Nick Tosches & Austin Brookner on bench at Duane Park. Photo © by Lornography.

Songwriter and musician Austin Brookner met writer Nick Tosches in 2008. The connection was Tosches’ words—both on the printed page, which Brookner had already read and been moved by, and some lyrics he’d posted on the Internet in search of a songwriter. Brookner wrote the song, sent Tosches the tape and they became inseparable friends and collaborators for the last decade of Nick’s life. Austin muses both on the friendship and the sense of loss over Nick’s death last October. Tomorrow (Oct. 23) would have been Nick’s 71st birthday.

Yo, Austin.  You’re one talented mutherfucker.”

With these words I was immediately disarmed and it was as though I was seeing my long lost brother and we had known each other our entire lives. It was late August 2008 when I met Nick Tosches for the first time.

I was so full of adrenaline the night before I did not sleep a wink. I rose early that Sunday morning from a couch in Brooklyn and took the train into Manhattan to Bleecker Street and from there walked to Hudson Street and then all the way down Hudson to the corner of Hudson and Leonard streets.  It was a long walk, but I had left early enough and allowed plenty of time so as to arrive on time.

The streets were familiar.  As a young boy, before my family moved 30 miles west across the Hudson River, I had gone to school nearby on the west side of Manhattan.  In kindergarten at that school I had two girlfriends and married them both.  A polygamist at the age of six.  As I continued to walk the cranes and scaffolding became fewer and fewer, and the buildings enveloped a quiet comforting solitude.

As I walked further and further down Hudson, I walked away from my life and away from that feeling I could never quite describe but was always there throughout high school, college, and post-graduate Brooklyn – that something was awry.  There was something about the whole deal that was wrong.

I knew I was walking into something that had nothing to do with that world.  I was walking into what would erase that which had been heaved upon me from a young boy to a young man, that I never believed in, but did not quite know precisely why.

I knew it from the moment I put Nick’s book, Hellfire, his biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, in my hands.  His books were gifts that I’ll hold onto my whole life. After that I read his novel In the Hand of Dante (2002) and in this I heard a voice speak directly to me unlike any other voice I had heard before. Soon after that, I came upon his lyrics posted on his MySpace page for “I’m In Love With Your Knees” with the invitation: lyrics in search of song.  I read those lyrics and felt them to be scary, forbidden words that held within them the crack of thunder, the weight of truth, and the lack of guilt or apology.

I held onto the email I received after sending him the tape. And that’s how I found myself walking down Hudson Street on that Sunday morning 12 years ago.

Nick’s next words to me on that Sunday morning was an offer of “heroin, morphine, absinthe, coffee, tea, pot, whiskey, wine…” I went for absinthe, coffee, and pot.

As Nick would say, when it comes to having friends, “You only need one.”

We were scheming to make a proper studio record out of the tape I sent him for his lyrics to “I’m In Love With Your Knees.”  While we sat on the couch in his apartment, he said, “I don’t know where you stole this from…” and while I never admitted it to him, I did kinda steal the song but masked it and changed it enough to make it new.  Nick had the ability to look through you and you felt that he could see and know everything.

Knees recording session. Photo by Aaron Brookner.

Nick was talking about a lawyer friend of his who was trying to see if he legally could marry a woman’s knees.  Later on, he said the next time I came to visit him his entire library room, filled with books, would become a room dedicated to his socks.  I laughed; he told me he was serious.  He was both the most out-there cat in the world and as rock solid as they come. He saw things with crystal clarity and gave the most sound advice that would truly save your ass from the fire.

After hanging in his apartment for a little while, we went for a stroll down Hudson Street to the Reade Street Pub.  Everybody who walked by seemed to know him and would continue some conversation they seemed to have going from the time before.  Everybody had a smile on their face when they saw Nick.

Sometimes we’d have a crack at word jumble puzzles from a newspaper lying around the pub. Our gauge of how hungover we were was how long it took us to figure out the words.  Nick, of course, got all of them within a moments glance.  The hardest ones I don’t think I could ever get, drunk or sober.

In the beginning were the days of Guinness, coffee from the Korean deli across Reade Street, Parliament Lights for outside and unfiltered Camels for indoors.  Later it became Lagunitas, then off beer completely and onto vodka sodas.  Then port and a cigar, Marlboro 27s for outside and brown unfiltered American Spirits for inside, and vodka sodas at Puffy’s Tavern after the afternoon port and cigar if we were in the mood, then Benedictine as a late late nightcap.  And, of course, a constant merry-go-round at every opportunity of Grady’s Cold Brew with milk.

