I just reread Hellfire because Nick Tosches died in October and I needed to pay some kind of tribute. 2019 turned out to the year when I became a “music writer” above all else, and years ago Tosches, more than any author, inspired me to consider music as a literary subject in the first place. Over the course of his career, he wrote about opium dens, the mob, boxing, Las Vegas–and that doesn’t even include his fiction, which I resolve to read in 2020. Those novels are filled with devilry, literal and metaphorical, and have an uneven reputation. But he started by writing about music, first as a critic and essayist for early rock magazines like Creem and Crawdaddy, then as a biographer.
In Country (1974), Hellfire (1982), Unsung Heroes of Rock n Roll (1984), and Dino (1992), he wrote a sordid history of American pop culture stretching from blackface minstrelsy to the Rat Pack. His research was always thorough (I believe he was the first person to identify the early-19th-century origin of the term “honky-tonk”) but ultimately secondary. His real interest was mythology. He described musicians as primordial forces borne from holler shacks, bereft steel towns, and Pentecostal villages, fated to carry earth-shaking messages and ultimately self-destruct.
Hellfire is considered a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, but it’s really more of a nonfiction-novel, right from the preface in which Tosches depicts the painkiller daydreams of Graceland-era Elvis. That’s the first of many, let’s say, unverifiable assertions and scenes, though others exhibit incredible archival work and original interviewing. The book is written in a mock-Biblical cadence that casts the creator of “Great Balls of Fire” as a flesh-and-blood venue for a cosmic battle between the forces of sin and grace. Here is how Tosches narrates the most cliched rock-bio requisite, infidelity:
Women had thrown themselves on him for five years. Wherever he went, it seemed, cheap-perfumed thighs parted, lithe and yielding in the windblown reeds of Turtle Lake–had parted first to receive whatever scrap of garish, stinking fame and glory they might, then later to receive the grotesque wraith of that fame and that glory. Every time he disgorged himself in the mouth in the mouth of whoredom, he cursed all women for what they had to him shown themselves to be.
Tosches was foremost a stylist: He seemed to choose new subjects and stories purely in order to make the same observations over and over again. He wanted to rub his readers’ faces in the mildewed underland beneath show-business glamour, and thus the entire American project. He insisted on the fundamental lasciviousness of intimate human behavior, no matter whose. And he saw everything–business, entertainment, seduction, literature–as work, as a racket, a word he often used. He was a cynic’s cynic, but also a true working-class voice in contemporary mainstream publishing. In interviews he described growing up in postwar Newark, cleaning his father’s bar in the mornings before school. He never went to college. In The Nick Tosches Reader, one of the liveliest collections in existence, he rattles off payment details about his assignments and publishing contracts. When he was cruising at full altitude (Dino, about Dean Martin, is the masterpiece), he was as inspired and fearless as any writer I know. He was well-suited to music in part because he had such incredible rhythm in his prose, and such nightclub crudeness in his worldview.
The best books I read in 2019 all reminded me in some way of Nick Tosches. There was the psychological intimacy and pointillist structure of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices. The scope and obsessiveness of Taylor Branch’s America in the King Years trilogy. Gayl Jones’’s Corregidora and Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot had the same unflinching closeness to human cruelty and transcendence. Maud Martha, Gwendolyn Brooks’s only novel, and William Carlos Williams’s Pictures from Brueghel are both quasi-documentaries organized around patterns of human speech and interior thought. Even the lyrics of Purple Mountains, the record that turned out to be songwriter David Berman’s final testament, had Tosches’s barfly-magus sense of humor and musical history.
Toni Morrison died this year too, of course, and it was Melville’s bicentennial, two good reminders of the fulminating, visionary branch of American literature. Nick Tosches fit right in there, even if he only associated with the type of people who don’t really fit in anywhere. I’ll miss him.
I am a biography junkie. I started reading them in third grade via a 1960s elementary-school series—primers on Madame Curie, Florence Nightingale, and George Washington Carver come to mind. But as a teenager, I was obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll and devoured the first music biography I got my hands on: Anthony Scaduto’s 1971 biography of Bob Dylan. When I moved to New York from North Carolina in search of punk rock, I became oddly fascinated with vintage honky-tonk, rockabilly, and folk, largely because I read Chet Flippo’s moving story of Hank Williams’s tragically short life, Your Cheatin’ Heart (1981), Nick Tosches’s scorching Hellfire (1982) on Jerry Lee Lewis, and Joe Klein’s masterful Woody Guthrie: A Life (1980).
