Bob Pomeroy met Nick Tosches on a Manhattan sidewalk bench. Prior to that, Pomeroy had collected, read and reread the writer’s inimitable works, like Hellfire, his biography of Jerry Lee Lewis; Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll; Country: The Biggest Music in America; Dino, his biography of Dean Martin; and whatever writings he could find in far-flung rock mags. From a fan-hero relationship, a friendship grew, and then Tosches asked Pomeroy to help catalog and organize his archive and new insights were gained about this great American writer, one of the originators of the idiosyncratic rock-crit style, along with Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer.
By Bob Pomeroy
One of the earliest times I saw Nick Tosches in person was on a New York City street. I’d spotted him through the window of Mike’s Papaya, a bygone hot dog stand at the corner of Church and Chambers streets in lower Manhattan. On my lunchbreak from work, downing a papaya juice and a couple of grilled dogs, elbows on the narrow counter there with only a pane of glass between myself and the human tide outside, I saw him pass by in the crowd. Of course, I’d seen plenty of photos of him, dust jacket photos on books I owned, and I’d even attended a recent, rare, in-person appearance. It was Nick all right.
Still, it surprised me to see that the man himself walked the drab streets like the rest of us, and doubt led to delay before I ditched the dogs and cut outside to follow, not knowing what I’d say if I caught up to him. Before I knew it, though, the figure of Nick had already vanished among the other bodies on the crowded street and I didn’t catch up with him that time. But I would, on the street once again, not long hence and not far from that spot. And the street—that great equalizer—is a good place to meet one’s heroes.
I first encountered Nick Tosches’ writing in an old issue of Kicks magazine, that odd and miraculous self-contained universe disguised as a rock ‘n’ roll magazine published by Billy Miller and Miriam Linna of Norton Records. There, among the tributes to Joe E. Ross, features on the Trashmen, Ron Haydock, and Iggy Pop’s first band, the Iguanas, all of it rendered in a hyped and panting sort of fan-prose, was a short piece about a sort of Asian minstrel act that worked the Chinatown nightclubs of the 1940’s titled “Ming and Ling the Chinese Hillbillies”.
“What is all this?”, I wondered, perusing the opening paragraph by one Nick Tosches:
“Confucius tells us, ‘Knowledge is to know men.’ Professor Uriah Konje, in The Lucky Star Dream Book, under ‘Chinaman’ tells us, ‘To dream of one denotes riches and prosperity accompanied by the picture of good health.’ Let us, then—how much more auspicious to encounter two of them!—turn to Ming and Ling; let us, then, dream.”
Now that was something! Like poetry. It really stood out from the rest of the writing in that issue of Kicks. After reading it, I made a point of doing two things, first, find a copy of The Lucky Star Dreambook, and, second, to check out more stuff by this Nick Tosches guy.
Kicks made it easy to do this by placing an ad for Nick’s classic Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll in a lower corner of the same page where “Ming and Ling” appeared. So what the hell, I figured. I’d start there. As far as his music writing goes, Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll, that roundup of short profiles on rhythm and blues, hillbilly, proto-rockabilly acts from the years before Elvis, still stands up as a personal favorite.
However, Nick’s premise that rock ‘n’ roll originated here, with the likes of Hank Ballard, Hardrock Gunter, and his other subjects, and not with Sun Studios-era Elvis, meant less to me than the crass hilarity of Nick’s renderings. The very first words of the foreword, allegedly penned by “Stan Stasiak,” declare: “This book will not increase the size of your penis.” Among other observations: Big Joe Turner was a “big fat fuck” and his voice boomed with none of the fear of more conventional wimps like Hank Williams or Jim Morrison; Wanda Jackson had been “laced up by Satan, unlaced by the Lord”; Screamin’ Jay Hawkins got by on a monster act while dreaming of singing opera and living in a run-down Broadway hotel; and the Trenier Twins’ own “God wore shades”.
