Nick Tosches, 1949–2019
The gonzo journalist who wrote the lives of showbiz legends
On the page and in life, Nick Tosches was gleefully unrestrained. In his early career as a music critic, he often reviewed LPs without opening the shrink wrap, instead writing gonzo explorations of whatever was on his mind. A 1970 review of a Black Sabbath record for Rolling Stone made no mention of the music but did feature an imaginative description of a satanic sex ritual. He later traded fiction for fact, writing vibrant and deeply researched biographies of pop culture figures such as rock ’n’ roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis, crooner Dean Martin, and boxer Sonny Liston. When his Martin bio, 1992’s Dino, was honored with a British literary prize, Tosches embarked on a three-day bacchanal in London. He was eventually escorted onto his return flight to New York by one of his publisher’s security men, wearing only a dinner jacket and dress shirt, having lost his pants and the $1,300 awards check.
He was born in Newark, N.J., to parents who owned a bar, said The New York Times. “College was never a consideration,” and Tosches drifted through jobs, including snake hunter for the Miami Serpentarium, before taking up writing in the late 1960s. His first book, 1977’s Country, celebrated the hard-living stars of early country music. More debauchery followed in 1982’s Hellfire, which opens with Jerry Lee Lewis trying to smash his Lincoln through the gates of Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion.
Tosches “did not trouble the best-seller lists” until Dino, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). He admired Martin, he wrote, for being a menefreghista—Italian for one who simply does not give a damn. Tosches saw something of himself in his subject. “Writing is a racket,” he said. “Sincerity is a racket. Everything’s a racket.”