Reading Tosches Reader

I’m reading The Nick Tosches Reader right now, a super dense collection of his writing – put together by Tosches himself, from book reviews in long-defunct ‘zines, to pieces he wrote for Creem and etc. Nobody. Like. Him. I can’t even say he’s inspirational as a writer – honestly – because to be inspirational you have to inspire in other writers thoughts like: “I want to write like him.” Yeah, well, I can’t. Not in a million years. His stuff is so sui generis it’s a fingerprint of his soul, dark and dirty, golden and shining. It couldn’t come from anyone but him. But I can stand in awe of his use of language, and push myself to do better in my own work in my own way. Take RISKS.

I’ve read the Reader before, but it was years ago, so I am having fun revisiting it. Hope seems to enjoy it too.

Some of his writing is soaringly transcendent and yet there’s always darkness too: light and dark, height and depth, surface and underbelly, maybe you can’t have one without the other (Manichean, perhaps). Sometimes he is trenchant with contempt. But his contempt doesn’t become a rant: it remains focused, which makes it even more brutal. Like his piece on the concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden drips with poisonous observations about the do-gooders’ hypocrisy as well as his dismay that rock ‘n roll was now trying to be earnest and helpful, which seemed, to him, to defeat the purpose.

On teevee they showed what the ticket-line area looked like after da people had, after waiting hours, gotten their tickets. It was just a whole big, dense trail of garbage. Soda cans, beer cans, newspapers, food wrappers, liquor bottles, wine bottles, paper bags. All sorts of ugly shit. And it just seems like plain old logic that people who don’t give a shit about so totally contaminating their immediate environment couldn’t possibly give two garboons about a few Pakistanis getting snuffed out of the carbon cycle scene thousands of miles away. What’s all this ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ shit? How come no songs about litterbugs? A person incapable of holding on to an empty wine bottle until he gets to a garbage receptacle is incapable of empathizing with Hollis Brown.

Oh my God. And he keeps coming back to these dirty hippies all aglow with helping the world littering up the sidewalk. To him, nothing else needs to be said. But of course he says more. Later in the same blistering paragraph:

I mean, people are dying and getting bricked out and the whole world is contaminated and this guy gets up there and sings “My sweet Lord/Hmm my Lord.” The total tepidity and quasi-philosophic non-relevance of such macrokitsch is on a par with Schopenhauer’s literary luncheon suicide spiels and Bertrand Russell’s “war crime tribunals.” Think of it as a two-track stereo tape and out of one channel you’ve got all these groans and screams and tuberculosis vomits and death noises and sobs and out of the other channel there’s this saccharine voice crooning nice Lord, sweet Lord, kiss kiss, here comes the sun, nice Lord, kiss kiss, sugar sugar, kiss kiss glitter glitter.

His contempt is as blinding as the sun, and completely justified in my opinion. Also: Schopenhauer? Bertrand Russell? Throwing in references like that in an essay about a rock concert is classic Tosches.

Here he makes a point I adore:

I mean, does rock’n’ roll have anything to do with anything? Once it adopts pretensions of meaningfulness outside that of a self-contained expression, matrical and flashing, doesn’t it become art or pop/kitsch? If not, how come all the psychedelic dreck of the last five years in retrospect, can’t hold a candle, in terms of cosmic epiphany or plain old life energy, to Little Richard of The Heartbeats? Little Richard, via his pure white-energy raunch and total over-simplification, had the power to make people say “fuck it” and turn their backs on their own control conditioning and just go out and debauch and catch a glimpse of the violent, drunken, loving, dancing Universe.

Gorgeous. Lester Bangs made a similar observation about Elvis in his famous 1977 obituary for the man.

He goes on and on, in this devastating crescendo of what can’t even be called criticism and really should be called an indictment and ends with:

So send your loot to the East Pakistani Relief Fund c/o The United Nations, but remember that you can’t be a litterbug and save mankind at the same time. But who says you should care about saving mankind in the first place? A-womp bop a-lu bomp a-womp bam boom. Cuentaselo a tu abuela.


Here’s a pic of Tosches in 1972, a year after this piece on the concert for Bangladesh went down. He’s on the left.

Many of the pieces are frankly pornographic, detailing his crazy relationships, all of which begin in barrooms (as he admits), and many are legit laugh out loud funny. Sometimes it’s not even the situation that’s funny – just how he turns a phrase. Also: he’s for grown-ups. Rated R and X. Get outta here if you want to hold onto your innocence.

In the middle of what seems like a pedestrian topic he’ll toss some transcendence/darkness your way.

