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Nick Tosches (with Laura Cantrell)

Book Reviews

• both by Nick Tosches  (Da Capo Press)

I'm not sure which is more fascinating, the subject(s) or the author, but I had such a helluva good time reading these two that I bought the whole long list of everything the author has published. Tosches is an underground icon if you’ll suffer me the oxymoron with whom we became very belatedly aware in our interview with the high thinking bottom feeder Michael Rhodes. We're grateful to him and to the author for setting us solidly on a course (begun with Rick Clark’s book last month) of once again reading books about music, and we will bring you one a month indefinitely for your edification.

Regarding the volume Country, the first and riveting impression is the kirlianesque psychedelic photo of the blind Carolinan guitarist Riley Puckett, his pursed lips and the whites of his eyes, cowboy shirt and a polka dot tie, and the title: Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock’n’Roll. Damn! I thought, I’m a have to read this.

Country is Nick’s first book. From the start, he was a near fanatical researcher, and an underbelly specialist. He grew up working his father’s bar in Newark NJ, and that’s a pedigree all its own. His early days as a music journalist for Creem and Fusion magazines led to exploding ultimately on the scene with his mindbending biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire, which Rolling Stone called "…simply the best musical biography ever written."

Although many of his biographical subjects have been in the superstar class (Jerry Lee, Sonny Liston, Dean Martin) he is equally at home with the unknown, woe begotten and long forgotten forces who shaped the lives of the luckier ones. For instance, all through his writing career, the apparitional Emmett Miller recurs, a figure from minstrelsy who recorded country with jazz greats like Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Eddie Lang in the 20s and 30s and was a huge influence on Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. Nick posits that Hank Williams’ version of "Lovesick Blues" in 1948 was copied directly from Rex Griffin’s 1939 version, who copied Emmet Miller’s 1925 version for Okeh records "in every accessible way, including the wholly strange yodeling that was Miller’s trademark." And although there is no dearth of minutiae for the freaks of that variety, Country is full of mystery, adventure, and "honky tonk hell" (as the jacket puts it). I've never read anything like it, and jumped right into the second volume of this review.

Unsung Heroes of Rock’n’ Roll is a prehistory of rock, exhaustive and truly important to all those who give a damn what rock and roll is and from whence it came. Elvis didn’t invent the sonofabitch, he just capitalized on it, and his contributions were many and well rewarded. But this book is about what happened before Elvis--Wynonie Harris and Louis Prima, Big Joe Turner and Louis Jordan, and many others who traveled and graveled the dirt road they eventually paved, the highway to hell. All my friends are gonna be there, too, and a lot of them are in these two books.

Nick Tosches’ newest book is an absolutely brilliant novel called In the Hand of Dante. • FG

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