Men of Kent

The first version of Nick Kent was was the music journalist whose taste for excess exceeded that of the people he wrote about. The second is someone who long ago cleaned up now lives a quiet life

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Every night for the past 32 years, erstwhile rock scribe Nick Kent vividly dreams he is homeless in 1970s London.

“Going to extremes gets results – but they might not be the results you want to achieve.”

After carousing backstage with his old mates The Rolling Stones or watching pal Iggy Pop at a gig, he’s “going from door to door trying to find somewhere to stay, but ending up in places where the roof is caving in”, he says. It feels like being in a coffin. The terror jolts him awake. “They’re not even nightmares anymore – they’re just the fabric of my dreams,” he shrugs. “Homelessness is a bitch, man. Drug addiction is a bitch, but I don’t dream about being addicted every night – but homelessness really scars you.”

Kent joined NME in 1972 and became one of its star writers, as much a totem of sybaritic excess as the music idols he profiled. Chrissie Hynde dated him, punk impresario Malcolm McLaren tried to establish a band around him (the unfortunately-named Masters of the Backside), and he fleetingly played guitar in an early incarnation of the Sex Pistols. But by 1975 his kamikaze-lifestyle had led to drug addiction. He famously did heroin with Keith Richards, overdosed in the presence of Iggy Pop, who saved him – he bottomed out in homelessness and shared squats with fellow nihilists like Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen.

From his home in Paris, Kent, now 69, holds court exactly as you’d expect a legendary 1970s rock critic might. His answers sound like they should be tumbling out in between imperious drags of a spliff, and he ends each sentence in a drawled “man…” instead of a full-stop. Early on, he knew he had to be outrageous. The NME was in a sales slump and had been given just 12 issues to survive. He needed to make his mark.

“In order to get attention, I had to go to extremes with extrovert and extremely arrogant behaviour so people read me and didn’t ignore me. Going to extremes gets results, but”, he adds fatalistically, “they might not be the results you want to achieve”.

So that meant that while NME’s fortunes turned around and his personal stock rose to the point where he was signing autographs at gigs, karma was catching up on the inside track. In 1977, he was viciously chain-whipped by then-Sex Pistols fan (before he became their bassist) Sid Vicious, spawning a string of copycat attacks. Kent could lay claim to being the most beaten-up rock hack of all time.

“Punk was so much about aggression – it was like the kid in the playground that somebody had stuck a ‘Kick Me’ sign on his back,” he says. Tall and foppish, it didn’t help that he stood out in a crowd like a dandyish leather-clad maypole. In fact, Iggy Pop once described him as resembling a “great palsied mantis”.

In thrall to the gonzo journalism of Lester Bangs – who took him under his wing – Kent was part of a new breed of music journalists who placed themselves in the thick of the action. He was an Exocet missile compared with the old guard’s limp water-bottle-rockets.

What started as “elegantly wasted” – to coin his phrase – rock tales of excess (Hawkwind’s Lemmy introduced him to cocaine and speed while he discovered heroin via German experimentalists Can) culminated in debilitating addiction. Friends overdosed. What saved him?

“First of all, I stayed active. Every day, I must have walked at least five miles. I was probably London’s most active junkie of the late 20th century,” he chuckles dryly. “That’s one award I don’t have on my wall but I deserve it.”

Being homeless, he lived on his wits, which had been dulled by smack. “It was like being in a war zone with half of your brain asleep.”

Getting clean involved leaving London to recuperate with his parents in Swindon. “It was three months of physical pain and deep depression. I was 36 when I stopped taking drugs but I wouldn’t have lived to 40 if I had continued.”

Kent in 1976 / Getty

Improbably for someone who titled his 1970s salad days-recalling memoir Apathy for the Devil, gracing its cover in cartoon devil horns, he experienced a religious conversion around this time.

“For the 14 years I was on drugs, I was looking for god and suddenly when I became straight, he manifested himself to me. Being on various drugs had been normality for me and how I perceived things. So suddenly I had the rest of my brain working again and for three months of being clean, it felt like being on acid.”