1. “We shared, he in his erudite way and I in my unlettered fashion, a love for those ancient fragments that were the wisps of the source, the wisps of origin, the wisps of the first and truest expression of all that since has been said. And we both had dirty minds, given as much to the gutter as to the gods.”

2. “No ‘flower children’ they, the sinister emanation of a generation who only yesterday, it seems, were set on changing a world in the shadow of nuclear holocaust and overpopulation into a piece of utopia and love. They drop the knee of fealty before the Antichrist.”

My Utopia is people who distrust Utopias.

3. “…death-row blowjob of a down…”

4. “Yes, it’s an old cliche that it’s an old cliche but there’re two sides to every story.”

5. “…seedy Lotharios of the muse’s dowry…”

Like: WHAT.

6. “Although I have since forsaken these more esoteric preoccupations for a life, as my dear mum once put it, ‘just fooling around and hiding behind a bottle,’ I have retained the patois of the ars arcuns for retaliative use among the intimidating spiritual hoi polloi of the outer Sephir.”

See what I mean? That’s his fingerprint.

7. “It’s just like last year I couldn’t get out of Ogalala, Nebraska, for eleven fucking days I did everything but I couldn’t get out.”

8. “If you still think that existentialism is anything more than getting laid in Paris and acting twenty years older than you are …”

9. “…merely arcane to the leeringly heinous…”

10. “I am 18, just like Alice Cooper.”

11. “…the fierce winds of whatchamacallit…”

12. “…you never know where on the river’s shores the tides of honky tonk seraphim and shot glasses will puke you up.”

13. “It was like necrophilia without any of the sensationalism.” (This, by the way, is about having sex with a woman when she’s menstruating.)

14. “…arch moll of rhythm’d word” (this on Patti Smith)

15. “…out to recast poetry with the nighttime slut-gait of rock ‘n’ roll.” (again on Patti Smith)

16. “…a communique direct from the Antichrist of all that was politically correct” (on the horrified response to one of his columns)

17. “I realize now that [the Stones’] ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ was welcome detumescence for the sixties, and a surly, languid waking from the restless sleep of ideology.”


18. “Though I never drank when I wrote, I drank more than I wrote.”

19. “He could hear the garbage trucks in the distance, and he knew that dawn, the vanquisher of dark confusion, would soon come.”

It’s that “vanquisher of dark confusion” tossed in there that makes it his. It’s the thing I might feel silly writing, because it doesn’t come from me, not really. But it DOES come from him, the deepest part of him.

20, “Dempsey went mad with the lust that only sadness with its wild black cawings could inspire…”

I mean, that’s my 20s and early 30s right there. “Wild black cawings” is magnificent.

21. “Second, lighten up on the broads. Sure, Jezebel was a floozy. But is it really necessary to have her devoured by dogs, a scene that has doubtless cost the book countless female readers? Why not give her a nervous breakdown, or a career crisis, after which she is allowed to find herself?” (his tips to the Bible on how it could be better)

22. “No, Elvis did not invent rock ‘n’ roll. But he was its avatar, the embodiment of its spirit and might. He was more than a star. He possessed the souls of his followers. Virgins burned for him, and boys strove to recast themselves in his image. He had charisma, in the true and Greek New Testament sense of that word, meaning, divine grace. It was that grace, that mysterious, innocent power, that raised Elvis, the singer with no song of his own, the praiser of abject mediocrity (proclaiming at the height of his fame, in 1957, that Pat Boone had “undoubtedly the finest voice out now”), from the merely mundane to the profoundly ineffable. He could have started a religion. In a way, he did.” (This from his extraordinary essay “Elvis in Death.” And he says up front he was not a fan of Elvis. But he understood the power and wrote about it in a way that feels necessary and appropriate.)

23. “However we choose to look at Elvis Presley–as a saint, a savior, or a monstrosity, as the apotheosis of America’s fatal and garish yearning; or as the final god in the pantheon of the West–we can be sure that the likes of him will not pass this way again… One thing is certain. In an age bereft of magic, Elvis was the last great mystery, the secret of which lay unrevealed even to himself. That he failed, fatally, to comprehend that mystery gives the rest of us little hope of ever doing so. After all, the greatest and truest mysteries are those without explanations.”


There’s one piece called “Lust in the Balcony” about how he and his buddy, when they were teenagers, used to troll the movie theatres of Jersey City – my ‘hood! – looking for willing girls to feel up in various balconies. That’s the set-up but the piece then morphs into an all-encompassing culturally-literate and brilliantly-insightful analysis of 1960s Hollywood movies and how “salaciously pure” they were. Consider those two words together. A more accurate description of the majority of 1960s movies, particularly comedies, has never been written. As a writer, he has his cake/eats it too: we get the picture of teenage virgin Tosches aching for sex in the balcony, and we also get a very funny portrayal of what was actually up on the screen, and how weird it was, and why he thought that was. The weirdness of trying to find a girl during a screening of Beach Blanket Bingo, and how he knows if he strolled into Beach Blanket Bingo he’d be run off the beach as a dirty dirty boy. The schizophrenia of the 1960s.

