Saturday, August 01, 2009

Taking down Tosches

OK, Tosches, you asked for this one.

There's a school of popular-culture writing which comes out of the great rock criticism of the late '60s/early '70s: people like Greil Marcus, Bob Christgau, the great Langdon Winner, the even greater Ellen Willis, and that wonderful, beautiful, Bukowskian Detroit trash-saint Lester Bangs, about whom I've written elsewhere. Most of these guys were fans first (and, in Bangs's case, last well) who subsequently realized that they might be able to make a buck writing what they thought about music they were listening to anyway. The smarter and more pedestrian ones (Dave Marsh, Marcus, Christgau as the worst offender) realized that you could make more bucks if you dressed-up your essential fandom-style writing with relatively high-flown and abstract theoretical constructs. Over the decades, the ones who didn't burn out or die (like Bangs) or go on to other things, were able to parlay this essential fog-and-pomposity (thanks, Quantzalcoatl) into long-running high-dollar columns (Christgau) or even university appointments. Not all the writing was good, a lot of it was pretentious, much of it was musically illiterate, but at least most of it proceeded from a very sincere love for popular music and a solid conviction that it was good art. And for that they should be commended.

A particularly New Yawk version of that comes from people like New York's Nick Tosches. Tosches is a lot better-read than some of his colleagues, and he, like Bangs, can make language perform remarkable rhetorical loop-the-loops: prolixity is a valuable skill when (a) you don't really know anything technical about the music you're reviewing and/or (b) you're getting paid by the word. Tosches wrote some fantastic stuff about various rock artists in the Seventies--one of his most notorious pieces is an ode to masturbation and Van Morrison in the Marcus collection Stranded--but he's also done biographies and literary essays on people like Dean Martin, Sonny Liston, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and an absolutely magnificent early collection called Country--still his most consistent piece of great writing. He's at his best when he's "riffing" (to use Marcus's term for the same technique, which he stole from Tosches) across the cognitive landscape of American myth, legend, and popular culture. He's not really a "scholar"--he's way too dependent upon "researchers" (that is, the people who actually dig up the facts that he riffs upon) for that--as much as he's an essayist: someone who, like Faulkner or Joyce or Dylan, simply has the ability to put words together in the magic-realist, incantatory fashion that makes them dance off the page and into the reader's mind. It's a skill that's shared by a lot of street people and people who live near the streets: a skill that New Yorkers from Lenny Bruce to Frank McCourt (rest his soul) have almost always had.

New York is a walking culture--the very best way to see the island is by foot and subway, and the very worst is from behind the wheel of a car--and so ever since the 18th century, it's meant that New Yorkers of all ages, classes, races, and perspectives have bumped shoulders on the street and in the bars. The great New York literati (from Bruce to McCourt to Tosches to Dylan Thomas and so on) have understood this, have avoided the automobile, and have relished the bumping-shoulders contact and the conversations that emerge from it. It's where Tosches, and his spiritual step-son Anthony Bourdain (Bourdain is basically what you get when you cross Hunter Thompson and Tosches--an indebtedness Tony admits), get their language and their world-view.

On the other hand: back in the day when I actually wrote a lot of information-supplying helpful messages to Internet music discussion lists--a habit I've since largely sworn off, as Mencken's "ninety percent of everything is crap" and my "ninety-FIVE percent of everything on the Internet is crap" advises--I would always make a point of excising my academic signature file from those posts. Because I learned, quickly enough, that--especially in the forums I hung out in--the mere presence of an academic .sig file, or of advanced-degree letters after your name, was enough to provoke all kinds of snotty "oh, so you think you actually *know* something, Professor Asshole?!?" reactions.

In the case of the Irish musicians and the blues musicians, this kind of makes sense, because both groups have been treated particularly badly, over the years, by pompous academics who wanted to treat them as primitifs or worse. Colonialism, classism, ethnocentrism: you name it, the academic study of vernacular musics has been riddled with all of 'em. And, the reality is that, in the musical worlds I occupy, the degrees don't--and shouldn't--mean shit: what should matter is the quality of the understanding and of the playing ability, and the degrees are no proof of that. So I just learned to leave-off the letters after my name. And it's actually a good discipline: teaches you to make your points without the presumption that you know better than someone else.

