old editor from Frendz – the late 60s publication that gave Kent his first break – laughed and reminisced about doomed punks shooting up speed in the seaweed beneath Hastings Pier. Today, Kent smiles and holds a flame to a lump of hash the size of his fist (he has been free from heroin for 19 years), something he will smoke throughout the afternoon – to borrow a phrase of his – “like other humans consume air, which is to say, unceasingly.”
Another Man: Does it surprise you kids still get a kick out of rock’n’roll?
Nick Kent: I knew from the get-go. Everyone else seemed to think that this was going to last maybe three or four years. Maybe the Beatles would last. Bob Dylan, The Stones… I knew that the best of the stuff was going to last. I just had this very, very specific view that this is art.
AM: What marked rock stars out as worthy of special attention?
NK: In the 60s, I saw someone like Jimi Hendrix, and it was like, ‘Fuck me. This guy’s got something special.’ I thought that being as talented as they were gave them this kind of holy aura. But you also saw these people had their insecurities like everybody else. Often more so…
AM: Lester Bangs taught you that ‘losers have the better stories’
NK: Well, Syd Barrett was a good example… Pink Floyd had become very big, but there was still, within the counterculture, ‘What happened to Syd?’ And no one was interested in Iggy Pop, but there were a few… Ian Curtis… Stephen Morrissey – who would write to me every week at the NME, mostly about the New York Dolls. I never wrote back, because a 14-year-old kid wasn’t going to last more than a year if they got involved with the Dolls. I always told him that – ‘I did you a favour.’
A 14-year-old kid wasn’t going to last more than a year if they got involved with the New York Dolls. I always told [Morrissey] that – ‘I did you a favour.’
AM: With most of the people you’ve written about, there is an element of self-destruction, but Brian Wilson strikes me as genuine tragedy.
NK: Yeah, I think so. When he says, ‘In my life, the dream as a child was that I wanted to do music that made the world feel loved,’ to me, that’s the most dignified and noble thing you can do. So, it was just heartbreaking to see Wilson at that stage (interviewing him in 1980)… Him and Dylan are the only ones I would call geniuses from the rock world… A genius is Stravinsky, John Coltrane… James Joyce. I’m very careful about that word, genius.
AM: Are there any modern performers you would apply that to?
That’s a good question… I think Rufus Wainwright is very, very brilliant.
AM: Have there been any points when you were truly scared?
NK: Kenneth Anger came into the NME offices – you know, the big, self-styled black magic expert. Jimmy Page had worked on a film Anger made called Lucifer Rising – 30 minutes of weird guitar sounds. But Page said some rather cold things in this interview, Anger turned up and said he was going to turn Jimmy Page into a frog, and he’d do the same to me if I didn’t print a retraction! I thought – I’m a heroin addict… I’m homeless. How much worse can you make things? You know… being a frog might not be so fucking bad!
Kenneth Anger turned up and said he was going to turn Jimmy Page into a frog, and he’d do the same to me if I didn’t print a retraction! I thought – I’m a heroin addict… I’m homeless. How much worse can you make things? You know… being a frog might not be so fucking bad!
AM: Do you think addiction is an occupational hazard of rock’n’roll?
NK: I think it’s an occupational hazard of being young these days. Things have changed since I stopped hard drugs in 1988. As soon as I got strung out on heroin, my writing suffered. Trying to write was like trying to swim upstream in a river of mud. It was catastrophic – I’m saying I’m lucky, but for 14 years, I went through a lot of bad situations.
AM: Some might say you were warned – you could see what it was doing to people you admired… but was that part of the attraction?
NK: Yeah… I was attracted. I read Junkie by Burroughs when I was 16. I was just drawn to that whole lifestyle. It was something that I was going to check out for myself. I think a lot of people are the same way.
AM: It hampered your talents, but did it help you get closer to bands?
NK: Yes. An awful lot. You just have much better conversations. Heroin used to be a very cliquey thing, and I got a lot of exclusive stuff just from being in that situation. At the time, Keith Richards was the Jesus Christ of the junkie world. Because I had my photograph in the NME with Keith, I got given free drugs.
AM: What about others who weren’t so lucky – do you see echoes in the pieces you wrote about Kurt Cobain and Sid Vicious?
NK: I don’t see Sid Vicious’s death as a tragedy, I just see it as a culmination of a fucked up life. As soon as he got into heroin, that was it for him. I think Cobain was the same. It’s just very sad because the last few months when you’re on heroin are very, very bad. You’re just very, very depressed. That’s certainly what happened to Cobain.
AM: Did you ever speak to Kurt?
NK: I was supposed to do one of the last interviews, but turned it down. That was going to be for Esquire and Cobain wanted to do it. It was on that European tour when he tried to kill himself in Rome… he was on heroin. I wasn’t told, but I could see it. I just didn’t want to be around that. So I turned it down, I’ve been kicking myself ever since.
AM: How do you think it would have gone?
NK: I would’ve started preaching, and he would’ve freaked out. I don’t think there would’ve been any real communication. It’s something I do think about from time to time – what would’ve happened if we’d met.
AM: Do you think you might have been able to get through to him?
NK: Iggy Pop told me Cobain’s management were calling up other musicians he worshipped, asking if they’d phone him. Neil Young couldn’t get through. But Iggy actually got through and told me that one of the nannies picked up, stoned, and said, ‘Sorry, Kurt can’t come to the phone. He’s moving his bed into the hallway.’ So, what could these guys do? He’d chosen his route. On the dates in France, Cobain knew a photographer who had helped him get drugs. In the last days, he had the last photo session with the guy. In all the photos, Cobain’s holding a gun in his mouth. It’s so obvious – it looks like pornography… except it’s suicide instead of sex – this guy wanted to end it.
AM: Is there anyone else you wish you’d spoken to?
NK: Bob Dylan. He’s about the only one left. Michael Jackson… he was another one I turned down. I was a junkie, so to go to America was a real problem… but it was just before he made Thriller. So, Kurt Cobain just before he died, and Michael Jackson just before he made Thriller. Those two. I would’ve loved to have done that… I should’ve done that.
Originally published in Another Man, Autumn/Winter 2007.
The Dark Stuff by Nick Kent is published by Faber and Faber.