Nick Tosches, the man in the leopard-skin loafers

The author of "Dino," "Hellfire" and the forthcoming "The Devil and Sonny Liston" talks about the Mysterious Pig Iron Man, Hollywood and snake wrangling in Florida.


Rex Doane
November 12, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

Choosing a place to meet Nick Tosches for lunch in New York is a foregone conclusion. Every day he eats at the same table at the same restaurant, Da Silvano. Routine helps to minimize chaos and distraction. With two books due out next year, magazine feature stories near completion, a screenplay plus a couple of developing novels on the horizon, Tosches has been remarkably productive the last few years. There is no time to sample the revolving door of restaurants in the West Village. Go with what you know.

Tosches emerged roughly 30 years ago from music magazines like Creem and Fusion where he placed the fringe figures of rock 'n' roll history in proper perspective. Providing a reminder to those at Woodstock that the party started years earlier with R&B giants like Joe Turner. Long before acid there was bootleg liquor. Long before free love there was Hank Ballard who let us know what working with Annie was all about. Along with Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer and a handful of other noble notables from the era, Tosches elevated rock writing to a new plateau.

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Sadly, few from the short list have flourished quite like Tosches has since his breakthrough biography of Dean Martin in 1992. "Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams" was a big-time bestseller and helped to expand shelf space for Tosches' earlier books in stores across the country. But that is not the immediate topic at hand. Nor is his forthcoming biography of boxer Sonny Liston, "The Devil and Sonny Liston," to be published by Little Brown in April 2000. No, I want to talk footwear with the man privileged intimates know as Pope Nick.

What is foremost on my mind is the pair of leopard-skin loafers I noticed Tosches wearing a few weeks ago when we met with a mutual friend from out of town (at Da Silvano, natch). When I inquire whether the shoes were for special occasions only, Nick waves off my speculation. "No ... no ... those are just my prized shoes. Everyone should have some prized shoes. They were six years in the making. The only illegal shoes in New York."

Like wearing sunglasses after dark, Tosches carries this kind of stuff off. Similarly, he knows how to work a cigarette for optimum dramatic impact, delivering offhand remarks and sly observations through a cloud of smoke, all without a hint of affectation. Tosches methodically alternates between Camels and some filtered brand for the next couple of hours, both packs neatly placed next to each other on the table for quick access.

After the shoes are dealt with, conversation turns to a rare record Tosches recently purchased - a monumentally bizarre 45 by the Rockateers titled "I'm Gonna Feed My Baby Poison," originally released back in 1953. The price tag for the single rivals what I paid for my used Volkswagen. I ask how Tosches ended up listening to things like "Poontang" by the Treniers (a record he refers to in print as a "two-sided affront to decorum") instead of the Big Chill baby-boom bullshit that claimed the ears of most his age. He shrugs. "Probably overhearing my cousin Dorothy's records or transistor radio or something, maybe. Who knows? I might have heard it lying on the floor for six months. I don't know. It's just there."

Nick's passion for oddball records and overlooked and arcane cultural detritus are of significance in that they provided the basis for the inspired and groundbreaking research that made up his first two books on American music, "Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock 'n' Roll" and "Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll: The Birth of Rock in the Wild Years Before Elvis."

I suggest that the real reason pre-Elvis primordial pop music produced so many interesting and bizarre surprises was the wide-open, unrestricted marketplace from which it emerged. A place where any entrepreneur, delusional or otherwise, could grab a piece of the action. Tosches agrees. "Back then it was not only free-market capitalism, I mean, it was really freedom. You were able to lie, steal, cheat and use unpaid slave labor. In terms of cultural stuff, specifically, it wasn't only a free market, it was blind. They just didn't know what they were selling or to whom. These small record companies would put out polar opposite product in one breath. It was great; a lot of amazing stuff emerged in the process."

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Picking out records by Stick McGhee or Hardrock Gunter (whom Tosches bills as the "Mysterious Pig Iron Man") from the morass, dusting them off and placing them in the pantheon of American music was what Tosches did best in his early work. Finding value and merit in what has been cast off by the culture at large may very well be the core initiative to Tosches' research agenda. It has had its personal rewards.

"I wrote about Hardrock Gunter and actually got a letter from him. And the guy's great. He's like insurance salesman of the year, three times in a row out there in Phoenix, Ariz. somewhere." There are also occasional financial and professional rewards as well. Tosches' first book, "Country," is back in print again and is widely recognized as a vital, though resolutely sleazy, cornerstone of country music scholarship. The cover of the new edition, featuring the homely, rheumy-eyed singer Riley Puckett, quickly serves notice that "Country" is anything but a conventional history. While Tosches is somewhat dismissive of much of the writing in the book, it was where he first explored his long-standing passion for Jerry Lee Lewis. Tosches eventually wrote "Hellfire," a book-length biography of Lewis in 1984. It's been published in several languages and flatly referred to by Rolling Stone as the greatest rock 'n' roll biography ever written.