Since then, I’ve read too many music memoirs, “as told to’s,” and music biographies to count. Among my all time-favorites are the Etta James/David Ritz co-write, Rage to Survive and, of course, Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Though I can easily recommend several excellent biographies of bands, particularly Evelyn McDonnell’s Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways and Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, I’m going to limit my Top 10 list (in alphabetical, not numerical order) to biographies of individual musicians. I’m currently reading (and enjoying) Robert Hillburn’s definitive Johnny Cash: The Life, but I’ll never finish that hefty volume in time to meet the deadline for this piece.
1. Heavier than Heaven: A Life of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross
A longtime music writer based in Seattle, Cross covered Cobain’s band Nirvana from its earliest gigs, and his incisive reporting on Cobain’s broken childhood in Aberdeen, his brilliance as an artist, songwriter, and musician, and his tragically short life is powerful and heartbreaking. (Cross’s biography of another Washington State icon, Jimi Hendrix—Room Full of Mirrors—is also exceptional.)
2. Lou Reed: A Life by Anthony DeCurtis
DeCurtis’s astute analysis of Lou Reed’s lengthy career–and his empathetic coverage of the complicated artist’s walk on the wild side of life–makes this book a page turner. Reading DeCurtis’ account of Reed’s heroin addiction was helpful as I tackled this subject when writing about Janis Joplin.
3. Hickory Wind: The Life & Times of Gram Parsons by Ben Fong-Torres
Fong-Torres’s detective work uncovered the real story of the “cosmic country” pioneer’s childhood in Georgia and Florida (a tale right out of Tennessee Williams), as well as illuminating Parsons’s tragically short music career. He doesn’t let Parsons off the hook for his foibles, while giving him his due as a brilliant but flawed artist. (Full disclosure: Fong-Torres invited me along as an assistant on his research travels and taught me how to write biographies along the way.)
4. Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams – The Early Years, 1903-1940 by Gary Giddins
A novice on Crosby’s oeuvre, I read renowned jazz critic Gary Giddins’s in-depth study of one of the 20th century’s early stars to learn about the era from which my first biography subject, Gene Autry, emerged, and I wasn’t disappointed. I got quite the education—and enjoyment—from reading Giddins’ detailed account of the crooner’s first 37 years. Volume 2, Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946, which came out last year, is on my “to-read” list (hopefully before my annual viewing of Holiday Inn and White Christmas).
I know. I’m cheating. But you can’t read just one of Guralnick’s beyond-comprehensive two-volume biography of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. (It would be like reading only one of Robert Caro’s LBJ bios.) The writing is eloquent, the research is deeper than deep, and both books are full of heart. After reading the second one, I vowed never again to make a fat Elvis joke.
6. Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography by Jimmy McDonough
Originally, the mercurial Canadian-born artist collaborated with McDonough on this riveting account of the prolific musician’s life but withdrew from the project and tried to stop McDonough from continuing. That story alone is worth the price of admission, but McDonough’s humorous storytelling, eye for detail, and pure persistence make this lengthy tome a must-read–and it’s much more exciting than Young’s own self-indulgent and meandering Waging Heavy Peace.
7. The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by RJ Smith
I read this fascinating account of James Brown’s turbulent life before starting a biography of Alex Chilton, and the deep background on Brown’s ancestors in Georgia inspired me to try to dig up Chilton family history in Mississippi. Smith’s writing on the Godfather of Soul’s music–including “the one,” the funk beat he invented, is sharp, while the story of his career ups and downs is mesmerizing.
8. Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer by Chris Salewicz
Reading about Strummer’s formation of the Clash was only a portion of what makes this biography a great read. Strummer’s early years and pre-and post-Clash musical lives are fascinating, and make it that much harder to accept the vibrant musician’s sudden death from an undetected heart problem on the eve of his band’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
9. Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark by Tamara Saviano
Saviano spent much time with the late Guy Clark and his songwriter/artist wife Susanna Clark, and this book is as much a portrait of the couple as it is of Clark alone. It’s a moving story and an in-depth look at one of the great Texan singer-songwriter-guitarists and the Nashville boho salon the Clarks created, which included Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, and Steve Earle, among other intriguing characters.
10. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons
Simmons’s biography was published two years before Cohen’s death at age 82, but it’s hard to imagine a richer portrait than this one. She delves into the stories behind the songwriter’s unparalleled work, as well as his life as a seeker, which took him from Cuba and Greece to Nashville, New York, and the Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy. Simmons’s analysis of Cohen’s singular catalogue is exceptional, her comprehensive grasp of his unusual and multi-faceted life beyond impressive.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.Signed, Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy recommended by EdanYannick Murphy’s short story “In a Bear’s Eye,” from the O. Henry Prize Stories 2007, stunned me with its beauty and strangeness, and led me to her new novel, which is just as lovely, and just as strange. Murphy’s Mata Hari tells her life story from a prison cell in Paris as she awaits trial for treason. The book fluidly moves from the Netherlands, to Indonesia, to various cities in Western Europe, switching points of view throughout, the language begging to be read aloud it’s so musical, so dream-like. This novel is erotic (oh lord, some parts left me breathless), sad, and fascinating. Check out Bat Segundo’s interview with Yannick Murphy for more.+ Coming Through Slaughter (Vintage) by Michael Ondaatje recommended by AndrewAfter cornet player Buddy Bolden suffered a mental breakdown during a parade through the streets of New Orleans about a hundred years ago and had to be put away, rumors began to swirl about his life. Michael Ondaatje’s first novel, from 1976, is a jazz riff on all the possibilities of Buddy Bolden. A work of fiction, the narrative line running through it involves his friend Webb’s search for Buddy after his sudden disappearance a few years before the breakdown, through the resurfacing, and then his final silencing on that fateful day at the parade.That’s the thread. But this short novel unfolds, or rather, explodes, like a scrapbook filled with bits and pieces of Buddy’s life. Interviews with his former lovers, with his friends and band-mates, with the denizens of the underbelly of New Orleans circa 1907. A poem here, a list of songs there, these fragments seem so haphazard, and yet these contextual glimpses all hang together, swirling around Buddy. And when the music ends, they leave you with a rich story of a jazzman who swung to his own rhythms.+ Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau recommended by GarthTexaco, by the Antillean writer Patrick Chamoiseau, won France’s Goncourt Prize in 1992. It has pretty much everything I look for in a novel: a sweeping plot, a great heroine, a rich setting (geographic and historical), an ingenious structure, and – especially – an exploration of the possibilities of language. In a resourceful translation by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov, Chamoiseau’s fusion of French and Creole seems positively Joycean. Recommended for fans of Faulkner, Morrison, and 100 Years of Solitude.+ My War Gone By, I Miss it So by Anthony LoydRecommended by TimothyWar is not only hell, it’s also addictive, at least for British war correspondent Anthony Loyd, who for severals years covered the conflict in Bosnia for The Times. In this honest and poetic personal account – no index of names and places – the young reporter breaks some of the traditional rules of journalism by taking sides in the multi-ethnic war and revealing how the high he gets from life on the battlefield is matched only by the high provided by heroin during the occasional trip back to London. “War and smack: I always hope for some kind of epiphany in each to lead me out but it never happens,” he writes. In the war zone, Loyd befriends civilians whose resilience is almost unfathomable. He also introduces us to modern-day mercenaries – not the highly organized and well-funded security details found in Iraq, but gritty thrill seekers from across Europe. These are fighters who don’t necessarily believe in a cause, unless that cause is war itself. The book is by no means a primer on the events that unfolded in Bosnia; it simply tells how in war some people get by and others die.