Nik Cohn: ‘I was right: the Stones, after the age of 30, didn’t create anything good’
The pioneer of music journalism tells Karl Whitney about growing up in Derry, why acid killed pop, inspiring Saturday Night Fever and having too much, too young
Nik Cohn: “I think my attitude to bands who keep going is: are they doing it to flog more tickets and get more money that they don’t need? Or is it that their music’s still evolving and they they’ve got something new to say. So, David Bowie, absolutely he kept going and quite right too – that was his self-expression. Others… I know Keith Richards keeps saying he’s never been so good and so on. To me, I was right: the Stones, after the age of 30, didn’t create anything good.” Photograph: Amy Arbus
In 1969 the 23-year-old rock journalist Nik Cohn published Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: Pop From The Beginning. It was an instant classic, a fizzy shot of snap judgements, a heady rush of a book that took pop seriously without ever knocking the fun out of it. It was the work of a young fan turned critic for whom pop had “given me my heroes… made my myths”.
Cohn’s writing instinctively tuned into the mythical dimensions of pop music, and the culture of pop – the fandom, the subcultures, the moguls and DJs and TV presenters – in a way that still feels original and exhilarating, like a dispatch from a hitherto unmapped frontier. This month it’s reissued by Vintage Classics.
Cohn’s obsession with rock ‘n’ roll began in Derry in the 1950s. His father, Norman, had taken a job as an academic at Magee College. They lived in a Protestant area, but Cohn, who is Jewish and was born in London, felt an outsider, an observer. He says that one evening he wandered downtown to Waterloo Place, saw a group of Teddy boys, heard Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti playing on a jukebox, and was hooked by its incendiary, nonsensical refrain, “Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom!”
Talking to Cohn by phone, I ask what exactly hooked him. “Forbidden glamour,” he says. Even though he went to a Protestant school, he wasn’t a Protestant; his contact with the Catholic side of Derry was nil, he says. “I saw Teddy boys and I knew I didn’t belong there either. And so it set up a lifetime pattern of looking at tribes that I could never be part of.”
The book is generally seen as the earliest book-length example of serious rock writing. Rock critics are unstinting in their praise for Awopbop: Greil Marcus has called it “a great book … an inspiring book … a great piece of writing”, while Simon Reynolds told me that “it’s obviously one of the two or three greatest books about pop”, calling the final chapter “simply the greatest piece of pop writing ever – at once heresy and revelation. It’s never been surpassed”.
Wasn’t 1969 a bit early to publish a history of rock music, though? Not for Cohn. The young writer perceived it as his farewell to the vitality of the early rock ‘n’ roll that he loved – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, early Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis – a vitality that he thought rock had lost. “The last good year in pop was 1966,” he tells me.
I ask him what had changed to make him feel this way. “It was acid, I think. It got very woolly, very pretentious, flatulent – each song became longer and longer and started saying things which I thought were rubbish, like All You Need Is Love.” (There’s an enjoyably sacrilegious chapter about The Beatles, where he dismisses the band’s turn towards mysticism. He writes about Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that “it wasn’t much like pop. It wasn’t fast, flash, sexual, loud, vulgar, monstrous or violent. It made no myths.”)
He also railed against the pseudo-intellectualism that swept through pop from ’67 onwards. “The idea that just because you’ve taken this drug that at 25 you knew everything that could possibly ever be known was offensive to me. Obviously I was a high school dropout myself, but I’d grown up in a world where people actually knew stuff. They read books,” he tells me.
When Cohn began writing about rock music, it was a new frontier, and he had few competitors. He wrote a novel when he was 17 and got a job covering pop for the Observer in 1964, when he was 18. “The British press in 1964 was very straitlaced,” he says.
Gradually editors had come to realise that pop music was here to stay, and that they could no longer assign coverage of the nascent form to “55-year-old hacks who listen to Frank Sinatra”. Of the Observer, he says, “they wanted me to be their pet teenager. And I didn’t make a very good pet.” Three years later, he says, pop-savvy graduates from Oxford and Cambridge flooded the media. But for those years, 1964 to 1967, “I had the world to myself. I was the only game in town.”