So we have that teenage perspective (“tumescence stirred the shark-skin of my adolescence”), but then we have the adult Tosches, now familiar with the so-called “industry”, with some perspective on why the movies were like that.

On Elvis movies:

In the thirteen Elvis pictures released in the years 1961 to 1965, Presley sang, danced, and (to choose a merciful word) acted his way through an endless gauntlet of young, wet female flesh–without ever once getting laid … what confused us was that the possibility of getting laid was never even intimated. It was as if there no such thing as fucking, as if all lust were slaked by a kiss.

On the “beach” movies of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon:

Even more otherworldly in its chastity was the series of films … starring the Romeo and Juliet of all-American asexuality … Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Muscle Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo. There was something vaguely frightening about these spayed and gelded California beach creatures, so unlike the habitues of our own Jersey shore–something that seemed to imply that brutal desires, like beer bellies and unfiltered cigarettes, had no place in the land of happiness.

The whole piece is dazzling, and it actually IS what I try to do (using my own vocabulary, because his is so … oops … sui generis). Incorporating personal information into critical essays must be used sparingly, must be carefully chosen, and also – you just flat out have to know how to write to pull it off. I am so bored with pieces that start off with a “here’s my personal experience as a preamble”, before launching into a long piece about being a lonely misfit and how this or that movie made you feel not so alone. And listen, I’ve written them in the past. That was the past. Since it now is THE template, I’ve stopped, or at least I choose my moments extremely carefully. Critics promote their stuff on Twitter saying, “This is the most personal I’ve ever been in any review.” And I don’t blame them. People flock to that stuff. I do not begrudge people their hustle, I am just pointing out a trend, a trend I have done my best to resist, particularly once I stopped writing about my life and my boyfriends here. A couple years ago it felt like every review of Boyhood started with a sentence along the lines of “Boyhood makes me think of warm summer days in the golden age of my childhood”… I know I’m being bitchy, but if you wrote a piece like that, I probably didn’t read it (unless you’re a writer where I read anything you write, including capsule reviews of 200 words). Let’s present the other side, just to not be absolute: Of course: Personal experience is important and writers need to be able to know how to access that. The best critical writing DOES come from a very personal place (even if you’re not sharing stories of your childhood. YOU are in your pieces, regardless). But when you read 30 reviews of Boyhood in a row that start the same way you realize … well you realize a couple of things.
1. This movie touched a lot of people and that’s wonderful.
2. People are clearly not reading each others’ pieces. Because … maybe try something different.
3. A lot of people DON’T know how to write personally, even if their feelings ARE deeply personal and intense, and so what comes out is banality, cliches. They can’t help it. They’re not good enough yet to pull it off. There’s probably, too, a resistance to revealing too much at the same time you want to reveal. People only want to reveal the stuff that “makes them look good” which at this current moment in time means: “I have suffered.” “I was bullied.” “I didn’t fit in.” I am NOT saying these things aren’t valid and that they don’t cause pain – please don’t misunderstand – but what I AM saying is that in this current moment it doesn’t take all that much “bravery” to admit that. What would take bravery is to say “I am fairly well-adjusted.” What also takes bravery is to write about mistakes you’ve made, times you’ve hurt people, times you’ve led people on (even if you didn’t mean to), having ambivalent feelings about being a mother (just go and read the comments sections of pieces like that – anyone who has anything other than “I am in a glow of bliss” responses is PILLORIED. And this is by other women, so, ladies you’re not off the hook.). You know what REALLY takes bravery right now? To apologize for something. What IS brave is to “tell on yourself” … that’s something almost NO ONE does. Everything has to be a self-empowerment narrative now and I find it extremely alienating.

And then you compare those pieces to something like Tosches’ pieces about copping a feel in the balcony all while wondering why the hell no one is getting laid onscreen – it’s just no contest. Granted, this is an unfair comparison – he’s a master – but sometimes unfair comparisons press us on to do better, be braver, go deeper, expose MORE of ourselves, and how we think, and what we think. (I would say too: he pushes you to want to READ more. If you are a writer and you AREN’T a voracious reader, I definitely give you the sideeye. Also, I can usually tell. Your frame of reference is narrow: it’s either just your personal experience and reaction or you can only do compare-and-contrast with other movies. It’s a closed loop.)