About the latter, Nick wrote the following: “In the fall of 1939 Claude and Clifford went north to Alabama State College, in Montgomery. Ostensibly the twins were pursuing the study of education, preparing for careers in teaching. ‘But, really, we weren’t studyin’ nothin,’ Claude told me when I tracked him down in Atlantic City in August 1982. ‘We were there for the music.’”
“the kind of ineffable knowledge that came from long years of studyin’ nothin’.” – Nick Tosches
And if the reader of Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll also came for the music, they wouldn’t leave disappointed. In addition to the great profiles he presents, Tosches also provides a detailed discography for each covered artist, evidence of scrupulous attention to research that could send the prospect off on their own extended and satisfying study of nothin’. To a collector or researcher, that discography alone is worth the price of admission.
I also located and read Country: The Biggest Music in America, that scrapbook of the darker, rockabilly side of country music, that side forgotten for the most part by Grand Ol’ Opry/CMF institutionalism—what do they care for Jimmy Heap, Warren Smith, Deford Bailey? What do they care for the music’s roots in centuries old British Isle ballads or Pentecostal mysteries such as the great specked bird, for the smut-songs of Governor Jimmie Davis, or the “Benzedrine Blues,” subjects all revealed by Nick Tosches. Country, if a bit patchwork, hints at the depth of Nick’s obsession with research which would form the basis of his later masterpieces.
Then came Hellfire, his definitive biography of Jerry Lee Lewis cast as something more akin to a Southern Gothic novel, with artful imaginings of key scenes in the Killer’s career, such as, for example, the first night he ever played “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and the night he rolled up at Graceland to declare himself, rather than Elvis, the true King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Tosches’ thesis here is that the Killer’s rock ‘n’ roll power emanates from Pentecostal wrath and inner conflict, a spiritual battle between good and evil, Saturday sinner/Sunday saint, whether to serve the Devil or the Lawd, a battle marked by the periodic revelatory refrain “Be ye hot or cold—but if you’re lukewarm I spew ya outta mah mouth!”
Also not to be overlooked are Nick’s fine liner notes, at least as poetic as his Ming & Ling piece, for the Hasil Adkins LP Peanut Butter Rock ’n’ Roll on the Norton label. “Like the Bible and toilet paper,” he wrote, “the music of Hasil Adkins belongs in every household, and none is a home without it. For—think about it—what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and never do the Slop?”
Still, brilliant as these others are, Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll is for me the “alpho & the omego,” to quote his Killer. It’s one music book of Nick’s that I have referred to again and again over the decades, and, to a large extent, and it helped form the foundation of my own more lasting musical preferences.
So it was my first edition copy of Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll that I brought for him to sign when I discovered Nick Tosches again, sitting on a bench in the Manhattan neighborhood where I used to work.
“If you’ve got the pen, I’ve got the time,” he said, gladly agreeing to sign that old copy. And with the brief, simple inscription “To Bob, on a hot summer day in New York,” began a period of a few years when I would visit him regularly at that old bench outside the Reade Street Pub near the southern terminus of Hudson Street, to share coffees, shoot the shit, and take up the study of nothin’.
A sort of routine began to form for my visits. Thanks to my union lunchbreak at work, I could hang out with him for about as long as it took to slowly drink a cup of shitty coffee from the deli across the street. As often as not during these visits, Nick would have little to nothing to say, and the time spent could sometimes present an excruciating exercise in enduring silence. Just when I might be on the verge of swearing it off, at least for a while, Nick would, out of the blue, wax voluble again. He’d tell amusing stories about, say, Elvis’ fondness for Liberace, or how Houston DJ Huey Meaux, Svengali for the Sir Douglas Quintet, Freddy Fender, and godfather of swamp pop, who always carried bribe money to pass out to whomever he might meet along his way. With that gleam in his eye and a sideways smirk, Nick would imitate Huey “the Crazy Cajun” Meaux’s bayou drawl. “Everbody likes a little walkin aroun’ money!”
And in the sweep of the proverbial pendulum to and fro between silence and discussion, occasional jewels could be found, “the kind of ineffable knowledge that came from long years of studyin’ nothin’.”
