Nick Tosches, Photo by Michelle Talich
The first work of Nick Tosches's that I ever read was just this last year. Yeah, I know what you're thinking. How could I be in my late thirties and never had read anything by Tosches? Scram readers are an erudite bunch when it comes to all things rock-'n'roll, so you've all probably been fans since his early Creem days, and have no doubt read his books like Hellfire: The Jerry Lewis Story. For the completely pop culture set, you will recognize Tosches from his work as a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair, where his stories have included the meticulously researched origins of a screen saver, "Autumn and the Plot Against Me: The Mysterious Origins of a Windows Desktop Image."
How did it all begin? I was at the Strand Bookstore searching through the medical section, as I'm currently going to technical school at Bellevue Hospital, when I saw a darkly stylish silhouette on the cover of a book called King of the Jews. I noticed the author was Nick Tosches and remembered the author's name being mentioned by bassist and Dictators founder, Andy Shernoff. After spending my summer vacation reading this uniquely styled biography of Arnold Rothstein, I was hooked. The work delved deeply into subjects ranging from the preternaturally magickal beings known in Judaism as the Elohim, to several translations of Caesar's famous expression as he crossed the rubicon, "The Die is Cast." These may seem like tangential elements of style, but when you examine Rothstein, the Godfather of the Jewish mafia, then you should pray for a whole lot of angels ready to answer your call for help, and a shit load of luck because "the fix" is definitely in.
Afterward, I sought Nick out as a "friend" on MySpace and happily found he had a page. However, at the time it was being managed by a "fan" instead of the man himself. One night after some Jesus Juice I wrote a nice little nasty message (my favorite kind) to this fan, accusing him of masquerading as Tosches and being a fraud. The next morning I got a reply indicating I should pay more attention and look a little closer. Turns out the man himself had recently taken over control of the page, and so began my true friendship with St. Nick.
Deciding to work my way backwards through his catalog I then tackled In the Hand of Dante. This novel is a Great Work, and on Tosches's MySpace page you can hear an audio clip of Johnny Depp reading from the first chapter. Shortly thereafter Nick posted a blog seeking someone to help out with his MySpace page in exchange for "all the beer you can drink." I won the prize, and a day or two later found myself in his Tribeca apartment listening to "That Smell" by Lynyrd Skynrd and talking about everything from the slogan above the entrance to Auschwitz to the Gnostic Gospels. I brought along a copy of The Bellevue Literary Review as an offering, and left with, as he called it, a "bum-sized bottle" of scotch whiskey.
So now, after hoarding my favorite pen-pal for almost a year, it occurred to me that before either he or I get hit by cement truck (or a bicycle messenger), that you faithful Scram readers deserve a little Q & A. So here we go…
MB: The first book of yours I read was King of the Jews, about Arnold Rothstein, which featured the heady days of horseracing at Saratoga and the infamous "fixing" of the World Series. How can good-hearted sports gamblers get a fair shake if so many of these games/races may be fixed, and what sports do you get satisfaction from watching?
NT: Chariot races were probably fixed. It's just another aspect that needs to be factored into gambling when the bet goes down. It's sometimes intrinsic to the aleatory process. Mathematicians talk about the stochastic nature of gambling, the random-probability distributions or patterns inherent in it. But it's not always a stochastic helix. For the gambler it can be a double helix, a double stochastic helix: the random-probability-pattern helix and the helix of the fix, which cancels out the other helix for the very, very few who are aware of it, but which only compounds the stochastic quandary for the vaster many, the outside-dope gamblers. It's as they say, "fair" is where the hicks go to see the pigs race.
I sometimes get satisfaction from watching professional football, both the NFL and soccer, and sometimes from watching a good horse-race.
MB: Is sobriety the new drug? My relatives take presciption drugs like oxycontin and percoset. Am I an idiot for not shaving a few pills off the top? What gives you satisfaction?
NT: If you define sobriety as a state of calm and clarity, I don't see too many people out there who are sober. The world's on speed. I'm not necessarily talking about meth. Sure, there are people out there shooting, snorting, and popping speed, washing it down with Red Bull or whatever. But even those who aren't seem to be spun out on some sort of culturally and cerebrally induced adrenalin overload. All these people jittering blindly down the street jabbering into cellphones. If a drunken, drug-addicted fool gets off the booze and the shit, he or she is still a fool, a sober fool maybe, but still a fool.
No, you're not a fool for not shaving a few of those pills off the top. Though, even if you didn't put them down your own gullet, you could probably make a few bucks off them.
Through the years I have been called both an alcoholic and a drug-abuser by various characters, both doctors and people who didn't try to pick up members of the target sex by sticking stethoscopes in their breast pockets like foulards. Whatever. The truth is I get the most satisfaction from being clear and lucid--what I've defined as sober--and alcohol and hard drugs can never be a part of that. Never. But I also derive satisfaction from getting fucked-up, wading in oblivion, getting drunk and maybe snorting a little smack every once in a while, maybe a few times a year. There's a price to pay for that, however, and I'm not talking in terms of dollars but in terms of physical and psychic after-effects. Calm and clarity are free, and if you can lead yourself to them, they in turn lead to further freedom, true freedom. I also enjoy one or two glasses of good wine now and then, a glass or two of really good wine, which doesn't interfere with the calm and the clarity. Cheval Blanc. Margaux. Haut-Brion. If you want to get in my good graces, give me a bottle of any of those. I enjoy reefer sometimes, but I smoke it only very rarely. Lately my favorite cocktail, taken in solitude when circumstances grant me some time to relax, is a glass of cold milk and a Valium. My favorite drug is opium--real opium, good opium--but you can't get it, not in this part of the world. So, yeah, I get my greatest satisfaction from calm and clarity, which, like opium, are hard to come by.
