‘I was almost in tears seeing the state Shane MacGowan was in’

The rock writer Nick Kent on hedonism, Phil Lynott’s death and why Trump is like Axl Rose

The veteran – some might say infamous – rock journalist and author Nick Kent is not an easy man to get a hold of. Since effectively retiring from active journalistic duties well over a decade ago, the man Iggy Pop once described as looking like “a great palsied mantis” has become so elusive even his editors and PR people find it difficult to locate him.

Kent doesn’t do email. His Facebook profile has cobwebs on it. He doesn’t tweet or post on Instagram. Occasionally he might be called on for commentary by mainstream media outlets when someone such as Prince or Bowie dies, but that’s about it.

So it feels like witnessing some sort of digital apparition when the 69-year-old writer answers a Zoom call to the Parisian home he shares with his wife, the French journalist and broadcaster Laurence Romance, whose email address and tech skills facilitate our meeting. He’s only ever done this kind of thing once before, in a record-company office, in order to speak to Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose father, Serge, he profiled in his 1994 book The Dark Stuff.

Kent, one of the NME's star writers when the paper was at its mid-1970s peak, was also Chrissie Hynde's romantic partner, a seminal Sex Pistols member and an occasional drug buddy of Keith Richards

That collection was required reading for anyone interested in the scabrous side of rock music, profiling its most resilient practitioners (Iggy, Neil Young, the Rolling Stones) alongside its most wretched casualty admissions (Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson, Brian Wilson). Kent, in thrall to Lester Bangs, with whom he briefly apprenticed, and to Hunter S Thompson and the New Journalists, frequently embedded with his subjects, employing a modus operandi somewhere between investigative and method. It didn’t hurt that he looked more like a New York Doll than a reporter.

Kent, one of the NME’s star writers when the paper was at its mid-1970s peak, was also Chrissie Hynde’s romantic partner, a seminal Sex Pistols member (there was a notorious run-in with a chain-wielding Sid Vicious) and an occasional drug buddy of Keith Richards. Heroin addiction obliterated about a decade of his writing career, but he made an impressive comeback as a grizzled elder statesman in the last days of the 20th century. Then, a media blackout.

“It was about 2000 when I said, ‘Okay, there is nothing in the world of rock that appeals to me, I don’t like this music, it would benefit me personally if I just stepped back and stopped listening for a while.’ Just vanished,” he says. “And that’s basically what I’ve done for the 21st century. Since 2006, when I interviewed Thom Yorke for Mojo, I have not written for any musical magazines or periodicals, not because I’m against what they’re doing, I just don’t want to feed the nostalgia machine.”

Ironically enough, Kent did publish a 1970s memoir, Apathy for the Devil, in 2010. Since then, he’s kept his hand in writing a novel, The Unstable Boys, due out this month. The new book’s narrative hook: what happens when an ageing rock star, nicknamed The Boy, invites himself to stay with a wealthy superfan crime novelist committed to writing his biography. It doesn’t go well. Now bereft of youth and good looks, The Boy’s self-obsession and entitlement render him a grotesque reincarnation of Dorian Gray, with a dash of Bette Davis.

Kent concurs when I suggest that his perennial theme might be the corrosive effects of fame and privilege.

“Being in front of thousands of people is a very strong drug,” he says, alluding to a former Sex Pistols member whom he reckons is “currently making a complete fool of himself, embarrassing the generation that grew up in his shadow. He is so caught up in the shock value of a reality-TV level of fame that he will just go along with that because I guess he has contempt for his audience, and he has contempt for himself, though he would not admit it.

If you're gonna big up Donald Trump after four years, and put it on YouTube or Facebook, then you've descended to a level of self-loathing. At the same time you just can't get enough of the public staring at you

“But if you’re gonna stand there drunk and big up Donald Trump after four years, and put it on YouTube or Facebook or whatever, then you’ve descended to a level of self-loathing. At the same time you just can’t get enough of the public staring at you.”

All three of Kent’s books exhibit a contradictory relationship with rock mythology. Few music writers fell harder for the 1970s decadence aesthetic, the white-punks-on-dope death-trip. And yet when it came to publishing The Dark Stuff, he revised much of the original material, expunging anything that romanticised youthful self-destruction.

Kent’s father, interestingly enough, was a freelance sound recordist who worked for film and radio, and for whom popular musicians were synonymous with instability and unreliability.

“A lot of my mistrust of the music industry came from my father’s stories of how dodgy show business was. It was all fly-by-night agents ripping off artists, and most of the artistes had drinking problems or some kind of pill problem, and they were very erratic when they came to work. He told me some nightmare stories about people that were beloved entertainers of that era. So I came into the music industry with my eyes open about how people with narcissistic personality disorders operate.”

If you get involved in heroin, it really is a bridge too far. I'm very, very, very lucky that I was able to come back from that bridge. I thought Phil Lynott would be able to, but the bigger they come the harder they fall

Except, back when he was profiling people such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Axl Rose, bad behaviour wasn’t described in pathological terms; it was just someone being a dickhead.

