Rock's Other Gonzo Scribes: Anthologies from Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:55

    The Nick Tosches Reader by Nick Tosches (Da Capo, 593 pages, $18.95)

    Coming on the heels of Let It Blurt, the recent bio of Lester Bangs by Jim DeRogatis, these two anthologies represent the other two most famous "gonzo" scribes from the golden days of the rock press. A ribald spirit possessed all three of them, but there were differences. Bangs was a descendant of the confessional/stream-of-consciousness style of the Beats; Meltzer and Tosches were more urbane and less sentimental, not only about rock music but the culture in general. Maybe that's why the two of them have survived, while Bangs died. Back in the day, they all hung together, drank together, etc., but the friendship forged by Meltzer and Tosches has endured. It's interesting to note that both Meltzer and Tosches write at length about Bangs in these volumes, and it's some of the most passionate work in either anthology.

    Although the field of "rock criticism" has been much maligned over the years (not without justification, admittedly), what these two books prove is that, at its best, the field contributed some of the funniest and most original writing of the era. If Lester Bangs was the heart and soul of rock writing in the 1970s, Meltzer was its frontal lobes and libido (if not its liver, spleen and ever-expanding colon). As frequent a presence as Bangs in the same pulp magazines, and equally responsible for translating the basic language, tempo and frequency of rock music into literary terms, Meltzer's twisted use of lingo was as influential as Bangs', maybe more. Bangs once claimed Meltzer as an influence, and a lot of other rock critics would say the same. Meltzer was the first critic to approach rock criticism as writing. If the music that gentrified college professor types like Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus and Jon Landau wrote about hadn't been so important, who'd remember their writing? Meltzer, on the other hand, could write about, as he said, "wrestling and lubricated condoms" and still make it interesting.

    Having written the definitive explanation-of-rock book The Aesthetics of Rock before such things were the norm, Meltzer'd already become fed up with the music by 1970. However, having been branded as one of the founders of "rock criticism," he found himself with a "career" on his hands. As he is careful to explain in the newly added preambles to each one of the items in this anthology?which are worth the price of admission alone?this was always a less than lucrative proposition. Meltzer's solution was to mock the actual process of rock criticism, reviewing albums that hardly mattered and barely mentioning the music. In his eyes, he was giving the genre the respect it deserved. What's infinitely refreshing about Meltzer is his candor; like the boxers who were ultimately as much a topic of reference for him as the musicians he (sometimes) wrote about, he seldom pulls his punches. A great raconteur with a mean streak and a profane sensibility, Meltzer himself is generally the subject of these priceless rants.

    Starting with his first published piece (a Hendrix review in Crawdaddy from '67, unreadable now) and going up to his stint with the San Diego Reader (latest piece is from '98), A Whore Just Like the Rest is thought-provoking, funny and genuinely original?there are no immediate comparisons, which may be one reason Meltzer's never gotten his due: he's impossible to typecast or pigeonhole. Allegedly about "rock," most of these pieces are simply about spirit?possessing it, utilizing it, sometimes going down with the ship because of it, but never regretting it. In this sense, it's one of the most life-affirming books you may ever encounter. A good example is the piece from the Reader about the '92 L.A. riots, one of the few nonmusic pieces in this anthology (included on Meltzer's demand, according to the notes). For passionate social commentary, I'd say it's better than anything Mailer or Hunter S. Thompson (or, for that matter, Lester Bangs) ever wrote. It's a rare side of Meltzer we see here: as cantankerous, curmudgeonly and contemptuous as ever, but with nary a hint of irony.

    Elsewhere, writing with breathtaking candor about the evening he heard Bangs had died, he offers this: "I'm as ambivalent by now about Lester and the chore of praising him?as I am about any of the rest of this bizness. He was my friend, the way few have been, but so much of the baggage of his life, his lives, reeks of the hokiest rockroll terminality. Even what parts of it didn't contribute to killing him flavored him, and the flavor is still there, indistinguishable from his own vivid stink."

    The Nick Tosches Reader isn't merely Tosches' music writing. Oh, he's got plenty of that; his first two books, Country and Hellfire, detonated the netherworld of country music like no books before or since. The first was a hands-on account of what Tosches called "the biggest music in America," an act of proselytizing that he felt so strongly about he even moved to Nashville in the mid-70s (returning to New York in the late 70s). Hellfire, a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, expounded on the Killer's legend in purely biblical terms. Unsung Heroes of Rock 'N' Roll completed the trilogy, compiling the secret histories of Tosches' honkytonk and r&b idols in a series of brisk anecdotes arguing that, as far as the "rock 'n' roll lifestyle" went, the subsequent excesses of the 60s and 70s were nothing compared to the decadence of the pre-rock era.

    Music writing gets a nod in the Reader, with excerpts from all of the above and with selections like his first published review in Rolling Stone, an hilarious account of Black Sabbath's Paranoid that plays on the band's devil-boy imagery and barely even mentions the music. But for the most part, the central theme of The Nick Tosches Reader is Tosches' own personal war between the stirrings of a dark heart and the prospect of redemption. Raised in Newark, Tosches began sweeping the floors in his dad's bar when he was nine. In one of his best anecdotes he recounts how, when he had his first payday, his dad asked: "Aren't you going to count it?" Tosches didn't, and it turned out Dad had shortchanged him. Street smarts were thus imbued upon him at an early age and affected his writing ever since.

    As a youth, Tosches watched the "made" men of Newark come and go as they pleased, until he finally asked his mother: "What does Louie do for a living?" Mom replied: "Oh, he's in the rackets." Tosches could've easily ended up the same way, but a fortuitous friendship with Ed Sanders in the late 60s convinced him to become a writer. Tosches was also enamored at an early age of Hubert Selby Jr., whose Last Exit to Brooklyn can be seen as a precursor to Tosches' embrace of smut and filth and all stinking human characteristics. Tosches' street sensibilities never left him; from writing the definitive biographies of people like Dean Martin, the Sicilian financier/gangster Michael Sindona or Sonny Liston to the time he pickpocketed Lester Bangs and then lent him his own money back for cabfare home.

    Speaking of Bangs: as with Meltzer, some of Tosches' best writing in this anthology comes when he's writing about his old cohort (one of Tosches' first editors at Creem). Tosches is quick to clarify, however, that unlike Meltzer he was never able to consolidate a meaningful friendship with the Romilar-drinking rock critic: "We had a few things in common," Tosches writes. "Neither of us had college degrees to fall back on, and we were both drunks. But, in more ways, we were oil and water."

    One thing's for sure: of the three, Tosches has gone on to the greatest success. Bangs is dead, Meltzer pretty much lives in obscurity in Portland, OR. Tosches is an established middle-weight of the literary world. Hellfire was the loosely followed blueprint for the Dennis Quaid movie Great Balls of Fire!; Dino was a bestseller in 1992; I hear The Devil and Sonny Liston was optioned for a movie. He has accomplished that rare coup?becoming a rock critic with legitimate literary respectability.