Nick Tosches with Opium Master Chiang
MB: What music gives you satisfaction from listening to these days?
NT: I listen to Bach cello suites. Only his cello suites. The rest of his shit: fuck it. A little Arvo Part. A lot of rock 'n' roll, mostly old stuff. I've got a playlist of sixty-five of my favorite rock-'n'-roll songs, Nick's Picks, on my computer. Another playlist of thirty-five Stones songs. Another of twenty-six Dylan songs. I listen to whatever I want to hear at any given moment, whatever the breezes lead me to, whatever the demons demand.
MB: Who are your literary influences? Can you touch on your relationships with other journalists as well, e.g. Hunter Thompson, Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer.
NT: My literary influences are, off the top of my head and in no particular order, Hesiod, Sappho, Christopher Marlowe, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Charles Olson, and God knows who else.
I never really knew Hunter.
Lester was a lost soul. If he wasn't such a pain in the ass, I would have felt more sorry for him than I did. De mortuis nil nisi bonum…
Richard is one of the most brilliant characters around. We haven't spoken much in the last few years, but that's only because he now lives far away and I've become increasingly telephonophobic. Whether we talk or not, he's still like a brother to me, and I love him. We went through a lot together: the best of it, the worst of it, and everything in between.
MB: You like Obama, but don't you think that in the down and dirty world of politics that a two-faced hypocrite like Hillary Clinton is the best one to handle the snakes of Washington considering she is one? Which socio-political philosophy gives you the most satisfaction?
NT: "Like" is maybe too strong a word, but, yeah, O.K., let's go with it. That said, I like Obama only because I so dislike the other two lying assholes. We need some new lying-asshole blood. Not that it will do much good: this country's had it. But, speaking of old songs, don't start me talking. And no, Hillary Clinton is not my hypocrite of choice. She is indeed one of the snakes, but she will not "handle" them in any way that is beneficial to anyone but her and them. But people are so fucking stupid that the whole situation is hopeless. Working-class flotskies in the sticks actually believe she's on their side, one of them. I don't know who should be shot first, her or them. Fuck it.
MB: I originally believed your name was pronounced TOE-sches until we met and learned it is pronounced TAH-sches. What is the origin of your name?
NT: The name is Italian, with distant roots in ancient Albania, across the Adriatic from Puglia, the only place in the world--in particular the village of Casalvecchio di Puglia--where my family name is common. My grandfather came to New York from that village in the late nineteenth century. In Italy the name is pronounced TAH-skes, because in Italian "ch" is a "k" sound. Here, though, yeah, it sort of rhymes with "washes," or with the last two syllables of "galoshes." That's how I've always pronounced it, anyway. Some people who have known me for thirty years still fuck it up. I think I would sell more books if I had a more easily pronounceable name.
MB: The Pope was recently here and briefly apologized for the pedophile debacle. Recently 400+ children were taken from a religious compound in Texas under suspicion of sexual abuse. From Babylon to Boston humans don't ever seem able to get enough satisfaction from sex to just call it a day. Can you talk about what satisfaction you've derived from sex and about humanity's inability to get sexual satisfaction?
NT: Fuck the pope and fuck the rest of humanity. I have derived great and beautiful satisfaction from sex in my life. Lately, I'm getting old, and there's not so much of it in my days or nights. My prick has moods of it own and goes on strike whenever it wants. And I've tired of the obligatory conversational preludes, and grown sort of jaded with the whole routine. These days, I'd rather have sex with a pretty girl's legs, and even then only if the legs are exceptional, rather than the usual stuff. As the spirit of Aphrodite once whispered to me: gams are the one true god.
I wrote a song called "I'm in Love with Your Knees." I remember unsettling some girl one night, telling her over dinner, "I prefer not to make love to the whole woman." Sometimes I have more fun fucking with people than fucking them.
The other day I collided with a messenger in Times Square because we had both turned to stare at the same pair of legs while continuing to walk across the street.
What kinds of food and what beverages do you get satisfaction from consuming?
NT: Any food that tastes good and doesn't make me feel bad afterward. No: simply any food that tastes good. Water is my favorite drink, then wine, the wine I was talking about before. I derive the most satisfaction from pork. I cook pork better than anybody else in the world. Pork beats all meat. I like a good steak. All sorts of fish. Everything. I'm an omnivore. You have to eat the flesh of your lessers.
MB: George Carlin once said the meaning of life was Plastic. Robert Anton Wilson said that the meaning of life was for the Universe to be able and see itself. What is your belief or beliefs about the meaning of life? What is the meaning of life and where/how/when do you get the most satisfaction out of life?
Nick Tosches, Coney Island, Photo by Frank Fortunato.
NT: It is human arrogance to feel that there can be any great depth of meaning in something as finite and fleeting as life. But if they're into this shit, I would suggest that people look to the original teachings of Ch'an Buddhism, and, maybe even more so, to those lines in the Gospel of Thomas: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." When we figure out what this "what" is, we're there, we're free.
As to where, how, and when I get the most satisfaction out of life, man, the list is too long. When I'm right with it, it's right with me. Sitting on the couch with a smoke and a cup of coffee. Lost in a storm in an unknown distant land. Loving. Being loved. Sitting on a busted fucking bench watching a bunch of stupid fucking pigeons. Colliding with that guy in Times Square the other day and ending up laughing. Walking down the street, seeing the sky subtly change. Feeling the immense blessing, the great gift, of every fucking breath. Pork chops with sauteed onions and potatoes. Everything. When I'm right, it's right. To wait for it to work the other way around is a sucker's racket.