One of the first things he said to me on the bench outside Reade Street was: “Stay humble; it only gets harder.” The reason behind this is that you keep trying to go deeper. Hanging with Nick had the same effect as reading his books for me.  He put things in their proper perspective and made the world and its bullshit not matter while at the same time centered me in the right place within it.

The second time we hung out Nick remarked, “Austin, each time we see each other is even better than the last.”  For the second go round, my nervous energy had been lifted, and we were simply two pals hanging as conspirators (a word he taught me literally meant “to share breath”).

Nick had to leave the recording studio early in Long Island where we were making a proper CD version of “I’m In Love With Your Knees” to shoot an Anthony Bourdain show.  I drove from the studio to Sophie’s Bar in the East Village to meet him to hand-deliver the master copy.  Nick was several Guinesses in.  I had some catching up to do.  We were celebrating wrapping the record.  As he said, “Most people just talk about doing shit; we actually did it.”

Hanging with Nick had the same effect as reading his books for me.  He put things in their proper perspective and made the world and its bullshit not matter while at the same time centered me in the right place within it.

We went to several other joints where he knew people, to have them play the record in the bar.  When the car came to pick us up to go home, it was one of three instances where he fell down on my watch.  I was holding him in one hand, waving to the car in the other, when Nick went sidewise onto the curb.  I feel that him falling only three times in 12 or 13 years on my watch is not too bad, actually pretty darn good.  But each time I felt terrible.  I called him the next day to see how he was and his reply was, “I got this pain in my chest.  I don’t know, I think I broke a rib.” 

He fell straight down once.  Again, I was holding him with one arm around his waist as we headed to Cocotte, the Basque restaurant on Thompson Street.  It just so happened there was a paramedic truck on the corner of Spring and Thompson. Nick was adamant about not setting foot in that shit-box until he realized we were simply trying to get them to clean up his cut.  Within minutes he had all the paramedics laughing and saying, “I love this guy.” 

He was talking shit about me, telling them how I had let him fall down, calling me a mutherfucker.  I was laughing too, but I also felt horrible.  He was wearing the most gorgeous cashmere winter overcoat I’d ever seen.  And now it had bloodstains on it. I was sickened to think the coat had been ruined. When we went to Raul’s for drinks afterwards, Nick remarked, “I kinda like the bloodstains.  Makes it look cool, look tough.  Adds character.”

“Knees album cover” : I’m In Love With Your Knees” album cover. Photo by Lornography.

The other time he fell was years prior to the spill on Thompson Street at the Brandy Library.  They didn’t have a seat at the bar for us, or perhaps they didn’t have the port he wanted, so we left.  I turn and see Nick gradually go sidewise to the floor.  Maybe I have an evil streak, but the sight of someone falling in that manner has a natural physical comedic quality that made me involuntarily smile as well as rush to help him up.  It was then that Nick said, “You with your shit-eating grin.  Here I am falling and my best friend is laughing at me.”

I had never heard him call me his best friend.  I guess it made sense.  There was never anybody else around.  It was always just the two of us. Yet somehow I figured there must be someone else, more his contemporary, more accomplished than me.  It filled me with pride.

When we were out, sometimes people (mostly women who were juiced up, but not always) would ask if we were father and son.  Sometimes Nick would reply: “He’s my friend.  Ever have one of those?” We would often say, “Love you” as a parting salutation, give each other a kiss on the cheek, but we never really expressed what we meant to the other.  It did not need to be spoken.

For a stretch the bar on Watts Street was open only for Nick and his company in the afternoons.  The porter, Rudy, opened the bar for us.  We nicknamed the joint Chez Rudy.  We’d meet up in the afternoon and have a cigar and some port and have the place all to ourselves.  We’d make sure to leave before the joint opened and people entered.  We’d usually laugh at the Holland Tunnel traffic on the way out – as Nick coined it “the symphony of stress.”

Rarely did we ever go beyond Chambers Street to Watts Street, and Church to Greenwich.  So, on the occasions we did venture to different activities, it brought out lightness in Nick.

