The World Lost Its Greatest Music Writer

A few words about Nick Tosches, who died this weekend.

My favorite music writer died this weekend. More accurately, the only music writer whose work I truly love died this weekend.

I came to Nick Tosches’ work in a sort of roundabout way, and admittedly late in my writing career. Years ago, my friend Sam Russo described me as “the Nick Tosches of punk rock.” I could tell by the tone of it that it was meant as a compliment, but I was embarrassingly ignorant of this person to whom I was being compared.

It’s not atypical for me to be unfamiliar with a music writer. I have never taken much inspiration from other rock journalists, not due to any sort of chip on my shoulder, but simply because most of it does not speak to me. The “golden era” of rock journalism is removed enough that it feels largely unrelatable. And modern rock journalism often reads soft at best, obsequious at worst, and completely useless at absolute worst. I started writing in a vacuum, trying to produce that which I wanted to read but did not yet exist.

So I went home, looked up Nick Tosches, and ordered the first book I could find by him: HELLFIRE, his 1982 biography of Jerry Lee Lewis. Despite having only a passing interest in Lewis, I devoured the book in a day. While my writing is nowhere near the caliber of Nick’s, I understood what Sam meant. Nick’s style is what I’d been striving for. I’m trying to put my mind in the version of myself that has just read the book for the first time to explain what it is about it that I instantly connected with, but at this point I’ve read it so many times that I don’t think I can look at it with fresh eyes. 

What I can say is that, above all, I am continually, relentlessly moved by the grit of the book’s writing. Its cadence feels heavy, and there’s a gravity to it. The words feel Biblical, in a sense. It’s about a rock ‘n’ roll performer, sure, but it reads like Scripture, a tall tale about a mythical figure fighting a war with himself, stuck somewhere between God and the Devil. There’s a finality to every sentence, as if his very soul depends on the story’s outcome. 

In fact, the chapters are so wildly incredible at times that I often wonder how loose old Nick played it with facts and quotes. Perhaps it’s the product of a bygone era of journalism, when after-hours glasses of whiskey filled in the gaps of what large, clunky recorders failed to capture. But given Lewis’ notoriously unhinged lifestyle, and considering the meticulous detail that went into Nick’s subsequent Dean Martin biography, Dino, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Or maybe I just want to believe that it all happened exactly as it’s laid out on the page.

Here is a paragraph that opens a chapter and leaves me dumbstruck:

Fame lifted her skirt for the final wild son. As the summer passed, hot Southern day upon hot Southern night, the sound of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” grew louder and more ominous. It was everywhere, blasting forth like thunder without rain from cars and bars and all the open windows of the unsaved. Its wicked rhythm devoured the young of the land. It bloodied virgins and stirred new housewives to recall things they never spoke of. It inspired boys to reinvent themselves as flaming new creatures and seek detumescence without ruth.

“God, I wish I could be more like Nick Tosches,” I once told someone who had interacted with him a few times.

“Dan, no,” was her response. “Let me tell you about Nick. Nick is 65 but looks 75. Nick sits on park benches alone and chain smokes all day. Nick is a lonely, old man.” And then she put it in a way that has stuck with me every day since: “Be like Nick on the page if you want, but not in life.”

I’ve taken that advice to heart. I re-read or skim HELLFIRE for inspiration every time I’m stuck on a profile, and elements of it have seeped into my writing over the years. I can point to passages that take direct cues from the book. Call it borrowing, call it stealing. I don’t really care. It’s so deeply embedded in my technique that I can no longer extricate it.

But beyond his style of prose, I strive to emulate Nick’s approach to his subjects. He chose to bestow his brash way with words on figures that most writers would overlook. There has been so much discourse among music writers lately about the “access problem” in regards to A-list artists, and how guarded their publicists are with their image. But Nick deliberately snubbed those types of stars in favor of covering those on the C- or D-list, the underdogs whose stories he deemed more worthy of telling. 

History crowned Elvis the King in the 50s, for example, but Nick instead wrote about his bitter rival, Jerry Lee Lewis, eschewing The King for The Killer. Similarly, Nick could have written about the eloquent world champ Muhammed Ali, but instead chose to pen a biography of Sonny Liston, the illiterate boxer who went down by Ali’s fists in 1964. He spared no detail on the life of Dean Martin in Dino, and left Sinatra to Gay Talese. He even compiled a book of stories called Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll about musicians like Wanda Jackson and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins—those who did not get their due but whose names are forever immortalized because of him. 

