Sometimes it’s easier to take the money. Reading nonfiction, especially this last decade, has already taught us that. In an age of social media where erudition can become entertainment and even pop culture can be weaponized, isn’t it safer to pay for play? Not really. Nonfiction’s almost always about a currency of quiet. Commerce almost always creeps in to fill a cultural silence. But each of us gets to decide if it truly should.
Brit rock journalist Nick Kent has Been There.
His writing has a hard-edged feel, eerily similar to that veteran photojournalist who can show you every route out of the hotel and then out of the city. Conspicuous, obtrusively quiet, and above all sedate, Kent’s writing is the kind we were taught to admire in school. There’s a certain distinction to his journalism, a pedigree. Kent just gets out of the way, his style allows us to believe. No doubt he’s an observer with a capital oh, rather than an oh em gee.
Perhaps it’s his style alone that has allowed him access to nearly four decades-worth of rock stars now. Kent has interviewed everyone. The Stones, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Sid Vicious, Neil Young, Roy Orbison, Guns N’ Roses; The Dark Stuff’s later pieces even include observational essays on Kurt Cobain and Eminem. And like anyone who has risen to the top of their game, years of practice and craftsmanship shine through in these pieces. They are more than just observations. Kent provides credible ways to access the subjects he observes.
Credible, sure, but meaningful is something else entirely. Meaningfulness is about frames, about shared value systems. “Meaningful,” is about the kind of company you’d like to keep. And the longer you spend in Kent’s company, so to speak, the easier it is to reach a shocking conclusion that polished as he may well be, he’s most likely not a guy you’d invite to share family dinner on Turkey Day.
Kent’s writing is smooth, polished, but there’s a carnivorous edge of politely filed-down teeth in the mix. It’s the ethical core, the values statement, of the original Don Quixote of rock journalism on a picaresque trip that holds his audience in a thrall. The trope of the rock journalist as observer, but one not suckered in by the wealth and the fame of the stars she observes, is an act of deep cynicism. It’s a seductive spectacle for sure, but it’s also a conceptual breakpoint in the genre. Getting drawn in is what it should be about. The idea was always to provide that “in the room” kind of feel that Bob Woodward’s journalism was so good at evoking. The idea was to illumine some kind of internal logic behind the wild rumpus of rampaging rock stars. How do they make sense of themselves? Do they?
It all begins innocuously enough.
Traveling with Izzy Stradlin of Guns N Roses through the streets of Paris in a limo, Kent finds himself on an endless search, “first for a guitar shop, then a pizza house, until finally we’re just in transit, completely rudderless.” The portrait of GnR painted by Stradlin gets progressively worse. The drug-induced frenzy of the band’s high voltage lifestyle comes crashing through to the point where it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Kent was right in referencing Fitzgerald, that American stories have no great second acts. But of course, this interview is prior toUse Your Illusion.
If anything, Kent is able to contextualize his subjects as rock royalty, in an industry wholly incapable of royalty. It’s the neat compact nature of his writing that smokescreens the Fellini-esque kind of observation that Kent is a purveyor of. With Kent, we’re watching the crash in slow motion. By the time we reach the Eminem essay (originally published for a French audience, translated here for the first time), everything has already turned to mythology. America is an angry nation and has been for some time now. Eminem (the super, successful alter ego of struggling rapper Marshall Mathers), who finds success even more garish a prospect than serial failure, finds himself living out every story from Elvis to Spider-Man.
Kent reads like a modern Nostradamus. Not in the immediate sense that his prognostication comes from a deep understanding of human systems. But in the deeper sense that even as the South Tower fell, some outside New York at the time were already reaching for the quatrains. Surely the enormity of this must have been foretold. This event must certainly have echoed down the centuries.
Nostradamus as a shibboleth of safety. The safety of knowing that things are still going according to plan, however monstrous that plan may be. This is the worst kind of way to deal with the horror of it, and reading Kent reissued in 2002 feels like the same kind of strange and ugly. Wading through the pages of The Dark Stuff, it feels like a small and ignominious end for rock journalism, maybe even for journalism itself.
The death knell of a kind of journalism that could speak to that wicked, sexy gleam in Orson Welles’s eye in The Third Man as he spoke about all Switzerland producing after 500 years of peace being the cuckoo clock profoundly reframes the zeitgeist. This is worst of times again, it’s Rolling Stone versus Led Zeppelin again, and by implication, versus the fans, again.
But there’s more at stake here than a weird kind of death knell for rock journalism.
Push the zeitgeist in just the right way and you push the culture. This high-minded ivory-towered thinking is just what’s needed to push the nation into the kind of mindset necessary for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Push the culture just right, and the values-driven observation that Kent is peddling begins to uncannily prefigure a society comfortable with self-surveillance.
So maybe Kent is that old-timey kind of Nostradamus, auguring the world to come by way of the written word steeped in the unfathomable—maybe. Still, it just feels like less should be at stake with something as ordinary as rock journalism.