After Kent awakes from his homelessness nightmare each night, it takes him 10 minutes to reacclimatise to his current contented domestic life, having lived in a Paris apartment with his French wife, journalist and broadcaster Laurence Romance, since the late 1980s. In contrast to his previous gadabout antics, he’s reclusive, with zero social media presence.

“Back in my twenties, I was this flamboyant character who dressed up like the cock of the walk and when I got into my late thirties, it was like my extrovert gene had been exhausted. And also I no longer had the drugs, which was very much my shield.”

That seclusion helped him finally finish his recently published debut novel, The Unstable Boys – a caper concerning the dark side of rock ’n’ roll fame – which has been three decades in the making. His first foray into fiction, its narrative hook – the narcissistic frontman of a 1960s rock group, the titular The Unstable Boys, known as The Boy, turning up announced at the home of his biggest fan with an eye on exploiting his adoration – was nonetheless inspired by a true story his wife told him about 1950s rock ’n’ roller Vince Taylor, most famous for the hit Brand New Cadillac and acting as a blueprint for David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character.

“Vince Taylor was England’s first real dangerous rock star with charisma and palpable menace,” he explains. “But by the mid-1960s, he’d taken a bunch of LSD and he went insane. Homeless and penniless, he’d turn up at the houses of fans asking them to let him stay. He turned up on the doorstep of his fan club president in Switzerland who was thrilled to meet his hero – but before long, his wife left him, his dog ran away because of the negative vibes in the house and his pub burned down.”

Unsurprisingly given the enviable amount of access Kent was once granted to icons like Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson and Lou Reed, he draws from his reservoir of anecdotes from his days writing for NME and The Face. One scene in the book entails The Boy witnessing Keith Moon recklessly hurling plates of spaghetti. “That happened,” says Kent.
“I saw him order 10 plates of spaghetti and, being the show-off he was, he decided to just indiscriminately throw these plates anywhere. One hit my girlfriend at the time in her face.

“Early in my career, I saw rock’s double-edged sword. It was like a scene from a Marx Brothers film and a crazy story you can tell your grandkids. But at the same time, I remember picking the pieces of china out of my girlfriend’s face and being sat for hours in the hospital.”

The egotistical The Boy admires Donald Trump, and Kent draws parallels between “the bad side of rock ’n’ roll” and the deadly 6 January insurrection of the US Capitol by his supporters in the waning days of his presidency. “Trump is the ultimate frustrated rock star,” he says, seeing traits of him in megalomaniac singers and svengalis he’s encountered over the years. “The Doors’ Jim Morrison would antagonise an audience of 10,000 to the point where there would be a riot, and he didn’t seem to realise the consequences.

“When I worked with the Sex Pistols, their manager Malcolm McLaren loved the idea of riots, of police, of just setting up some kind of chaos and anarchy. And it was always me and [Sex Pistols bassist] Glen Matlock who would say: ‘Yeah, Malcolm but what about the consequences?’ He didn’t even recognise there would be consequences to his actions – and neither did Trump.”

Kent retired from writing about music in 2007, feeling there were few new acts inspiring him. “I look at young music journalists now trying to eke a living and think: ‘Give them their day. I’ve had my time.’”

Still, he remains in touch with many names from his 1970s pomp, recently catching up with Chrissie Hynde for the first time in a decade. “We don’t reminisce about the past. We talk about what we’re doing now – and our children.”

His son is James Kent, aka French synthwave artist Perturbator. “He even has his own merchandise,” beams Kent senior, proudly. “Oh man, it’s unbelievable! He’s just turned 28 and when I was that age, I was living in a squat struggling to make ends meet.”

He may relive that brutal squalor every night, but he’s refreshingly stoical and hates it when he hears musicians from his day paint themselves as victims.

“You hear most ex-junkies say: ‘I was doing great until I got in with the wrong people.’ But they were one of the bad people as well! For years, man, I was a nasty piece of work because I had to go out and keep the earth from opening up and swallowing me up again.”

The old devil wants no sympathy. “I wasn’t broken by it and the reason was I never fell for this victim bullshit. Grow some testicles! It’s not a boy’s life being a junkie – and it’s an adult’s life being in rock ’n’ roll.”

The Unstable Boys is out now (Constable)

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