When asked in a 2011 interview about Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s ongoing impact in breathing new life into these figures, Nick remarked, “And that’s a good thing: for all that fine, dirty old real rock ‘n’ roll to be spread wider and wider, corrupting and breathing life into new souls every day. It’s sort of like the murder of Justin Bieber happening anew every day, bigger and better—a beautiful thing.”

This notion to cover subjects most writers would snub, or subjects who don’t appreciate the idea of being written about, has been a guiding principle for me. I’ve been trying, humbly, to do my version of that for years. It’s why I got in a van with Dillinger Four—a band whose 25-year career has amounted to a three-sentence Wikipedia page—despite the fact that I don’t think they much enjoyed the experience. It’s why I sat on freight trains with a press-shy Tim Barry of AVAIL. It’s why I spent a summer with a guy named Stza Crack. It’s why I took New Jersey Transit to Asbury Park to talk to Brian Fallon about divorce. It’s why I walked to Tijuana with Jeff Rosenstock. It’s why I’ve done a lot of things other than write about megastars—not that they’re burning up my phone line to talk to me, anyway. It’s been a lonelier, less financially fulfilling path, but I’d rather quit writing than pursue the alternative. 

A while back, I picked up a habit of buying HELLFIRE whenever I found a used copy lying around a bookstore and giving it to a friend—my small way of paying it forward. It always seems wrong to see it sitting there among the stacks of unworthy peers. I’ve probably given half a dozen copies away in multiple editions with various covers. I gave one to Laura Jane Grace when we started work on TR*NNY

I can’t even begin to point out how many passages in that book were actively or subconsciously shaped by the influence of HELLFIRE. One section I can pinpoint is HELLFIRE’s cold open. The book begins with a three-page story about Jerry Lee brandishing a gun outside the gates of Elvis’ mansion until he was handcuffed and taken away in a police car. I call it a flash-bang—an opening story that induces such awe that the reader doesn’t mind that they’re about to trudge through a chapter about the subject as an infant.

Laura and I put together a 928-word intro in this style about her sprinting down the Venice Beach boardwalk to film the video for “I Was a Teenage Anarchist.” After much back-and-forth, our editor convinced us to cut it, one of the few concessions she and I made. I was hard-headed about it at the time, but in hindsight I don’t mind that it was left behind. Regardless of its exclusion, it was the first thing Laura and I wrote together, and we were so enamored with what we’d created that we were off and running from there. (There’s an essay in The Nick Tosches Reader that I think about often in regards to my working relationship with Laura. Nick was commissioned by Creem to write a profile of his friend Patti Smith. Upon phoning her up about it, Smith told him, “Hell, Nick, you know me. Just make it up.”)

Several weeks before TR*NNY hit stores, I was at a bar with coworkers when Billboard published a list of the “100 Greatest Music Books of All Time.” 

“Hey, Dan. My friend just sent me this article. He said your book is on it,” my coworker told me. He kept scrolling and scrolling for what felt like an eternity before arriving at the book’s number: 42. It was exciting, especially since the book hadn’t yet been released and this was the first critical reception I’d read of it, but I wanted to know what landed at number one. Bob Dylan’s memoir took home that honor—which, give me a break—but where was Nick? 

He was high up there, at number four, but it was the wrong book. Dino made the list; HELLFIRE did not. I understand why. Dino is the book that gets the glory. It’s a tome that’s not just about the Rat Pack singer, but a sweeping history of Italian immigration in America. But for my money, it doesn’t touch the sheer, unbridled mayhem contained in the pages of HELLFIRE. Nothing does. The Guardian and Rolling Stone agree, both declaring it the all-time greatest. It is, as Greil Marcus says in the book’s foreword, “the finest book ever written about a rock ‘n’ roll performer.”

Nick Tosches died three days short of his 70th birthday this weekend in his Manhattan apartment. It is astounding and unfair that Jerry Lee outlasted him. Yesterday I sat on a park bench for an hour and took the world in with a morning coffee. I watched the looks on people’s faces as they walked by and I wondered what their stories were. I don’t normally smoke but I burned through a pair of American Spirits in Nick’s honor. I gave my copy of HELLFIRE another flip-through and again marveled at the process that produced it. I thought about something he once said in an interview:

I sit there, I come up with an opening line, and then I go little by little. I'll wonder, Well, what's coming? And that goes right through to the very end. For over a dozen years now, I've had a recurring dream where I'm reading a book and the pages are blank, but as I read, the words come to exist as fast as my eyes can move. Strange, strange thing.

When I got up to leave, I left the book behind. I hope someone finds it out there.