Nick Tosches taught me you do not need to like a story to be captured by the storyteller.
The writer Nick Tosches, who died last month, was someone I lost touch with but always intended to see again. For years, I told myself: One day, I’m going to track him down. In my mind, I saw myself going up to NYC, where he lived and roamed for over 40-plus years, and there, face to face, we’d sit down together and pick up our conversation as if we had never stopped talking. But I didn’t follow through and now, suddenly, I’ve missed Nick, forever. I think we all have people we’ve lost contact with but want to see again – and that, in part, is the larger purpose of this post. Let me be Ms Bad Example, a lesson in failure I will always regret - but you, dear reader, need not!
The other purpose of this post is my need to remember Nick out loud.
It is often the case that, when someone we have lost touch with dies, we learn of their death weeks or even months later. But Nick was a star, an incandescent light in the vast firmament of the written word, and so I learned of his death from the New York Times.
He was already a bit of a star when we met, years ago, in Nashville, where he was writing his first book, the exhaustively researched Country: The Biggest Music in America (later retitled Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll). We were both young writers: he was five years older but light years ahead of me. I was freelancing and editing a monthly, alternative music magazine. Nick had been writing about music for Rolling Stone and Creem and was about to step over the line from journalist to published author.
It is strange, the things the mind chooses to hold on to. Some 42 years after Country was published, I still remember holding that book in my hands for the first time and, more to the point, studying the cover photo: six soft-looking men standing around a WSM microphone and grinning. Other than musical instruments, the only thing that separated them from accountants was their clothing: all wore cowboy hats and western shirts with contrasting, batwing yoking over the shoulders and chests. Filling all other available space on the cover was the book title, for which the art department at Stein and Day had helpfully selected a circus-style font. I thought it was an awful cover – a lot of people sneered at country music and I believed it would just feed that attitude. And don’t even get me started on the back cover. But then I turned the page and began to read and, that was that. Nick was a fearless writer, and as a reader you just followed him. The dedication page read – TO SUNNY with hot sauce – and for reasons I cannot explain, I’ve always remembered that, too.
What I don’t remember is talking with him about anything personal – and yet everything is, isn’t it? I remember telling him about an idea for a story I had, and how it would begin. “If you don’t write it, I will,” he said quickly. But I didn’t write it and he was just offering encouragement. His gimlet eye and deftness with words belied a core sweetness. He once took me to see the horror movie “Carrie”. There are people who like to be frightened and those who do not. I belong firmly in the latter category. Nick seemed genuinely surprised that I found it upsetting. In the end I think he chalked it up, manfully, to my gender.
Not long after Nick left Nashville, I was hired by (then) CBS Records, now Sony Music. Executives at Columbia Records had looked at me and recognized that a journalist turned on her head was a natural publicist. Meanwhile, Nick returned to NYC and in the years that followed the heat of his writing would fill 15 books, fiction and non-fiction, and countless articles. I could never guess what would catch his interest next. Among other things, he wrote about Jerry Lee Lewis, Sonny Liston, the notorious Sicilian financier Michele Sindona, and loan sharks. He studied Dante but also the international heroin trade. He taught himself medieval Italian, as well as classical Greek and Latin. When Dino, his book on Dean Martin, was published, I thought, what?!? But then I began to read it and all I could think was, how did Nick know Dean Martin was interesting? Certainly, I'd never seen any evidence of it.
Nick Tosches taught me you do not need to like a story to be captured by the storyteller. For starters, reading Nick was no walk in the park. Or well, maybe it depends on the neighborhood. Dennis Chute of The Edmonton Journal of Alberta, in a jiu jitsu-like review of Nick's book, In the Hand of Dante, once wrote, "Reading Tosches is like being mugged."
Over his lifetime, Nick attracted a legion of devoted followers and developed a reputation for, as it were, authentic cool. In the “Disappearing Manhattan” episode of Anthony Bourdain's travel and food show, No Reservations, Bourdain would introduce Nick as “...the oracle...the writer, poet, biographer and truly legendary, notorious figure in the history of everything that was ever cool.”
I doubt Nick aimed for "cool". His facility with language could be breathtaking: either for its grace or because it shocked. I've never spoken some of the words he used and never will. His writing was often dark and he liked to provoke. Early on, I think he was amazed by what people would say if you dared to ask less-than-polite questions. There is no doubt he took pleasure in watching people react. I've read all his books and I wanted to ask him about his use of the word “breeze": what "breeze" conjured for him. I've missed my chance to hear his answer, and so much more.