But, on the other hand, it gets really fucking tiresome to hear/read people who don't know about the academic world except and until they DO think they know that academics are all one way or another. I don't doubt for a minute that lots of academics are loudmouthed self-righteous blowhards who are usually treated as entirely unresponsible for any asinine words they express or actions they take (Ward Churchill comes to mind here), but just because they're easy targets for over-generalizations doesn't make those generalizations any truer in the specific. I don't like it when Parker does it--and, Jesus, he got a PhD in Raymond Chandler: how much could he have suffered at the hands of academics, for Christ's sake?!?

And I don't like it when Tosches does it either. His Where Dead Voices Gather is a beautiful, beautiful piece of writing, which captures the seductive historical aroma of the early cylinder-and-78s period, the beautiful period when, as Ciaran Carson quotes Karajan, "everything was gaslight." So there are certain passages, about the doomed, just-too-late-for-stardom, pre-talkies "man with the clarinet voice" Emmett Miller, where Tosches just takes flight:

"A hillbilly string band calling themselves the Georgia Crackers had recorded six songs for Okeh in Atlanta in 1927, the year before Miller's first Georgia Crackers session in New York. In its own rough-hewn way, this hillbilly string band, from predominantly black Hancock County in central Georgia, echoed the same sources that informed their more sophisticated contemporary Jimmie Rogers and his black counterparts: those motes of vaudeville, minstrelsy, and the black songster tradition aswirl in the effulgence of that beautiful thievery that in the hands of one became the blues, in the hands of another country music. It was the nineteenth-century fiddle-based string bands, black and white, through which the mongrel motes swirled. It was the symbiosis and synergy and estuary of those nineteenth-century fiddle-based string bands, black and white, that brought forth, simultaneously, before the ascendancy of the guitar, what came to be called the blues and country music. It was the music of those fiddle-based string bands, black and white, that was the true indigenous and autochthonous sound of the nineteenth-century South, mother and wild bride and fickle daughter, enticer and enticed of all that swirled, of that eventual bastard song, neither black nor white, both black and white, of the midnight bottomland crossroads and the great lighted dazzling of Broadway alike. It was the likes of Emmett Miller and others that haunted both commingled midnights."
The absolute transcendent version of this, of course, is his virtuoso carnival sideshow razzle-dazzle tracing of "Cabbage Head" by Dr John, all the way back from New Orleans, to the Child ballad "Seven Nights Drunk," to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, all the way back to Homer, and maybe back further than that. After a while, it starts to feel a little like too much brandy: it's sweet, and intoxicating, but after a while you start to wish for a little more nutrition and a little less intoxicant.

But I'll give him that: the world of literature is big enough for brandy and whiskey and oatmeal stout and all. But sooner or later he's going to have to stop talking smack like this:
"There are no academic blues. There are no academic trughts. There are no academics in really sharp suits or fine snap-brim hats. Academic studies, the pus of the cerebrum in captivity, are nothing more than what Big Joe Turner, in a song title and lyric of 1941, referred to as 'Chewed Up Grass'; that is to say, bullshit."
There are sure-god a lot of academics who deserve this accusation, but the presumption that no academic had, or has, any existence outside the musty groves of self-indulgent masturbatory rhetoric, is phony, and cheap. And it proceeds from, at root, Tosches's awareness (just like that of Christgau, and Bob Parker, and Greil Marcus, and all the rest of them) that it's possible to be both of the street and of the ivory tower. Some of us can--and did--hang in Hell's Kitchen and the Bowery, and still dug ourselves out, and up, in to the ivory tower. More: some of us can still move in both those worlds. More: some of us have made our life's work out of fighting the battles (old joke: "the reason that academic turf battles are so merciless is because the stakes are so small) that would bridge the divide between those two worlds.

And that is the shit that Tosches and his ilk are really carping about. They don't really hate academics--they hate that there's a way of knowing out there that they know, deep down, might actually have value, and that they don't have.

Unless he wants to say it me: ex-biker, ex-bouncer, ex-oil field roughneck, ex-cook, ex-carpenter, earned doctorate, tenured academic professor. You want some home truths, Tosches? I got 'em right here, baby. You decide ever to come back from the Solomon Islands and get on a podium with me, we'll see who can walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

Aw, hell.

It's still OK with me. Tosches can write like a dark angel, and his prose comes dancing off the page like St John of the Cross (another good Catholic boy who'd lost his faith). That's enough--I'm not gonna demand scholarly rigor from someone who traffics in a different coin.


masbrow said...

Nice one, Chris!

drbombay said...

One thing is certain though, Tosches is a far more interesting writer than you are.

Christopher said...

I just laughed out loud.