Richard Cabut – Looking For A Kiss
Sweat Drenched Press
Writer and musician Richard Cabut leads us on a drug induced trip through time and the thoughts of two punk protagonists, taking in drugs, sex and booze. Set in Camden of the early 80s, Looking For A Kiss journeys through acid, pop art and teenage perversity.
There are many, many books about the punk phenomenon, first hand accounts from those who were there, scholarly tomes from those prepared to put the research in and retellings of the myths and legends that have sprung up since those heady, hazy days. What we don’t seem to have much of is punk novels. You may be forgiven for wondering exactly what we mean by a ‘punk novel’. Well maybe a book that takes punks as its main characters, sets itself in the times and is immerses itself in the social and moral concerns of the time.
Richard Cabut has given us one such book with Looking For A Kiss, a book that is set in the early 80s when punk and post punk were very much to the fore of the country’s cultural makeup. More than this though, Cabut’s novel uses cultural references throughout the book in the form of paraphrased or quoted lyrics, references to the bands of the era and with the main characters using punk’s moral code as their motive for behaviour.
The cultural clues are fun to spot, such as one character saying “I’m a mess”, echoing Sid Vicious’ badge with that motto, mentions of “holidays in the sun” and almost lyrics such as “The passion of lovers was for dearth” cropping up in the text. In doing so, Looking For A Kiss immerses the reader in the times in which it is set. Those who were there, who get the cultural references, will get more from the book than those who are approaching it without this prior knowledge. This is perhaps not surprising as Cabut is someone whose own involvement in this scene went beyond that of being a spectator.
In the late 70s and early 80s, Richard Cabut published the Kick fanzine and was the bass player in Brigandage. In 1983 he wrote a feature for the NME, under the name Richard North, where he noted a new type of music was rising from the punk embers, with bands such as Southern Death Cult and Bauhaus carrying the flame. The feature brought together these bands for the first time and even gave the new movement a name – Positive Punk. Soon though, this was put together as Goth, but Cabut had brought the threads together and a lot of momentum seemed to start with this article. All of this marks Cabut out as being in a prime position to write a novel such as Looking For A Kiss – literate, involved and knowledgeable.
The book is a strange one. There is little in the way of plot or action and there is a minimal cast of characters. The book focuses almost exclusively on two characters, Robert and Marlene, and a powerful acid trip they are experiencing. The novel itself is built up from the thoughts these characters have while undergoing this psychedelic experience and a vision of the future that comes to Robert while high.
The book’s point and story is told by the internal thoughts of these two characters and the acid courses through their system and, in terms of actual action, nothing more spectacular happens than the couple walking home and going to bed. Cabut’s skill is in making this journey and the thoughts to go with it as shocking and fascinating as they are. As Robert himself ponders “If nothing happens, everything becomes meaningful.” It can’t have been an easy book to write, with so much of the narrative happening solely in the minds and memories of just two people. But this has given Cabut freedom to explore these characters thoughts, lives and aims. He also makes the most of going off on tangents (for some reason I nearly wrote ‘tandems’ there, until a ridiculous mental image made me rethink) while exploring Robert and Marlene through their own thoughts.
These thoughts take in both the past and the future, with Robert’s trip especially seeming to give him the ability to see into his own future. Again, those who have experienced these things will gain more from the reading than those who haven’t, with Cabut’s descriptions of tripping the best we have read this side of Julian Cope’s Head On autobiography.
The start of the book is quite meta, with Robert thinking “If I wrote this story, this very story, about the canal, the acid, Marlene and me, I’d make it, in parts, an unruly stream of babble. But intense.” It is easy to wonder how much autobiography there is in these pages, as the character Robert writes for the NME and has plans/dreams for further writing. Early on, there are stylistic nods to Derek Jarman’s film Jubilee, made explicit in the text when it says “Robert thought of Derek Jarman’s film Jubilee, which he had seen several times for the Adam and the Ants footage, and the most truthful depiction of punk of any movie.”
The thoughts that make up the bulk of this novel look both backwards and forwards in time, looking at significant events in both time frames and providing a justification for the characters current position in life. This is where Looking For A Kiss most impresses, with its wide-ranging subjects and the way Robert and Marlene work through their thoughts and drug induced reasonings. It gives Cabut free rein to really delve into past events that impact the two characters and future situations that the present may cause.
One problem I had with reading this book was that, although the character of Marlene is given huge amounts of time to make the workings of her character known, she doesn’t seem to be a properly rounded person and comes across as just a punk stereotype, despite her background and motivation being given plenty of room. We know that she is angry, emotionally careless and self destructive and we at least partly know why. But I couldn’t find much in the way of connecting these two threads to make a more complete character. Maybe this is because Marlene, and Robert too for that matter, aren’t at all likeable people. It is difficult to build up any real empathy with them or their situations as there is little tenderness or decency put across. This is perhaps part of the point though, the time that Looking For A Kiss is set in was one where nihilism was to the fore and compassion was perhaps out of vogue.
After a while though the negativity all becomes a bit disheartening and maybe some reason for the two protagonists to be together would lift the mood. It seems that one or the other is spiky and hostile when the other needs comfort and the two rarely seem to be on the same page; ‘What are you trying to prove?’ she said to him one day.
‘That I love you. That you don’t love me,’ he said to her. As soon as he said it, he wondered why he had.
‘Don’t be so fucking sentimental, it makes me fucking sick. With your spotty chest, and always asking me where I’m going. Corny Polish cunt ‘ she said.
There was no answer to that, really.”
Robert’s visions of the future are equally bleak; “Robert looked into the future again. He saw, decades in the future, Marlene, a ramshackle figure, white face puffed up with booze and bitterness – grotesque and tragic.” Despite the tension, dislike (hatred even) and unfaithfulness that exists in their relationship, Robert’s future visions show him to be very much tied up with Marlene, hinting at a psychological dependency. Their relationship seems doomed to misery, with us being told about Robert that “the poor fool held on to Marlene the way a man who thinks he’s going to drown holds on to a heavyweight “. It is not without its humour though, such as both of them, after watching the film Withnail and I disagreeing about who is Withnail and who is I. There are also some fairly shocking sex scenes in the book, but these again are devoid of emotion and focus on the gratification of one partner while the other looks at sex as a task that needs to be over with as soon as possible. Eventually, the acid starts to wear off and we hear that all of Robert’s visions of the future would not be remembered. Fading with the effects of the drug “like a dream that he would forever try to recall”.
The rest of the story is told in a postscript comprising of Robert’s diary entries. His actual future consists of more of the same; drugs, booze and unfulfilling sex. There is no mention of Marlene in this future and his career as a writer has taken off, but things don’t seem to have changed much otherwise. Looking For A Kiss seems to be a slice of life kind of novel, there are no neat endings and every question does not have an answer, as is the case in life.
Richard Cabut is a clever and imaginative writer, and I will make sure to read any other books he has a hand in. I would be intrigued to know what he could make of more likeable characters and how they would fit into his worldview, but that is not what Looking For A Kiss is about. I have found myself wondering about Robert and Marlene after I finished reading. I do hope they’re ok.
Looking For A Kiss can be bought from Sweat Drenched Press here.
Words by Banjo, you can find his Author profile here: