Some time around the turn of the century, author Nick Tosches prankishly hacked his own online biography so that it gave his death date as the year 2021 — picked, he said, because “it was the anniversary of Dante’s death (in 1321); it made so much sense.” He wasn’t too many years off with that not entirely serious prediction: Tosches died Sunday in New York City at age 69.
No cause of death was immediately revealed, although it was reported that he had been ill for some time.
A former rock critic and profane man of letters who branched out into a wide array of biographies and novels, Tosches remains best known for two essential music biographies: “Hellfire” The Jerry Lee Lewis Story,” from 1982, which Rolling Stone called “the best rock ‘n’ roll biography ever written,” and a 1992 book about Dean Martin, “Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams.”
Serious fans of early rock ‘n’ roll also revere two early books: his first, 1977’s “Country: The Biggest Music in America,” which found greater acclaim when it was re-released with a subtitle that got more specifically to its true subject, “The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll”; and “Unsung Heroes of Rock n’ Roll: The Birth of Rock in the Wild Years Before Elvis” in 1984, which endeavored to prove that Jerry Lee Lewis was not the burgeoning artform’s only seminal loose screw.
His legend was large enough in recent years that he appeared on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” show in 2009 and was interviewed by Marc Maron for a “WTF” podcast in 2015. “Marc considers him to be an indispensible tour guide through the darkness in life,” the introductory copy for the episode read.
Tosches’ other biographies included accounts of a Mafia-linked banker (“Power on Earth”), boxer Sonny Liston (“The Devil and Sonny Liston”), minstrel singer Emmett Miller (“Where Dead Voices Gather”) and a reported World Series fixer of the 1910s (“King of the Jews”). His run of novels ran from 1988’s “Cut Numbers” to 2015’s “Under Tiberius.” A compilation, “The Nick Tosches Reader,” was published in 2000.
When Tosches’ “Reader” collection came out, “dean of rock critics” Robert Christgau considered his reputation alongside that of rogue rock critics or ex-critics like the late Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer, “all partisans of rock at its noisiest — culture as ecstatic disruption.” Christgau said all three “dreamed of escaping rockcrit and becoming a ‘real writer.’ Tosches has succeeded royally,” he said, calling him “a master crime reporter whose manner yokes Homer, Hemingway and some ’60s tit magazine I’m not literate enough to ID.”
“I’ve always felt an affinity for both the high and the low,” Tosches said in a 2001 profile in the Boston Phoenix. “It’s like Oscar Wilde says: ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’ But if you look at the world, most people are actually too dumb to be either sacred or profane at this point. Everything’s politically correct, lukewarm, like that word in the book: i vigliacchi. It works for certain types of herbal tea, but not for life.”
In his upcoming book “Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music,” writer Eric Weisbard talks about Tosches’ impact on rock writing, and the many cultural touchstones and detours he brought to his musical history lessons. “In the chapter ‘Orpheus, Gypsies, and Redneck Rock ‘n’ Roll,'” Weisbard writes, “Tosches invented what Greil Marcus — formally, an intellectual peer — would call secret history, tracing the folk song ‘Black Jack David’ back to Orpheus, with stops for early modern diarist Samuel Pepys and TV gameshow host Wink Martindale.” His language “linked him to Richard Meltzer and Lester Bangs in the punky ‘noise boys’ brigade of rock critics. But he brought a folklorist’s passion” to his work, too, Weisbard says.
In a 1992 New York Times profile published when his Martin biography was coming out, Tosches spoke about the glories and inherent limitations of writing about music. “To me, music’s something I can dance to or listen to,” he said. “To write about it is always more of what the music represents, or what it reflects. Like an ideal song, to me, is a song that you can dance to, that summons up some darker and greater mystery. Like ‘Sea of Love.’ The guy, Phil Phillips, who wrote and recorded that first, to him it was just a dopey love song he wrote to impress some girl. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that for me it has dark allure.”
Tisches was born in New Jersey in 1949. “My father, ah, had an interesting career,” he told the Times. “He was a bouncer in burlesque houses, then he went into the bar business, and I basically grew up in that business with him.” Tosches kept that street sensibility even as, in his 20s, he began teaching himself Greek, Latin and Medieval Italian, convinced that it was important to wipe away “the gauze of translation” in considering the great ancient texts.
He got his start writing for Creem and Rolling Stone. “I never took the whole thing that seriously,” he said. “What I was doing, I don’t know if it would be considered criticism or even journalism. I was just using it as a rubric to get away with things in print, things that probably would be impossible to get away with now. Like making records up, which I’ve done. Reviewing records without even opening the shrink wrap. Things like that.” Indeed, legend had it that he and Meltzer once infuriated Rolling Stone editors by filing reviews under each other’s bylines.
Tosches admired Dean Martin for being what, he wrote, the Italians would call a menefreghista: “one who simply does not give a f—.” In the Times, Tosches said, “I would describe Dean as a noble character in an ignoble racket in an ignoble age. He made out his role in American culture, and American culture itself, as basically a racket. In his own way he seemed to be a man who lived by a code. Whether or not that code was light or dark, he seemed to live by it. He seemed to possess a certain honesty that’s very rare. And he managed to keep the world at bay, and not interfere with the business of his being, whatever that was.” Tosches considered himself a fellow racketeer, as it were: “Life is a racket. Writing is a racket. Sincerity is a racket. Everything’s a racket.”
In his upcoming book, Weisbard says that Tosches’ writing “pushed unblinking description and outre mentalité over moral judgment, trying to match in language what Tosches heard in the recorded vernacular. His prose became men’s magazine writing, manliness at the edge of civilization generations after Tarzan stories, with Tosches akin to a Gay Talese or Frank DeFord.” He quotes Tosches’ later writings on Emmett Miller and minstrelsy, which for him was “a perfect representative of the schizophrenic heart of what this country, with a straight face, calls its culture.”
Back in 2002, Tosches said he was sorry that the editors at Biography.com had taken out the projected 2021 death date he’d inserted into his own timeline; they apparently did not share his great love for mischief, arcane historical anniversaries or Dante (the last of which he explored in a novel released that year, “In the Hand of Dante”). “It just made so much sense. But,” he told the interviewer, “now that we’re in the 21st century … I might postpone it.”