When I started reading about rock music it was whatever bios the library at school had. The first book I read was a dry account of the murder of John Lennnon. Not that the story should be full of laughs or anything but this more about the killer and it looked at various conspiracy theories, was he brainwashed or just mentally ill etc. It was a lot to take on board at 13. But I loved it. There was an unauthorised one about Mick Jagger and that was enjoyable. A decent one about Hendrix. Angie Bowie’s ludicrous one about her ex husband (good fun, but) and then – a few years on – I seemed to discover all at once the key writers of that first proper wave of music journalism: Lester Bangs and Nik Cohn and Sylvie Simmons and Greil Marcus and Nick Tosches, Richard Meltzer and Nick Kent. There were others (Ian Penman is another name that comes to me just now). Some of them had books out, collections of their work – others were just names I remembered from old copies of Rolling Stone and NME and or were names mentioned in various places.
I still go back to many of those names. I’m lucky to have met one of them. Been to her house. She’s been to mine. We have bonded over many classic albums and a shared love of a bunch of great artists. And if you told the 13 year old me or the 18 year old me or even the 30 year old me that that was going to happen…none of them would have believed you.
Lester Bangs was a hero – sure. Of course. He still is I guess. Though I don’t go back to read his work – it served its purpose, had me hooked and I loved it a lot. I’m of the opinion that if he’d lived longer he’d have been one of America’s great writers. He’d have moved on from just writing about rock – he’d have written travel essays, a novel or two, he’d have been funny and angry and passionate and wonderful across a great many subjects. But he wasn’t long for this world. Somehow a lot of the other great rock writers have hung on – many of them were every bit as destructive as Bangs, even more so in a case or two. (And probably after a case or two).
But yeah, I don’t go back to Bangs’ work – and maybe I should. But Richard Meltzer. Always. So mad and brilliant and entertaining. And the Nicks/Niks – all of them. Just brilliant.
And the first collection of rock writing to really blow my mind was Nick Kent’s classic – The Dark Stuff.
What a cast. Brian Wilson and Iggy Pop and Lou Reed and Miles Davis and Roy Orbison, Neil Young, Jerry Lee Lewis, Syd Barrett, The Stones, The New York Dolls, Guns ‘n’ Roses…
These are the greats. These are tricky customers. Fragile and maniacal, ego-driven and eccentric, angry and mythical. And maybe the weirdest, most out there cast member of all is Kent himself. A junkie through many of these pages. An amazing writer but one that so readily embodies the cliché of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll without actually being the performer. His accounts had him sparring with the greats, had him jealous of them, but also he was a shrewd documentarian.
Kent tells the great tale of Brian Wilson at his piano in a sandpit in his living room. He watches Iggy Pop all but explode. He captures the special darkness of Miles, the wide-eyed sadness of Syd Barrett the acid casualty and he wasn’t as personally invested in the Lou Reed stories as Lester Bangs; so we get better coverage.
The writing is creative. The writing is thorough but also impressionistic. It’s gritty and real and it pulses with rock’n’roll’s pure energy.
And I’ve never quite owned a copy of this book. I borrowed it. A recommendation was given and then a copy of the book was loaned – I loved it. Read it in two days. Started reading it again straight away. I then bought a copy and returned the one I’d borrowed. Within days I loaned my copy out. Got it back. Loaned it again. Lost it – someone kept it and I don’t blame them. So I have bough it twice again and given it out and I’ve read it twice more from the library.
One day I’ll buy it and just put it on my shelf. It’s one of the books I owe a bit part of my life to – I was going to say career. But that’s just being silly.
Books That Blew My Mind is an occasional series here at Off The Tracks – thinking back on great books that I loved (and still love); books that found me at just the right time.