“From what I’d learned coming up,” Nick Kent writes in Apathy For The Devil: A 70s Memoir, “rock writing was fundamentally an action medium that best came to life when the writer was in the thick of that action and yet removed enough to comprehend its possible consequences.” And as a writer for the English weekly New Musical Express, beginning in 1972, Kent helped propagate some of the music’s key myths. He fixed on musicians who held the promise of the ’60s counterculture, only to descend into drugs (Keith Richards, Syd Barrett), depression (Nick Drake), or both (Brian Wilson). It’s a story Kent lived out himself, becoming a notorious junkie in the mid-’70s.
Kent spends a lot of Apathy For The Devil decrying the limbo the lifestyle led him into. At the same time, he doesn’t, or won’t, gloss over its more glamorous properties: “I didn’t get into hard drugs—specifically heroin—so that I could be more like Keith Richards. I took the narcotic partly as a misguided way of temporarily gluing back together a broken heart but mostly because I liked the world it plunged me into, that instant all-embracing comfort zone.”
Divided into year-by-year chapters (with 1978-79 sharing one), Apathy ping-pongs easily between personal reminiscences and more general overviews of rock’s shape each year. As a reporter, Kent was privy to all kinds of backstage mayhem, as when he hangs out in a hotel suite with Led Zeppelin in 1976: “The large bay windows that opened onto the suite’s fifteenth-floor balcony suddenly burst open and Keith Moon appeared in our midst as if conjured out of thin air.” Manager Malcolm McLaren also recruited Kent as part of an early incarnation of a band that later evolved into the Sex Pistols—and later, a chain-wielding Sid Vicious attacked Kent in public, in a demoralizing stunt that drove the writer further into a worsening drug habit.
For younger readers, the gap between the strength of the 1970s’ best music, film, and books and the period’s frequently desultory cultural commentary can be hard to close. Kent’s descriptions dim the rosy glow the period has taken on in retrospect. As the ’70s went on, Kent, like many at the time, was startled by a growing sense that the hedonism of youth culture had gone horribly wrong, crystallized by a David Bowie show: “In Detroit Bowie’s followers were like something out of Fellini’s Satyricon: full-tilt pleasure-seekers devoid of anything resembling shame, limits, caution and moral scruples.” His descriptions of young cultists in L.A. two years later is stinging and immediate: “All these broken spirits had the same basic rap: the end is nigh, the devil has won, give up your ego and all worldly possessions and join us as we sink into blind submission to some crackpot deity.” Apathy is a cautionary tale, but Kent’s front-row seat during rock’s most iconic era can’t help but be a little celebratory by default.