“Ya sure see a lot of plastic surgery in this neighborhood,” I once noted after watching a grizzled downtown denizen pass us on the bench.
“My favorite is when it goes wrong,” Nick added matter of factly. “And the face falls apart completely.”
Another time I mentioned a collection of Sun Ra poetry that had recently been published.
“Sun Ra? You know he cut a few sides with Wynonie Harris. Check it out.”
Now those records are in my own collection.
Yet another time I arrived at the bench with the news that I’d just witnessed a man running buck naked down West Broadway with a cop on foot in hot pursuit.
“Didn’t know cops could run,” he flatly remarked. As for the streaker, he got the same benediction Nick reserved for most anti-social fuckups. “God bless ‘em,” he’d say. “God bless ‘em.”
Regular Joes, however, didn’t fare so well.
“People might not be horrible,” I once commented.
“But they’re certainly horrifying,” he added with a grin.
Eventually, after many dozens of bench visits with him, I would learn that, as a drinking man, Nick Tosches would hit a sort of sweet spot after a couple of belts, whether of beer or his beloved port wine, where he became friendlier, more talkative, and funnier. He’d get that sly grin and gleam in his eye and spin those yarns. Conversely, those times when I couldn’t draw two words out of the guy he’d most likely not had a drop, and then he could dish out a silent disregard that could scorch the earth.
Meanwhile I launched on another Nick Tosches reading kick, hitting many of his works that I’d previously neglected. I reread Where Dead Voices Gather, that searching tribute to the mysterious figure of Emmett Miller, which I’ll admit I found a bit florid at first reading a decade or so earlier when it was published, but which, with additional study proved to be a work of great depth and beauty. In addition to tracing the shadowy, elusive movements of Miller, who cut the original version of “Lovesick Blues” and possibly taught Jimmy Rodgers to yodel, Where Dead Voices Gather also posits that it was the great Mississippi River flood of 1927, described by William Faulkner in The Wild Palms and Charlie Patton in “High Water Everywhere”, that unleashed the so-called American Century.
Then came two of Nick’s fine novels, Cut Numbers and Trinities, which both dealt with matters of Old World and underworld ways on the modern streets of New York City (i.e., the mob), and I also read many selections from the Nick Tosches Reader anthology, most notably the extensive profile there on George Jones, “The Grand Tour”. Not to be overlooked as well is the masterful bio of Sonny Liston The Devil & Sonny Liston, which will never be a hit with fans of Muhammed Ali.
But among all of these, the true masterpiece, Nick Tosches writing at the peak of his powers, is without question his Dean Martin bio Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams. Here the beauty of his prose is balanced perfectly with his obsession for research. It’s not merely a bio of his subject, but a sweeping review of that American Century, which Dean Martin’s life and career more or less paralleled. Dino has it all, the mob, the Copacabana Club, Palm Springs & golden age Hollywood, Rat Pack booze, broads, and even the everlovin’ Trenier Twins themselves. Most importantly, here those terms that came to be associated with Nick himself, “menefreghismo” [the quality of not giving a fuck] and “lontanonza” [remoteness, or that effect of being surrounded by a wall] first appear and take definition.
On the word “lontanonza”, Nick offers this from Dino:
“The sum of Dino’s instincts had to do with the old ways, those ways that were like a wall, ways that kept the world lontano, as the mafiosi would say, distant, safely and wisely at bay. That was how he liked it: lontano, like the flickering images on the theater screen that gave him pleasure as he sat alone, apart from them and unknown to them, in the dark.”
As I read, and hung with the guy a bit, it occurred to me that many of Nick’s bio subjects mirrored the author’s own qualities. Was it Dino or Nick who was the true menefreghisto? Dino or Nick who cloaked themselves in lontano? Similarly, when he described George Jones as a prisoner of his own sobriety in “The Grand Tour” there’s a lot of Nick in there. He took more than one unsuccessful whack at it himself, and I was there the last time he tried to quit smoking. That sort of blank joylessness that he attributed to the Possum…? Well, there it sat on a bench at the bottom of Hudson Street, chain-gnawing on cigars, trying in misery to lay off the cigarettes. It ain’t always pretty meeting one’s heroes.