There was the day I drove us up to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx and we hit the Italian markets.  He pointed out the good Sicilian capers and gave me some recipes to use them for.  We went to the MET and were the only people at a linen exhibit.  He brought a notebook with him and took notes and asked questions in the office.  After the MET, we hit up Lobel’s and he suggested the prepared Cornish hen.  Once we went to a Central Park bird exhibit and walked all the way back downtown.  As we walked down Sullivan Street he pointed out where Eddie “The Blonde” DeFalco had an after-hours joint and sometimes requested homemade lasagna be brought directly to him from the kitchen.  And how Sullivan Street was known as “the street of silence”.

He took me with him to his shirt makers in midtown and afterwards we ate tripe, spaghetti and escarole for lunch at Patsy’s. We stayed up late drinking one night and I slept on his couch and then he took me in the morning to his tailor where he was having a Vicuna suit made.  He also took me with him to his shoemaker, always introducing me to all these places – the shirt maker, the tailor, and the shoemaker – as a future client of theirs.  Knowing I didn’t have the resources to afford such items myself, he showed me the same manners that others had shown him when he was a young man.  People had given him the name of where to get suits made without asking if he could afford it.  He remembered such consideration and passed it along to me.

Knees recording session. Nick on bongos. Photo by Aaron Brookner.

He truly didn’t give a fuck in the way that can’t be faked.  He’d light up a cigarette in a taxi.  When the cab driver raised a stink, he’d say: “Oh now you talk!  Don’t say a fucking word the whole time!”  And then proceed to call the cabbie a slew of nasty names.  One time a woman at the bar asked him what he did for a living and he told her that he was a speechwriter for the president of the republic of Czechoslovakia (one of the two countries in the world that are a republic; Dominica being the other one). When the woman asked if Nick spoke Czech he casually and with a stone straight face said, “No.  I write them in English and they have someone who translates them into Czech for me.”

I told him about an awkward date I’d had and he said the last date he was on he amused himself by telling the woman he wanted to have her baby.  When she replied, “You mean you want me to have your baby?” he said, “No.  I want to feel your baby inside of me.”  He passed along the dating advice that his father gave to him: whatever she costs you, you cost you more.

In researching new mattresses, he found that horsehair was the best mattress stuffing.  Although he didn’t get a horsehair mattress, he said that he would tell people he got a lion’s hair mattress instead, which was even better than horsehair – a fabrication meant for his own amusement.  He would say that you might as well speak to liars with lies.

It was that way with everything, absolutely everything.  There was always something new, something to learn, something I’d never thought of before.  And always a lot of laughter.

There was the summer when we started boxing every Tuesday and Thursday at 9:30 in the morning.  He showed me how to properly wrap and did it for me the first time.  Most of our time was spent on his couch or the bench or the barstool, either talking or saying nothing, as was our wish, so doing a different activity such as boxing was fun.  We only made eight records in twelve years or so – not exactly prolific.  We were very adept at shooting the breeze and being perfectly content doing so.  We would sit on the bench at Duane Park, near his apartment, drink coffee and smoke cigarettes, and when friends would come and visit him from out of town and ask him if he wanted to do something, Nick would say, “To me, this is doing something.”

After hitting the bags, we’d go to the diner across the street for eggs over easy placed onto rye bread with sides of sausage.  When we were hitting the boxing club that one summer, Nick said he had never felt better physically.  When he called me and purposefully asked me to meet him at the bar, I had a funny feeling.  It was always, I’m gonna be there around 12:30 if you wanna meet up, or something casual.  Never was there an explicit request until that one time.

When we met at the bar, this was one of the occasions where he did speak about our relationship.  He said it surprised him that a person more than 35 years his junior is the one person he feels he can confide in and wants to tell first about the serious deal that was going on with him.  He told me he feels a mentor-mentee relationship towards me, a fatherly figure, things that were always between us but never stated.

The second time he spoke along these lines was what turned out to be the last day we spent together.  He said, “I care about you.”  I replied plainly, “I know you do.”  He also said, “If you find love in this life, cherish it for all that it’s worth.”

