Thursday, June 21, 2012

The downward spiral

"I hurt myself today / To see if I still feel". So croaked Johnny Cash in his twilight years, imbuing Trent Reznor's melodramatic line with far greater and deeper resonance than its author ever could. In Cash's hands, 'Hurt' became not a howl of existential angst but a poignant and bittersweet reflection on the wreckage of a life, a mediation on decades of self-abuse, sensory excess and sensory numbness.

The original version of 'Hurt' was the climax of an album called The Downward Spiral, and it's the dangerous descent of musicians into a horrific cycle of self-destruction that is the theme of Nick Kent's collection The Dark Stuff. Cash is just one of a litany of greats whose gradual decline Kent chronicles in unflinching detail. If Motley Crue's The Dirt is a largely enjoyable romp charting the exploits of a quartet of clownish and mischievous scallywags with too much make-up and heat-seeking groins, then The Dark Stuff is the antidote: to quote Neil Young, another of the book's subjects, its focus is very much on both the needle and the damage done.

Most of the chapter-length portraits conform to a predictable trajectory: a gifted individual rises to prominence, before becoming seduced by the same old sirens (alcohol, drugs, sex, ego, violence, depravity); talent is squandered; fame curdles to notoriety; and the individual is left floundering, unable to do the one thing for which they've become celebrated. However, just because the trajectory is predictable doesn't make the unfolding narratives any less compelling.

As you might imagine, the pages are populated by some of popular music's most colourful characters. There's Young, constantly falling out and making up with David Crosby and Stephen Stills (both portrayed as creatively-spent druggie leeches) and popping over to Beach Boy Dennis Wilson's house for a rendez-vous with Charlie Manson. There's Sly Stone, mixing with mafia types, trying his hand at pimping and becoming convinced that paying someone to kill his bassist is a rational course of action. In a long opening chapter, there's Brian Wilson - the insecure genius who only a few years before had filled ears and hearts with the celestial music of Pet Sounds - banished to the changing room of his outdoor swimming pool by his wife because she deemed his insatiable appetite for drugs and porn a corrupting influence on their children. And then there's Iggy Pop, author of the book's foreword and clearly a particularly favourite of Kent's - a self-proclaimed innocent who actively pursued self-annihilation because he thought that was what was expected of him. (His self-abasement hadn't reached its nadir by the time the book was published, though - that would come with those Swiftcover insurance adverts...)

While Kent generally shows a certain amount of respect for the stature of his subjects (and understands well enough the allure of the "dark stuff" himself), he's also not afraid to stick the boot in. Hence he's baffled by the reverence of the French nation for obnoxious, incoherent drunk Serge Gainsbourg; he refuses to see Kurt Cobain's death - a successful suicide attempt by someone determined to shuffle off his mortal coil - as conventionally tragic; he portrays Phil Spector as a poisonous bewigged backstabber, a nasty piece of work even in a notoriously cut-throat industry; and he characterises Sid Vicious as "the exploding dimwit", a "deranged exhibitionist", a thuggish caricature who symbolised English punk's demise.

The volume ends with a short piece Kent wrote on the subject of self-destruction and its place in music at the request of Franz Ferdinand, when the band were guest editors of the Guardian. In it he offers a chronological overview, and concludes that trying at once to destroy and redeem oneself is "a fool's dream, but it won't stop younger minds from being seduced down that path again and again". Not that he (or I, for that matter) think that's necessarily a bad thing: "What's the alternative? A long life and a world full of moderate musos like Belle and Sebastian"...

One issue that I'd have liked Kent to have tackled is that of gender; of all the musicians featured in the book, not one is female. Is this simply a consequence of the editorial selection process, or does it actually suggest that self-destructive behaviour is characteristically male? In the Guardian article Kent does at least allude to Whitney Houston - both she and Amy Winehouse would make fascinating subjects for a revised edition.

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