+ Hellfire by Nick Tosches recommended by Patrick”The God of the Protestants delivered them under full sail to the shore of the debtors’ colony, fierce Welshmen seeking new life in a new land.” So begins the first chapter of the finest book ever written about rock and roll, Nick Tosches’ brilliant biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire. Not a fan of Jerry Lee Lewis? Hate rock and roll? Couldn’t possibly care less? Doesn’t matter. Tosches’ style – mock-biblical, profane, and wild – will amaze you:Old rhythms merged with new, and the ancient raw power of the country blues begat a fierce new creature in sharkskin britches, a creature delivered by the men, old and young, who wrought their wicked music, night after dark night, at Haney’s Big House and a hundred other places like it in the colored parts of a hundred other Deep South towns. The creature was to grow to great majesty, then be devoured by another, paler, new creature.+ Water Music by T.C. Boyle recommended by MaxI’ve read nearly all of Boyle’s books, but his first (and the first I read by him) remains my favorite. Boyle is now well-known for his mock histories that refigure the lives of prominent eccentrics. But if those books are sometimes held back by the inscrutability of their protagonists, Water Music sings on the back of Mungo Park, an 18th Century Scottish explorer who ventured deep into the heart of Africa, and Ned Rise, a thief from the gutters of London who meets him there. It’s part Dickens, part comic book, and, as one reviewer once put it, “delightfully shameless.”+ The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem recommended by EmreEmbedding Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill, racial dynamics and the explosive 1970s at the heart of its narrative, The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem delves into the white world of Dylan Ebdus in the black heart of a changing neighborhood. It is the story of a motherless white kid estranged from his father and “yoked” by his schoolmates. It is also the story of Dylan’s brilliant journey from solitude to friend of burned-out-soul-singer’s-son Mingus Rude, to neighborhood punk, to Camden College drug dealer, to San Francisco-based music reporter. The trip is outward bound, but the reader is given the benefit of also traveling through Dylan’s heart and mind – be it through a delicious sampling of the era’s music, fashion and city life, or through exploits with Mingus and a ring that gives them superpowers. Lethem paints a brilliant cultural portrait of the U.S. by presenting Dylan’s isolation, desire to fit in – somewhere, anywhere – and transformation to readers. And, for music junkies, there is the added bonus of identifying endless trivia.+ Conversation: A History of a Declining Art by Stephen Miller recommended by EmilyStephen Miller’s Conversation: A History of a Declining Art is a smart yet approachable account of an art that most of us take for granted: the lively and friendly exchange of ideas among equals on topics lofty and commonplace, otherwise known as conversation. While Miller’s book is indeed a history – including different manifestations of conversation in the ancient world (the Spartans, for example, were known for their compressed, economical use of words and thus the word “laconic,” Miller tells us, comes from Laconia, the region surrounding and controlled by Sparta) – it focuses mainly on what Miller considers the heyday of conversation, eighteenth-century England, an age in which conversation was considered an art worthy of study and about which manuals and essays were written. Miller’s book – which he describes as an “essay – an informal attempt to clarify a subject, one that includes personal anecdotes” – is a nostalgic one, which views our own culture as averse to genuine intellectual and emotional exchange undertaken in a spirit of goodwill. We are either, he shows, too aggressive or too timid to converse about the opinions we seem to declare so boldly on t-shirts and bumper-stickers, and thereby we deny ourselves what the likes of Adam Smith, James Boswell, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson considered one of life’s greatest pleasures, as well as a means of sharpening one’s intellect, polishing verbal expression, alleviating melancholy, and acquiring new knowledge. “Society and conversation” Miller quotes Adam Smith, “are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquility, if, at any time, it has unfortunately lost it.” A timely, thoughtful book and one not to miss.+ The Art of Fiction by John Gardner recommended by BenOnce upon a time, in a land far, far away, a friend told me that anyone who is serious about writing needs to read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I’ve since read the book a half dozen times and feel confident in amending the statement: “Anyone who is serious about reading needs to read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.”Although Gardner is best known for Grendel, his retelling of the Beowulf legend from the monster’s point of view, The Art of Fiction, finds him at his most engaging. This is no mere how-to book. In simple, captivating prose, Gardner lays out his theory of writing, stopping along the way to add anecdotes about his own experiences as a novelist and commentary on works he admires. In the process, he thoroughly examines the structure of the modern novel, from plot to word choice. The first read changed the way I viewed both writing and reading, and I’ve come away from every encounter with new insight.If you only read one book about writing, this is the one.