I’m chatting to Cohn on the day that David Bowie’s death was announced. Bowie had named Awopbop as one of his 100 favourite books a couple of years before, and the list was beginning to be shared again on social media. It seemed to me that Bowie had taken some of the rock myths that had excited Cohn, and staged them in his work, particularly in the figure of Ziggy Stardust, who, it had long been rumoured, was based on Cohn’s 1967 novel about a self-destructive rock star, I Am Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo.
To Cohn, Bowie “always seemed to have one foot strongly in the street, and to have a very strong sense of what was going on down there. I don’t think he ever lost that feeling, which even showed in his very late days in New York, where you would see him walking around SoHo or downtown, casually dressed. You’re not going to see Mick Jagger do that.”
After Awopbop was published, Cohn travelled to America, finding liberation from a London that “seemed dead”: “it was just as if I’d been locked in a tight little box and suddenly somebody had given me the keys to the world”.
Within a few years he had moved to New York, and wrote an article about the disco scene there, Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night, for New York magazine. The article was adapted for the screen as Saturday Night Fever, and Cohn reaped the financial reward, but also found his methods under scrutiny. The article was presented as a true story, but it turned out that the main character, Vincent, didn’t exist. (Cohn tells me that creating the persona of Vincent – renamed Tony Manero in the film version – “wasn’t so strange at that time”.) In an article published in the Guardian in 1994, Cohn claimed that Vincent was based on a “Shepherd’s Bush mod” he had known in London.
He describes the Saturday Night Fever period as his “15 minutes of fame”. I ask him if, as a writer, he found it helpful – after all, he was making money on a much bigger scale than before – or disruptive. He says it was terrible, and notes that the article “wasn’t a story I particularly love”. “Sudden success beyond anything you imagine does cause all kinds of … it’s very difficult,” he says.
In Awopbop he writes of Phil Spector: “when you’ve made your million, when you’ve cut your monsters, when your peak has just been passed, what happens next? What about the 50 years until you die?” Like the pop millionaires he wrote about in Awopbop, he had experienced huge success before the age of 30. “I was not a well-balanced fella at that age.” After the success of Saturday Night Fever, “I lost all my balance”.
Years passed. In 1983, Cohn was arrested in New York, initially on charges of trafficking heroin. Pleading guilty to the lesser charge of possession, he was fined $5,000 and given five years’ probation. In a 2011 interview with the New York Times, he called it “the best thing that had ever happened to me” as, up until then, he had “been playing Russian roulette with life and death”.
Subsequently, his writing got back on track. He wrote a book about New York’s Broadway, The Heart of the World, published in 1992, and in 1999 published a travelogue about Britain, Yes We Have No. His 2005 book, Triksta, was a comic and poignant account of his efforts to become a rap producer in the New Orleans bounce scene that seemed a search for the kind of vitality he had loved in the rock ‘n’ roll of his youth. When he tells me of how his time in Derry sparked a fascination with tribes that he could never join, he says that “the ultimate would be: I could never be a teenage black rapper”, especially not at the age of s60.
In Awopbop Cohn writes of the “underlying restlessness” of pop – acts were constantly being overtaken and few, if any, lasted long. Of the Rolling Stones, who he loved, he wrote: “they most likely won’t last … they weren’t made to get old. If they have any sense of neatness they’ll get themselves killed in an air crash, three days before their thirtieth birthdays.”
Was he surprised by the fact that they kept going? He says he regrets writing the sentence, as the Stones took it literally – they didn’t take it as hyperbole.
He may regret it, but was he wrong?
“I think my attitude to bands who keep going is: are they doing it to flog more tickets and get more money that they don’t need? Or is it that their music’s still evolving and they they’ve got something new to say. So, David Bowie, absolutely he kept going and quite right too – that was his self-expression. Others… I know Keith Richards keeps saying he’s never been so good and so on. To me, I was right: the Stones, after the age of 30, didn’t create anything good.”
Karl Whitney is the author of Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin (Penguin)
Nik Cohn’s Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: Pop From The Beginning is out now from Vintage Classics, £8.99