Writing Between the Lines

Early on in The Dark Stuff (Faber & Faber, 2007), an expanded edition of a best-selling collection of articles by Nick Kent, a bloated Brian Wilson tells a stick-thin Kent that perhaps the Beach Boy should interview the English writer, and not vice versa, because Kent looks the more rock 'n' roll of the two. This is a fairly banal observation - your mum probably looks more rock 'n' roll than Wilson - but it serves to reinforce the (cover) image of Kent as a none-more-gonzo rock hack, a New York Doll of the New Journalism. He's lived it, man. Thankfully, aside from being led astray once, through his friendship with Iggy Pop - of which more later - Kent isn't as insufferable as you might expect. Some of his subjects, on the other hand

These are the 'troubled geniuses', from Wilson and Spector to Prince and Morrissey (alongside Marr only, of course), through Lou Reed and Neil Young and, inevitably, the Stones. Most of these narratives have an easily recognisable arc; all too often they're stories of emotionally crippled boy-men, immense amounts of drugs - if rock is ever declared dead, blame cocaine - and, on occasion, white-hot tunes. And really it's not that far from the story you'll see on the big screen, whether it's Walk the Line or La Vie en Rose or for that matter Sunset Boulevard and any other biopic of a tortured artist being torturous. It's the childhood trauma, the sudden rise to fame, the drugs and egomania and hangers-on, the musical/spiritual/chemical differences, the long downward spiral, the attempts at creative renewal - and finally the call to Nick Kent to put the whole sordid business into print. Some, like the supremely talented Sly Stone, go insane in the most spectacular ways. Some, like the supremely fucked-up New York Dolls and the 'dim-witted' Sid Vicious, blaze fiercely and then start to die off. (Kent was right in there with them, amid the debauchery, but he got out in time.) Iggy Pop, meanwhile, just becomes a tool.

Kent helped shape, and continues to adhere to, the Rock Canon (Exile on Main Street is the shit; Goat's Head Soup is just shit), but he's also as well-listened as can be and smart enough to see through self-indulgent schtick. He pulls no punches with the mad Southern bigamist Jerry Lee Lewis; he flays the mad Southern demon-wrestler Roky Erikson. And when he comes across someone infinitely sharper, not to mention scarier, he rightly backs off and writes it down. That man is Miles Davis: he's the only one here who gives great copy, though Prince and Elvis Costello have their moments. Roy Orbison is the other notable exception: he's the only one whose private grief makes him more humble and, more interestingly, the only one whose life is not his music, even if his music is his life. It's a distinction you may wish Kent could make with the other interviewees, though his dissection of a Lou Reed heading towards the nadir of Sally Can't Dance and his discussion with a dazed Izzy Stradlin as Guns 'n' Roses begin the mother of all implosions, to name but two of the most lurid cases, suggest he usually has no choice.

Where Kent is really let down is in his prose. It's superb in places, but it would benefit from judicious editing (full disclosure: I am an editor). In the introduction he criticises the floweriness of his '70s output, and while those writings were at least partly responsible for the entertaining but wildly OTT approach of NME hacks in the '80s and '90s, Kent himself has moved towards a more sober style. Ironically, it's the early material in The Dark Stuff, so full of revelations from jaded industry insiders, that stands up better; the recent writings, where you sense Kent thinks less of his subjects, are flatter, more predictable, more old-man grouchy. Many of them are previously unpublished.

He's also moved on from drugs. There's nothing like a one-time user for puritanical zealotry, and The Dark Stuff has this in spades. Kent bemoans the way an incoherent Shane McGowan wastes himself and his 'gift'. He rails against Kurt Cobain, in particular, for burning out (though he's not in favour of fading away, either). It's such a drubbing that the earlier treatment of the Happy Mondays - a loveable band of uneven talent, and one that usually put drugs ahead of songs - seems soft. Kent had the Mondays' lazyitis that day, perhaps. Iggy Pop gets a going-over in the first piece collected here, which inadvertently shows that he's devoid of personality (surely the reason for David Bowie's '70s interventions: he'd have understood), but in the second piece a clean Pop is happily ensconced in Miami and ready to charm his stooge Kent, who discards his otherwise-reliable cynicism and - cruising the streets in Pop's big rig, talkin' 'bout chicks who just use you, dude - descends to celeb-profile arse-lickery. I'm bored.

All the same, this book never pretends to be, say, White Bicycles, Joe Boyd's excellent but politely told memoir of a high time in popular music, or anything by Greil Marcus. The must-have collection of rock journalism is still The Faber Book of Pop, a fascinating yet flawed panorama in which Nick Kent is under-represented; The Dark Stuff is in many respects a discomforting offshoot of that work. If Kent sometimes overindulges, like the musicians he's long trailed, it's because he was there. Man.