“Trump is doing the same thing: ‘Forget the meaning, forget the substance, there is no substance. I’m a fat loser. In reality I’m a failure. It’s all a complete f***ing con, but I am very entertaining, I’m like Falstaff, I’m like a Shakespearean character.’ I was dealing with these people years ago. Now Axl Rose has apparently sorted himself out. In the last couple of years he’s turned up to gigs on time, he hasn’t caused any riots. But Trump is like Axl Rose without the outlet. He’s the ultimate frustrated rock star.”

One contemporary of Kent's whom he reckons should have been smart enough to survive his own success was Phil Lynott. He hasn't seen Emer Reynolds's documentary Songs for While I'm Away, but he has this to say about the subject: "He was like a horse, that guy, he was so big and strong, I never thought that would happen to him. I knew him, not well, but I went over to his place a couple of times and spent some time in Paris with him and Thin Lizzy when they were making that Black Rose album and we were getting up to no good. Most of those guys, if they were tall they were way too thin, really skinny guys, or they were small fry, but Phil Lynott was a huge guy."

So what brought him down?

“I think maybe he was too much into that mythology, frankly. I know that when the punk thing happened, he really wanted to hang out with the baddest of the bad boys, let’s put it that way. But if you get involved in heroin, it really is a bridge too far. I’m very, very, very lucky that I was able to come back from that bridge. I thought he would be able to, but the bigger they come the harder they fall. It’s a cliche, but [the Sex Pistols guitarist] Steve Jones, for example, was a big, big guy, but he got into a terrible state. I mean, he’s still alive but he’s got terrible heart problems. And your man MacGowan...”

I mention the recent Julien Temple film Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan.

“I’ve heard about it; I’ve not seen it.”

Maybe the most poignant moment in it comes when Gerry Adams raises the subject of MacGowan’s creative output, or lack of it, over the past 20 years. The singer looks almost bereft when he admits to wishing he was a prolific songwriter again.

All I see in Shane MacGowan is a guy getting older and now in a wheelchair, and it's heartbreaking, man, it's f***ing heartbreaking. People are being way too indulgent with him

“Well, when I knew him best, which was when The Pogues were getting ready to record Fairytale of New York, [their manager] Frank Murray was having to lock Shane MacGowan in rooms to write the lyrics because they literally had a session at six o’clock that evening. That was going on in the golden days of his songwriting period. I knew there was going to be trouble.

“Shane MacGowan was like a well, and he was sending buckets down, and with great difficulty those songs – the lyrics and some of the melody lines – would come up. Somewhere along the line that well ran dry, and whether it’s to do with substance abuse and alcohol consumption or... I don’t know if Shane has ever given himself the opportunity to be straight for six months to a year, because you can’t just be straight for two weeks; that ain’t gonna do nothing. You’ve got to be clear-headed for a year before you can start to get your endorphins working again naturally, get into a state of good physical health.

“That’s how Neil Young does it. The guy’s a polio survivor, half of his body is f***ed up, the guy f***ing lifts weights before he goes on stage or before he records, before he’s doing anything creative. It’s a f***ing choice, man. At a certain point Shane had that choice. I don’t want to judge the guy and I don’t want to badmouth him.

“I saw images of him on YouTube the other week at a funeral, Frank Murray’s, very disturbing, I said a prayer for the guy, I was almost in tears seeing the state he was in because it was really horrific, and I actually like the guy, as annoying as he used to be. I haven’t seen him since the ’80s. All I see is a guy getting older and now in a wheelchair, and it’s heartbreaking, man, it’s f***ing heartbreaking. I think people are being way too indulgent with him.

“In The Dark Stuff there’s a piece on MacGowan, and everyone was saying to me at the time, ‘Someone’s gotta talk to Shane. He’s taking all this ecstasy, he’s taking this, he’s taking that, he’s drinking way too much.’ So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it, I’m Nick Kent, I’m one of the few people who can go up to someone and say, ‘Hey, listen...’ I don’t normally do that. But I said to MacGowan, ‘You’re in a situation where you’re writing great songs, you’ve got this field of gold and you’re too out of it to plough it. You’d rather get stoned with your mates than actually sit down and really work on your talent, and that’s f***ing criminal.’

“Talented people who don’t develop their own talents, man, they should be ashamed of themselves. And I’m speaking as someone who, between 1975 and 1985, was exactly that person. That’s something I feel ashamed about. I don’t feel ashamed about being a junkie. I don’t feel ashamed about the moral aspects of my behaviour during those years so much. I’m not happy about it, but...

"I'm really ashamed that I somehow made the choice to jettison my talent, and that's what you do essentially if you give yourself over to a life of, for want of a better phrase, chemical hedonism."

The Unstable Boys, by Nick Kent, is published by Constable

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