Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: Nick Tosches

26th October 2019

David Keenan remembers the music writer and author, who died last week aged 69.

It’s hard not to feel that with the passing of Nick Tosches, who has died in New York City aged 69, a certain era and style of rock criticism and cultural reportage has come to an end. Alongside Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer, Tosches defined a highly personal, high energy style of writing about 20th century culture that was the equal of its subject matter – explosive, erudite, rhythmic, and highly personal – a writing that was informed by rock n roll and its tributaries the way that the Beats had taken inspiration from jazz. 

But Tosches was the writer who was most successful at taking it elsewhere. He channelled that early rock crit energy into some of the greatest biographies of the modern era. In a series of dazzling music books, beginning with Country, in 1977, Tosches wrote of cultural moments in the new American century with a feel for the outliers, and for the tragedy and complexities of fame, and of masculinity. 

He was a hardman himself, a tough-talking, wise-ass with the cut of a Mafia don, a literary gangster. Living High In The Dirty Business Of Dreams was the by-line of his definitive biography of Dean Martin, 1992’s Dino, but it stands as an epitaph for his own life and work. 

His legendary biography of fellow rock n roll wildman Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire, is one of the most ferociously inventive ‘non-fiction’ books ever written, with a Biblical cadence and a feel for Lewis’s constant vacillation between the powers of God and Satan that is full-on Greek in its pathos and tragedy. Sample section titles: “Mammon”, “Golgotha”, “The Devil In Concordia Parish”, “A Gathering Of Shades”. 

Indeed, Tosches always went back to the classics, they were his essential grounding, and they allowed him to see the playing out of individual fates as cyclical, cosmic, and as repeating forever. 

Rock writing was a place of great stylistic freedom and playfulness in the 20th century and Tosches extended this approach into the very form of his books. The index to Dino was a secret inspiration for the index of my first novel, This Is Memorial Device, with hilarious, obsessively-nuanced entries for thing like “fear of elevators”, “fuck it all”, “big tips”, “never show weakness or cry” and “said his prayers every night” alongside equally obsessive notes, sources, discographies and filmographies. 

His book on the tragic heavyweight boxer Sonny Liston, Night Train, is one of the unassailably great books on boxing, the Mafia, violence, and the nature of 20th century celebrity. 

He also wrote novels, of which 1988’s Cut Numbers is the standout, an intoxicating combination of tough hard-boiled prose and a feel for the interplay of lyricism and myth that takes the gangster novel to a whole other level.

The figure of Nick Tosches was as large as his work, his personality suffuses everything he did, his machismo, his swagger, his enormous erudition, his passion, his old school style, the way you couldn’t point a camera at him without him immediately sparking up. 

We won’t see his likes again. 

Nick Tosches, 23 October 1949 – 20 October 2019