But here’s Tosches, talking about the restless energy of teenage boys with no sexual experience, being set loose in these movie palaces, which is indeed connected to his thesis about the “salaciously pure” movies in the 1960s.

One of the pieces I love is his “dirty letters” essay, about “dirty letters” written by famous people. He used as a launch-pad the “dirty letters” James Joyce wrote to his wife Nora, during the few months in their lifetime together when they were separated. These letters are notorious. And … okay … dirty, maybe? … but … James and Nora were both consenting adults. As well as life partners. I don’t know. Maybe people do all kinds of things in bed, have you ever considered that? Maybe there are 10 appetizers for every main course? Where did all this prudery come from? People are like “ikky ikky look what other people do in bed” (not to mention the assumption that women can’t enjoy any of it, and that most sex involves coercion. Women: when you write shit like that, you make it clear you think women like me are WEIRDOS. Which I am perfectly willing to acknowledge, but the difference is I feel fine about it, I feel liberated about it, I know who I am and I know what I have overcome and nobody forces me to do anything. So when you sniff at “weird” sex practices, or you assume that women are always coerced, that there’s no way a woman could do such-and-such without being pressured, you banish us to the status of “not really women, not like the rest of us, not like NORMAL women.” And fuck you for that.) So I read the prudey responses to wild sex, indiscriminate sex, promiscuous sex, or kink or whatever, or sex that doesn’t proceed in a linear fashion, careful and polite, I think “What year is this again? these are ADULTS saying this shit? And let’s not ignore that these kind of comments are not coming just from fundamentalist misogynists and homophobes but from people who believe they are progressive and sexually ‘woke’. Yeah, well, your commentary would pass muster in the Victorian era.”

But why this dirty letters piece by Tosches is so great is that he introduces the subject with a paragraph on Joyce’s sexy letters and then wonders: “What would it be like if we had dirty letters from different authors through history?” And Tosches then WRITES imaginary dirty letters in the style of Henry James, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner. These fake letters are so funny I was CRYING. When does reading material ever make you CRY with laughter?

What I love so much about it is how well he mimics these writers’ styles. He didn’t go to college, but the piece shows how well he knows their work, how he has read all of it, how familiar he is with their quirks of style, their vocabularies, even their backstories. You can’t write a piece like this if you are not a voracious reader, and a highly learned man. It’s basically pornographic, and yet you have to be extremely literate to even get 95% of the jokes. I think my favorite was Henry James’ dirty letter. It’s one of the meanest things I’ve ever read, and yet you think, “Yeah … this’d probably be how it would go.”

Nick Tosches, prince of fire and air, prince of the chthonic forces acting upon us all.

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7 Responses to Reading Tosches Reader

  1. mutecypher says:

    I know you’ve written about him several times, but all those excerpts really hooked me. I’ve picked up The Nick Tosches Reader. As I was looking through his output I saw that he wrote a book, In The Hand of Dante, where “Nick
    Tosches” is a character who steals a manuscript of The Divine Comedy. Since I love Dante so much, I’m thinking I will read that one first. I read an interview he did in 2001 where he said it was his favorite book that he’s written. I don’t know if that was his lasting feeling.

    Have you read it? Thoughts?

    • sheila says:

      mutecypher – awesome! You are in for a treat. with the Dino and Jerry Lee Lewis books, too, you get to see him in longform – unlike the Tosches Reader where the pieces are short. I DID read his Dante book – Dante is huge for him. as are the texts of antiquity – like he says about – “wisps of origin” – and he was not college educated, and grew up rough rough on the streets of the town where I currently live!

      The Dante book is great. If you can track down his article about his worldwide search for the last opium den – it was in Vanity Fair – you should definitely read that too.

      Nobody else like him.

  2. The Dante book is fairly entertaining. His novels are all above average. “Trinities” is his attempt at the commercial brass ring. parts of it are superb. I think “Cut Numbers” is his best novel, but you have to accept the removal of an IUD as a romantic gesture…

    • sheila says:

      // you have to accept the removal of an IUD as a romantic gesture… //

      Don’t knock it til you tried it. lol

      Thanks for the recs! – haven’t really got into his fiction beyond the Dante book (and the short stories – if you can call them that – in the Tosches Reader.)

  3. Bobby Brazen says:

    This is amazing. Your writing is so vigorous and fresh and controlled!

    I just stumbled across your blog because I was trying to recall the exact order of the words in the first line of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. That sharp, gleaming, “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” And Google found you, for me.

    Glad it did. Love this review. Looking forward to reading more.

  4. mutecypher says:

    Wow. I just saw that Martin Scorsese will be in Julian Schnabel’s In The Hands of Dante. I’m really looking forward to this!

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