Remembering Nick Tosches, Biographer of Jerry Lee Lewis Who Explored the Lurid Side of Pop Music

Louis MONIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

The writer Nick Tosches in Saint-Malo, France in May, 1997.

Nick Tosches, a literary music writer who looked older than his years and cloaked himself in a noir-ish persona, died Sunday October 20, at the age of 69. He made a career of questioning the origins of inspiration, often tracing it back to ancient times, and finding the precise language with which to express it. He often came across like a Humphrey Bogart character, and to spend time with him was to feel glamorous and grown up.

Music fans know Tosches from his essays and reviews, and especially his two classic biographies. His book on Jerry Lee Lewis, 1982's Hellfire, is "quite simply the best rock and roll biography ever written," according to Rolling Stone. A decade later, his Dino explored the life of Dean Martin with reportorial detail and literary language, and it was once rumored to be a Martin Scorsese film, with Tom Hanks attached to star. ("Wesley Snipes, why not?" Nick complained upon hearing the casting idea.)

Tosches made his reputation exploring the lurid history of pop music, initially in 1977's Country, The Twisted Roots of Rock ‘n' Roll, then in 1984's Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n' Roll. He wrote about more than music, though: He recorded an album of poetry with the author Hubert Selby, Jr. Blue Eyes and Exit Wounds; wrote numerous novels, including Cut NumbersTrinitiesIn the Hand of Dante, and Under Tiberius; and published biographies of boxer Sonny Liston, gambler Arnold Rothstein, corrupt financier Michele Sidona. He also wrote a bilingual (English-French) children's book, Johnny's First Cigarette.

I came to know Nick in 1995, when I was a New York-based publicist at Geffen Records. He had learned that I was in possession of a copy of Joe Pesci's 1968 album Little Joe Sure Can Sing! — recorded under the name Little Joe Ritchie and released by Brunswick Records, a label that allegedly had connections to organized crime. He asked me to make a copy for him, and I was especially happy to oblige, since at the time I was in the thrall of his novel Trinities. The day I gave him the cassette a friendship was formed, complete with a regular dinner date at Da Silvano that lasted until I moved to Los Angeles, a city Nick detested, not least because getting there meant flying across the country and he couldn't do that and keep smoking unless he flew on a private jet.

Our conversations varied widely – including why he loved the Rolling Stones and not the Beatles, who he would complain had the same outfits and stupid haircuts. He had a tendency to casually mention names like Keith Richards, Johnny Depp, and Patti Smith, and I was skeptical as to how well he knew them until one day he called me at 3am, clearly drunk, and told me that he had been with Richards at the Stones show and "he's going to play a few songs for you tomorrow night." I thanked him and rushed him off the phone, and didn't much think about the call until his assistant called me the next day to ask me to meet him to pick up my Stones tickets. I was flabbergasted. Was he really hanging out with Keith Richards? He was. 

Tosches had A-list friends, but they weren't his only ones – or even his favorites. He loved characters – the stripper getting a degree in American literature who was an expert on Faulkner ("she's really into the Snopes trilogy"); the speed addict who was, hilariously, a mattress salesman; the waiter who liked to play the tough mafioso. He introduced me to his barber, one of several "men of unknown ethnic origin" – they were Khazakstan Jews – who offered sublimely old-fashioned shave-and-a-haircuts in Ilya's Barber Shop on Lispenard Street. I think he wrote a story on Ed Sullivan for Vanity Fair to have an excuse to meet Señor Wences, the Spanish ventriloquist who talked to his hand. His longtime friend Gene Sculatti wrote on his Facebook page the day Tosches passed that he found humanity in "all the schleppers, schnooks, con men and impossible dreamers who made the music biz what it was: Hy Weiss, Carmine "Wassel" DeNoia, Tony Bruno, finger-poppin' Philly DJ Jerry Blavat." Tosches also gave me the best advice I ever got: "Jimmy, my boy, the most important thing in life is to know what's not important."

Fifteen years ago, I was asked, at the last minute, to introduce Tosches at a poetry reading. Not knowing quite what to say, I found something he hadn't done. "Our next reader is Nick Tosches, who has done a lot in the world, met a lot of people, and had ten lives' worth of experience," I said. "But one thing Nick has never done: Nick Tosches has never eaten a cheeseburger." He got up to speak and, with a wide grin, simply said "that's true," and launched into verse.

Jim Merlis is the co-owner and founder of Big Hassle Media.


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