Nick Tosches: Rock journalist and author whose Jerry Lee Lewis biography set a new standard

An iconoclastic, maverick writer, he cut his teeth on magazines such as Rolling Stone and Creem

Garth Cartwright
Wednesday 06 November 2019 13:07 GMT
Tosches in 1997: droll prose and a streetwise persona
Tosches in 1997: droll prose and a streetwise persona (Gamma-Rapho/Getty)

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Nick Tosches, who has died aged 69, rose to prominence in the 1970s as one of a loose knit group of music journalists who, having studied the groundbreaking work of “new journalists” Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson, were determined to infuse rock writing with a similarly gonzo style.

They were fortunate to have two new rock magazines – San Francisco’s Rolling Stone and Detroit’s Creem – as vehicles for their often scabrous reviews and features. Tosches differed from his contemporaries, who tended to enthuse about the likes of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, by championing country, rockabilly and vintage rhythm and blues.

His droll prose mixed baroque, Southern gothic sentences, references to Greek and modernist poets, deep research and knowledge of his often obscure musical subjects and a tough, streetwise persona. Tosches loved to upset convention, both through dismissing critically acclaimed artists and employing vulgarities that caused many an editorial brow to furrow. Beginning in 1977 with Country: The Biggest Music in America and continuing up to Under Tiberius (2015), Toshes was the author of 20 books that ranged from music journalism to biographies to fiction and poetry. They sold poorly but won him a reputation as a truly maverick author.

Nicholas Tosches was born in Newark, New Jersey, to Nick and Muriel Ann (Wynn) Tosches. His father ran a bar and it was listening to the regulars tell stories that helped to shape Tosches’ life and writing. Tosches had no interest in attending college so worked at a series of menial jobs until Ed Sanders of The Fugs – a proto-punk, East Village band – encouraged the 19-year-old’s early poems and helped him to get his writing published in counter-culture magazines. This lead to regular work at Rolling Stone and Creem from 1970 on. Tosches’ style – and he was one of the great stylists of American journalism – got him noticed and he enjoyed regular freelance work for publications ranging from Esquire to Penthouse.

In 1982 his biography Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story won acclaim in the rock press even though it broke all the rules of conventional biography. This led to the pop-soul duo Hall & Oates hiring Tosches to write their official biography, Dangerous Dances (1984). Tosches liked the money the advance brought in but his disinterest in the duo’s music ensured the book was a failure.

A better effort that same year was Unsung Heroes Of Rock’n’Roll, a collection of profiles of largely forgotten 1940s and 1950s musical pioneers that he had written for Creem. These succinct, informative and witty profiles make it Tosches’ best book.

He branched out with Power On Earth (1986), a biography of Mafia-linked banker and suspected murderer Michele Sindona, while his unauthorised 1992 biography of Dean Martin, Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, chronicled the singer and actor’s rise from New Jersey poverty to Hollywood star while never interviewing Martin or those close to him.

In 1996 Vanity Fair magazine made Tosches a contributing editor, thus ensuring that magazine regularly featured lengthy features he wrote on subjects far outside their chic byline. One such, a meditation on the late heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston was the basis for Tosches’ flawed 2000 biography The Devil and Sonny Liston.

His 2002 novel In the Hand of Dante, featuring a character called Nick Tosches, won him enthusiastic reviews and was optioned by Johnny Depp. His 2012 novel Me and the Devil again featured a character called Nick Tosches and largely focused on vampiric sex sessions with young women. It received negative reviews.

Beyond a brief marriage in 1972, Tosches never pursued lengthy relationships. A heavy smoker and drinker who struggled with alcoholism, Tosches remained devoted to an ideal of the hardboiled American writer. “Life is a racket,” Tosches said in 1992. “Writing is a racket. Sincerity is a racket. Everything’s a racket.”

Nick Tosches, author and journalist, born 23 October 1949, died 20 October 2019

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