But a hero he was to me.
So imagine my thrill when Nick asked me, over another coffee one day at the bench, if I might like to help with the assembling and cataloging of his papers, correspondence, and research materials for eventual placement at an archive. This had become a fairly common, late-career move for many writers and artists, a means to cash in somewhat while they could. Of course I jumped at the opportunity, and with it entered a new level of involvement with the man and his work.
As the project embarked, Nick provided copies of his personal bibliography, itself a manuscript-length record of everything he’d ever published, from his first poem in 1969 to what was at the time his latest novel with Little Brown, Me and the Devil. One thing that bibliography revealed was a writer who’d hammered out a body of work during the last decades of the grand old publishing business in New York City. Another was a prolific career built on working the magazines any old way he could, often cranking out record reviews for Goldmine at $50 a pop in the same month that he might have written a $1,000 feature for Penthouse.
When I mentioned this to him, Nick concurred with a solemn nod.
“I was just getting it out there any way I could back then. That $50 review might buy drinks for a week or make the rest of the rent.”
After receiving the bibliography came the gathering of all the archival materials from various stops along the trail of Nick’s career; and he usually accumulated several boxes of research material for each book, plus vast folders for the larger magazine features. These had to be retrieved from places as far flung as a storage unit in Jersey City, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, and a somewhat uncooperative small press publisher in Brooklyn. All items were then taken to a small, Upper West Side office provided for that purpose by a wealthy book collector fan of Nick’s. Soon the lead archival wheeler dealer and myself were climbing over stacks of boxes in that tiny office attempting to catalog all the manuscripts, typescripts, correspondence, photos, various ephemera. The lead archival wheeler dealer fixated on the old correspondence with Hubert Selby, Jr., Patti Smith, Richard Meltzer, et. al., but names like Huey Meaux, Hardrock Gunter, or Joe Nick Patoski meant nothing to him.
“That’s why I’m glad to have you there, Bob,” Nick complimented me one day. “You’ll catch these things.”
Of course, the lead archival wheeler dealer was correct. It was the big-name correspondence and original manuscripts that gave an archive value. The head curator at Yale, or the Harry Ransom Center, or NYU, couldn’t much give a shit about Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or Roy Hall.
Eventually, to my great enjoyment, I found the box of research materials for Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll and rifled through the wonders within. There was a letter from one of Hank Ballard’s old girlfriends, who’d written to the author to correct them about errors in the caption beneath a photo of the Midnighters that appeared in the first edition.
“Who you name as Hank Ballard in the photo is not actually Hank Ballard,” she wrote. “And believe me, I know what Hank Ballard looks like. I lived with him for X number of years and I am the ‘Sweet Naomi’ to which he refers in his 1974 hit single ‘Let’s Go Streakin’!”
Another letter came from a would-be biographer of a certain performer widely known as one of the queens of rockabilly. The biographer had written to Nick to seek advice about a dilemma that had arisen from his research: several old 1950’s radio DJ’s had confirmed a rumor floating around about the peculiar twist the Rockabilly Queen had put on the payola racket.
“Oh yeah, [X]’s fellate-for-play scheme,” Nick commented about it after I’d reported back to him one day. No big deal. No judgment. Coulda been this. Coulda been that. All was received with the same air of matter-of-fact menefreghismo. I was all the same to the non-discriminating mind, and Nick had been studyin’ nothin’ a mighty long time.
Thus, for me, the Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll box opened up another hilarious universe, extending the more focused and distilled version contained in the book itself, which in turn reflects that of the original old heroes and their records. I’d like to be able to report that there among those other materials was also a diploma for the Study of Nothin’, issued by the Trenier Twins (something like their famous can of “Poontang”), but then the study of nothin’ usually ain’t so neat and clean. I will note, however, that one evening, after another day of digging through archival boxes, I was tasked with delivering an envelope of personal items to Nick back at his home. While riding the Number 1 local downtown, approaching Nick’s old stop at Franklin Street, I looked up and noticed the guy seated across the aisle from me was reading Nick’s Sonny Liston bio The Devil & Sonny Liston. Even menefreghisto Nick found the coincidence rather curious.
