Vacant: A Diary of the Punk Years 1976-79
Thames and Hudson, £9.99
Independent on Sunday, 11th April, 1999
© 1999 Jah Wobble / Independent News and Media Limited
Review by Jah Wobble
I tend to be suspicious of
people who keep diaries - it is after all a first cousin to dull, anal
control-freak list-making. If one is truly involved in events as they
unfold, is there the time or inclination to take notes? I suppose the
cynical answer is yes, especially when you have an eye on the future main
The diary-keeper here is Nils Stevenson, who was tour manager for the Sex Pistols before going on to manage Siouxsie and the Banshees. The diary covers the years 1976 to 1979. The many photographs are supplied by his brother Ray. I must say I did find it strange that Stevenson has waited so long before making this book available. I would have thought that the prime time to have issued it would have been around five or six years ago, when punk nostalgia was at its height.
This book has none of the depth of its predecessors, Jon Savage's England's Dreaming or John Lydon's Rotten: No Blacks No Irish No Dogs, and to be fair it doesn't pretend to. Stevenson is keen to position himself, retrospectively, in the vanguard of the punk movement and, moreover, the chic, King's Road deconstructivist intellectual part of it. By doing so he alludes to that hoary old chestnut, the question of who was really responsible for punk. Was it rag-trade existentialists like Malcolm McLaren, or was it North and East London "smart yobbos" like Lydon and Sid Vicious who kicked the whole thing off? The sad thing is that this question probably supplies the central tenet for many a Cultural Studies thesis, most of which probably come to the conclusion that both camps were equally responsible in that the middle-class former directed the working-class energy and imagination of the latter. I hasten to add that Stevenson's roots are, according to this book, decidedly working class. Apparently he was brought up in the East End. Funny that I don't remember seeing him around East London's (then) colourful pub/club scene.
As well as covering the "Jean-Paul Sartre of King's Road" angle, Stevenson describes the basic scenario of sex and drugs with a little bit of rock 'n' roll thrown in. As well as Stevenson's own lightweight contribution, there are a handful of recollections from various (ex) punk luminaries such as Viv Albertine, Jordan and Mark P. Some of the contributors, Helen Wellington Lloyd for instance, are accurate in their descriptions of the allure and fascination of punk (I still hate the word). Others are written by hippie journeymen/ women. If the book has any selling point, it's the photographs, many conveying the vivid urgency of the times. Then again, the punk crowd were, by and large, so photogenic in ways weird and various that it would have been hard to take a bad photograph. Younger generations looking at these snaps will probably undergo a similar experience to my generation when we viewed pictures of Fifties tossers jitterbugging. To those of the "punk generation" it will be a sentimental walk down memory lane. Exactly the kind of sentiment we publicly derided, of course. Whatever, many of those pictured in the book were great people and I enjoyed looking at their faces. Faces of character.
So I hate to admit it, but I did enjoy the book; but of course, darling, I was there. In fact, I'm the man who fused the primal, alienated energies of the working classes with an existential form of narcissism ... and hey presto, it's what we now call punk. Damn! If only I'd kept a diary.
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