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As Da Silvano's well-dressed lunch crowd starts filling up the place, I crank up the recording level of my tape recorder accordingly before I look over the menu. I feel like a WASP of Pat Boone dimensions when I search the lunch specials for a something I can pronounce. I quickly find myself reduced to merely scanning for a familiar word. I settle on a plate of pumpkin raviolis.

While we're waiting for our food, I thank Tosches for e-mailing a few links for some background information on his career. Of the 20,000 celebrity profiles to be found at biography.com, his is surely the only one thorough enough to include a future death date. It is 2022. "I didn't want to leave any loose ends," says Tosches. I ask if there's any significance to the year. "It's not an arbitrary date. It had secret meaning." I then ask if he believes, as some do, that we unknowingly celebrate the day of our death every year we remain alive. After a long pause, Tosches says, "No, but I believe we celebrate the season."

When discussing his early days writing for music magazines both known and unknown, I bring up the long litany of less than conventional jobs he held before the big publishing deals got him eating daily at Da Silvano. This leads to a story about Tosches' stint as a snake hunter in Florida sometime during the early '70s.

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"See, the thing is, I'm really afraid of snakes," he tells me. "That's what made it such an odd job for me. It was this odd situation. They only paid for poisonous snakes, because that's the only way they could produce anti-venom. That was the whole point of this thing: catch snakes for this guy, Dr. Haas of the Miami Serpentarium, to produce anti-venom (he was the only man to survive a bite of the blue krait)."

As he continues, I'm convinced we're the only people to discuss Florida snake wrangling within New York city limits in a long, long time. "You'd smoke out rattlesnakes by pouring gasoline down their holes and the fumes would drive them out. I did not make it too far in that job. Part of the con was anyone who brought in a rattlesnake over 6 feet would get a thousand bucks and the thing is, there's never been a rattlesnake over 6 feet. It's a myth. It's just a fuckin' myth."

While we chat about some of his other early exploits, I tell Tosches that I can't imagine him ever having gone the long-hair-and-beads route. "Oh that stuff, nah. We used to take a lot of drugs. You know, beat up hippies and rob them. We were just greasers on drugs."

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Later, as we share our mutual admiration of Jerry Lee Lewis, Tosches reveals that though the two have met on a few occasions, the topic of "Hellfire" was never raised. This brings to mind the relationship, if any, between the Lewis biography and the other major biographies Tosches has written, such as the wildly successful "Dino," that helped Dean Martin reenter the popular consciousness, and his forthcoming "The Devil and Sonny Liston."

"Dean Martin was the last living person that I would ever be interested in writing about at length," Tosches says. "He was the one who held mystery for me. The lives in those books are as much about the forces at work beneath, beyond, and around. The Liston book, to a great extent, is about those forces more than it's about Sonny himself. I mean, Sonny's life is there in full, but there are other characters and other forces directly relating to various underworlds. It's probably the darkest book I've ever done."

The pre-publication hype on "The Devil and Sonny Liston" includes mention of a film deal already inked with Ving Rhames as the lead. That Tosches has little to say about the adaptation of his work to film is not surprising. The film version of "Dino" that was to be directed by Martin Scorsese and feature Tom Hanks along with other Hollywood heavyweights is now all but dead (though it did earn a place in the recently published book, "The 50 Greatest Films Never Made"). Tosches comments, "The people in Hollywood that clean out the urinals know more about the movie status of my books than I do." Of Hollywood itself he adds, "You get trapped there; you get a disease worse than cancer."

In truth, Tosches' indifference toward Hollywood might have more to do with the fact that he simply spends most of his time researching and writing instead of looking for his name in Variety. The commitment to his craft will go into overdrive on January 1 when he begins a yearlong hiatus from everything and everyone to work on his most ambitious project. "I'm keeping my dance card completely clean," he says succinctly. The entire year will be dedicated to his third novel which broadly concerns Dante and what Tosches refers to as his "deeper and long-standing passions." Since much of the medieval source material Tosches is working with has never been translated, he has decided to shoulder that responsibility himself and has been taking advanced Latin classes on the side. "I never thought I would turn 50 going to school on probation. I barely finished high school. I mean the whole thing is kind of endearing ... going to school ... doing my homework."

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Tosches mentions the great sense of gratitude he has for being able to indulge such interests and to get paid well to write about them. We discuss the current, perplexing state of the big money, and the increasingly unambitious publishing industry when he pauses and heeds, "That door we opened is just leading to a great, vast sea of negativity." I agree.

Getting back on track, Tosches mentions there are more than a dozen books he wants, even needs, to write. I ask him if it is a hard-earned work ethic that fuels his increasingly productive pace. "Nah," he says, "I mean, I could say yes, because there's a lot of labor involved with what I do, but I'm also driven by greed."

"Honestly?" I counter.

"Oh yeah. If not, I would just be sitting here writing poetry and all the money I'd ever make couldn't pay for those leopard-skin shoes."

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Rex Doane

Rex Doane is a writer in New York.

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