Austin Brookner and Nick Tosches

His friend Greg had said at the funeral that Nick knew more about everything than he’d ever know about anything.  The loss of that resource is a big one. Nick was a well that was seemingly bottomless.  The list of what he turned me onto is too long to fathom; books, records, movies, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, purslane, duck rillettes, Sea Island cotton socks, the proper length pants should fall on your legs, the difference between braces and suspenders, season 4 of the show Shameless, a marinate recipe for swordfish steak, and the fact that Henry Miller had sciatica.

I picked an old penny off the ground and mentioned it to Nick not thinking much of it.  He went through an entire history of coins in America and how to tell whether or not the penny I had picked was worth anything or not.  And how even up until the 1970s they printed one thousand dollar notes, or was it five hundred dollar notes?  And how Arnold Rothstein would walk around with one pocket of one thousand dollar bills (or was it ten-thousand?) and the other pocket full of smaller ones.

He saw things in a way that you could put me in a room for a thousand years and I’d never think of what he did.  For instance, last summer I was walking by Penn Station and saw a huge line and crowd of people.  I looked up and saw a big Billy Joel banner hanging with a sign underneath it saying ‘Sold Out.’  I told Nick about it and he remarked that they’re wasting money with the banner.  The show is already sold out.  What do you need to spend more money on publicity for?  I never would have thought of that.

Similarly, when a guy from the neighborhood offered him a “Cuban” cigar, he remarked that there was no way to know if it was from Cuba just because of the band.  It probably wasn’t.  Anybody can just put a Cuban band on any old cigar and call it Cuban.  And also when I told him about a place I found in the East Village – Russo’s – that had homemade mozzarella cheese, he replied, “Whose home?”  I said I didn’t know.  He asked if I saw a kitchen in the place.  I said I didn’t think so, didn’t remember, and would have to go back.  He said when I did go back, ask to see the pots and pans that they made the cheese in, and check to see if there was water in them.  If there was water, then they had been used to make the cheese, otherwise the place is full of shit.

It was that way with everything, absolutely everything.  There was always something new, something to learn, something I’d never thought of before.  And always a lot of laughter.

After his death last October, everybody had Nick stories.  The common thread was the expanse of Nick’s knowledge, his generosity to impart it, he seemingly having been everywhere and done everything and knew everything about whatever it was, and the depth of his heart that was unmatched and true caring for others’ welfare.  He was the person you went to when you had a real problem.  For me and for all the others in his life, he had the ability to make it all better.  Whether it was with humor or the simple phrase that articulated precisely that which was ineffable to one.

The second time he spoke along these lines was what turned out to be the last day we spent together.  He said, “I care about you.”  I replied plainly, “I know you do.”  He also said, “If you find love in this life, cherish it for all that it’s worth.”

There are so many stories Nick told me that I couldn’t remember the details or specifics of.  Such as, what was the name of the gangster who as a young boy, before adolescence, was seen practicing missing basketball shots into the night so as to be prepared for shaving points?  Or the name of the gangster who had Jewish tailors who owed him five grand and couldn’t pay, so they offered to make him a jacket as payment.  The gangster accepted.  The Jewish tailor made him the jacket and afterwards said: “I could make you pants to go with it but I only owe you five grand, not eight.”  Or was it seven grand instead of eight? And who was that old man in the framed pictured with him as a young man that rested on the dresser in his bedroom?  I only saw the picture when peeking while walking through the corridor into the living room.  In the whole time, more than a decade, I never once entered his bedroom.

Much of our discussions towards the later years centered on the change in the human species and how they preferred the touch of a handheld gizmo to that of another person.  And how dead on the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers was to the current climate, even down to how in the movie they were called “pod people” and today people wore iPods.  Nick would say that at least in the past you represented yourself, be it good or bad.  Now, people had become simulacrums.  But at least we always had each other.  As Nick would say, when it comes to having friends, “You only need one.”

The image that keeps coming back to me is an early one.  I think it was as we were leaving Circa Tabac on Watts Street.  I was walking behind him and he was wearing a long black leather coat.  I saw a person who was fiercely independent, his own man, had made himself into what he was, and had found and known his own true nature.  He never allowed anything into his world nor tolerated anything that disrupted or disagreed with his nature. Be it a record, a person or anything else.  Yet he was the most understanding person as well.

One of the many things he said to me that is implanted in my brain is, with regards to the death of both of one’s parents, that one is never weaker and never stronger.  That precisely describes my current state due to his death.  Whatever they were, the times with Nick were always the good times.


Nick Tosches Official