Eventually my minor role in the cataloging of Nick’s archival material ran its course and I exited. Last I heard it had received an offer or two, none satisfactory to Nick, and the boxes were relocated yet again for storage. I returned to visiting him at the bench, to chat, drink coffee, feel the breezes, and endure the silences. Often that period felt like a death watch, as many of the big names in music like Lou Reed and George Jones got their cards punched around that time. Nick was not one to really monitor the news or participate in online social media, so in many instances he hadn’t heard. He flinched at the news of Lou Reed, and remarked “So no more Lou Reed.” At the news of George Jones, Nick responded with a smile and a story about the time while on assignment interviewing the Possum, he visited the Alabama factory where George Jones Country Gold Dog Food was produced.
“If George says it’s good…then it’s good by George!”
Jones’ wife at the time had arranged for Nick to ride back to Nashville with George on the tour bus after the factory visit, thus allowing Nick plenty of time for an extended interview. However, plans were thwarted somewhat by a big tornado that blew through the area around the factory. Nick told of the Possum outside the factory, enduring gale force winds, and yet not a hair on George Jones’ carefully coiffed and sprayed head ever blew out of place.
Here’s to more of that ineffable knowledge that comes from studyin’ nothin.
Around this time Nick made a final attempt to quit cigarettes, that instrument of his eventual demise. Not surprisingly, that was when some of the colder, harsher silences came down. The guy had not only smoked for a half century by then, but his public image was built around the cigarette. Just look at nearly every photo taken of him, always the butt smoldering there. He even wrote a children’s book published in France titled Johnny’s First Cigarette. So for him, trying to quit was a pretty big deal. There he sat for a few weeks one summer, grimly chewing on cigars and staring north up Hudson Street from a chair in one of those little bullshit pedestrian parks that litter modern Manhattan, and waiting. Waiting for what? For the Jones to lift? For the absence of smoke to stop pissing him off? One of my regrets is failing to tell him that all that sitting around and waiting was doomed to failure. The habit would win every time that way. He’d have to make some moves, take some action and embrace some prosaic distraction like walking, or mini-golf (which he enjoyed), or he’d surely light up again, which of course he eventually did.
I suppose that if I had to call it, I’d have guessed Nick would check out on some cold night in January, only because he evoked Sonny Liston’s death on such a night so well in The Devil and Sonny Liston. But instead he pulled up just a few days short of his 70th birthday, and in very Nick-like fashion, so I’m told.
Of course I find it hard to believe that he’s gone now, and I sure wish we could still do a couple of those things he’d proposed—a morning of mini-golf on the course at Pier 25, or that pizza at Totonno in Coney Island. The stuff that never happened. I’d long meant to record a version of his song (yes, Nick Tosches wrote songs, too, just look him up in the BMI database) “Text Messaging Mama” to the tune of “Six Days on the Road” and let him hear it. But his death snuck up and surprised a lot of people, with Nick playing his death hand very close to his chest. Only a handful of his closest associates knew of his deteriorating condition.
I estimate that he’d gotten his diagnosis around the time that I had finalized plans to leave New York City. The impending birth of my twin daughters were speeding my own completion of the common transplant/stay awhile/then relocate cycle after a decade in the city. At one point just a week or so before I left, I got a little choked up over something as banal as dropping off to a coworker a potted plant that I’d kept in my work cubicle for several years. I admitted my sadness in an email to Nick, thinking before I hit “send” that it was probably too sappy and sentimental. However, Nick replied with empathy and friendship in what I now realize was probably meant as the long goodbye.
“That potted plant says it all,” he wrote. “That sea of melancholy at twilight, immense and containing all the ineffable sadness that ever was. The unwritten couplet, never to be written, but only felt. This day, that day, the soft breeze and the awful glare of them.
Travel well, my friend, travel well, and don’t think too much, for thought is the root of all evil.”