Rock music isn't evil - it's the rock star myth that creates men like Ian Watkins

Music journalist and author Ben Myers has been doing some soul searching on the day the former Lostprophets singer was sentenced to twenty-nine years imprisonment plus a further six on licence for crimes including several counts of sexually abusing childr

The sentencing of former Lostprophets singer Ian Watkins today to twenty-nine years imprisonment plus a further six on licence for crimes including several counts of sexually abusing children hopefully brings an end to what some police officers have described as the most horrific case of child abuse they have worked on, and by far the most disturbing criminal trial associated with British rock music.

For all it aesthetic flirtation with the dark side and its well-worn sex and drugs rhetoric, a case like this is rare – unprecedented, in fact - in the home-grown rock scene. I’d even argue that there is a playful innocence to many of its posturing bands. Far less sex, drugs and fisticuffs than I’ve seen at some British town centres taxi ranks at 2am. I know some lovely Satanists and have enjoyed many intellectually-invigorating encounters with men and women who scream about death for a living.

Which is why many of my colleagues in the music business who have had close dealings with Watkins and his band have been doing some deep soul-searching. Are all of us who contribute to the myth-making business of music somehow indirectly culpable for creating a world in which simple musicians are deified?

My own contact with Watkins has been limited to phone conversations and some innocuous online exchanges. But I have spent plenty of time close-up with some of rock’s bigger figures – Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Jimmy Page, Mötley Crüe, Marilyn Manson, Slash and recent wayward artists such as Pete Doherty and the late Amy Winehouse - and am almost always struck by the same observation: these are ordinary people leading extraordinary lives. They are not demigods, and nor should they be portrayed as such. Treat them as normal and they will generally respond accordingly. Pander to their inflated egos and they might just take advantage.

“Today mythical thinking has fallen into disrepute,” notes Karen Armstrong in A Short History Of Myth, and post-Watkins, there are certainly questions to be raised about why lifestyle excesses and preening, red-blooded rock stars have been historically celebrated in rock music. The big difference today is that these mythological creatures of yore are no longer absent, unobtainable figures. As Watkins has proven in the most diabolical ways imaginable, they are only ever a tweet or webcam away.

When 47 year old Bill Wyman started dating 13 year old Mandy Smith there was tabloid outrage but little in the way of legal action. When Led Zeppelin took advantage of young fans they were not brought to account, but instead lionised. They were portrayed as heroes. Was Ian Watkins, the nadir of the indulged rock star, somehow “allowed” to hide in plain view, exploiting the susceptible without impunity? “There are so many rumours about me,” he said in an interview with Kerrang! in 2010. “The more shit that’s out there, the bigger the smokescreen and the harder it is to tell what’s actually true.”

Academically gifted and believed to be a reader of de Sade, perhaps he saw himself as some sort of de Sade/Gilles de Rais figure pushing the limits of morality. The same interview was littered with prescient phrases such as “I’ve taken down all the rules in my life,” and “I’m not just talking about substances, I mean everything ... just opening up to being like ‘come what may’ is so liberating”. Hindsight now tells us that the previously drink and drug-free Watkins was not merely alluding to his recent dalliances with class A drugs.

One unnamed girlfriend told Wales Online: “I’m not sure if he was born a paedophile. He said it got boring having 16-to-20 year-olds throwing themselves at him.” Another of his ex’s – and the main whistle-blower in his case - Joanne Mjadzelics has noted that there is an irrefutable difference between enjoying what she has called “adventurous sex” and becoming what the judge called “a determined and committed paedophile”. Taking to one paper Mjadzelics said “I’m absolutely sure Ian wouldn’t have stopped at abuse. He wanted to rape and kill children. He wanted to rape newborns.”

Statements such as these suggest that though Watkins’ occupation facilitated the abuse - increased access meant a swifter escalation in severity - he may have been an abuser anyway. Perhaps rock music is no more to blame than drugs, social networking or the writings of de Sade, but yet simply dismissing Watkins as evil however is doing criminology and psycho-analysis a disservice.

One suspects ego, money, greed, access to extreme pornography, a talent for manipulation and coercion, and a narcissistic and/or  psychopathic personality all played some part in Watkins committing these heinous crimes. 

The rest perhaps only he could explain. Certainly today is rock music’s darkest day.

“I’ve taken down all the rules in my life” Watkins said in 2010. Photograph: Getty.

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era