By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
The pleasure of reading Meltzer’s collection is tainted by his confounding and all-too-apparent anger that his unusual and intransigent work hasn’t attained the same acceptance that the piecework of less gifted careerist contemporaries has been accorded. “So what the hell am I after? My due,” he writes sourly in one 1998 piece, in which he attempts to settle old scores with such rock-crit heavy lifters as Marcus and Robert Christgau. (Jon Landau and Dave Marsh get their just desserts elsewhere.) This bitterness, which infects the prefaces to several entries and some of the later writing, is frankly stunning. Doesn’t Meltzer, of all people, realize that being a professional iconoclast has its commercial pitfalls?
Meltzer and Nick Tosches have long been viewed as the Damon and Pythias of rock writing. At first blush, Tosches’ style and attack could be much like his buddy’s: The new anthology The Nick Tosches Reader includes a 1971 review of Black Sabbath’s album Paranoid, which takes the form of a minutely detailed description of a satanic orgy. As Meltzer recalls in his book, he and Tosches clandestinely exchanged bylines on reviews of a Commander Cody album that appeared in Rolling Stone and Fusion back in 1971, and got themselves banished from the former publication for their trouble. However, as Meltzer’s work has grown increasingly mired in cultish marginality, Tosches, a self-confessed onetime street tough and barfly, left rock-crit behind to become a big-name writer in slick mags and a highly acclaimed biographer (his 1992 Dean Martin bio, Dino, is earmarked for a movie translation by Martin Scorsese).
Tosches says he subscribes to a precept taught by director Don Siegel: “If you’re going to be a whore, be a high-priced whore.” (Tosches, like Bangs and Meltzer, uses the language of prostitution without irony to describe his craft.) But his writing has always been just as highly personalized as Bangs’ or Meltzer’s, and it is considerably more elegant than that of either. In the nearly 600 pages of the Tosches Reader, one discovers an adaptable writer who is able to find the perfect pitch, tone and authorial voice to address his subject, be it the texture of an ancient Roman coin, the joys and sorrows of fucking while drunk, or the poetry of the Doors’ Jim Morrison.
Tosches concludes a profile of the elusive mob attorney Sidney Korshak by writing, “The only true secrets are those that remain hidden. The only true mysteries, those that can never be solved.” He is the poet of the deeply enigmatic, and his best nonfiction writing — on Korshak, Martin, minstrel singer Emmett Miller, hell-raising rock & roller Jerry Lee Lewis, Mafia financier Michele Sindona — attempts to plumb the core of men who can never truly be known. The Devil and Sonny Liston continues on that path, surveying the cipher who was the ’60s heavyweight champion Liston, born into sharecropping obscurity, enslaved by the mob, and found dead of a drug overdose in his empty Las Vegas home.
While Tosches never determines if Liston’s death was an accident or murder, and never really ascertains if Liston threw his fights with Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, he clearly agrees with one low-level mug from Pennsylvania, who says, “This guy didn’t just take a dive — he did a one and a half off the high board.” Through the murk, he nonetheless manages to find something sublime and curiously affecting in the tale of this palooka, strong-arm hooligan, rapist and smalltime dope dealer. Tosches consistently discovers real literary light in the most Stygian souls. That’s why he has grown into the champ of his particular division.LET IT BLURT: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic | By JIM DeROGATIS | Broadway Books | 352 pages | $16 paperback A WHORE JUST LIKE THE REST: The Music Writings of Richard Meltzer | By RICHARD MELTZER | Da Capo Press | 592 pages | $17 paperback THE NICK TOSCHES READER | By NICK TOSCHES | Da Capo Press | 594 pages | $19 paperback THE DEVIL AND SONNY LISTON | By NICK TOSCHES | Little Brown & Co. | 288 pages | $25 hardcover