Great Book of Fire
July 6, 1982
As the world’s biggest rock criticism fan, I have no doubt that rock and roll inspires lots of good writing, but as an English major who married a novelist I have to acknowledge that it hasn’t produced much good literature, by which I simply mean good books. Admittedly, this is only fitting: I love rock and roll because, unlike literature, it’s not caught in the cerebral, self-referential, and ultimately defeatist cul-de-sac of highbrow modernism. Physical and popular, it points the way out of (or at least waves at) a cultural dilemma in which only prodigious feats of deep feeling can achieve the political and economic equality the world depends on. And though it’s much narrower than film, which is also physical and popular, its special connections to Africa and to evangelical (i.e., democratic) religion provide angles of attack that movies just don’t command. Yet the good books about movies far outnumber those about rock and roll, or even American music in general.
Admittedly, this too, may only be fitting: movies are more like literature than rock and roll is. But that doesn’t satisfy me. Just because I don’t regard the book as the definitive cultural form doesn’t mean I buy any hokum about electronic villages. We need prodigious feats of literacy, too — of extended analysis and narrative commitment — and I see no reason why rock and roll shouldn’t be where some of them start. Yet if you’ll pardon the litany, only Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train (dissenting criticism far more authoritative and formally original then, say, Parker Tyler’s), and Geoffrey Stokes’s Star-Making Machinery (a less cynical version of Lillian Ross’s Picture) and maybe Simon Frith’s Sound Effects (more far-reaching ideas than Andrew Sarris’s more dauntingly expressed) qualify. No highbrow modernist myself, I’m not above seeking out gems among drugstore cheapies and trade paperback pictorials. But as an apologist for pop culture I’m chagrined to admit that pickings are even slimmer and more predictable in trashy contexts. And since no rockbooks disappoint more consistently than rockstar bios, I’m especially pleased to add one to the genre’s tiny pantheon: Nick Tosches’s Hellfire.
I can’t claim to be a real expert on rockstar bios, and I pity anyone who can. Not that there are no handy homilies, especially regarding the rewards of fame itself, to be garnered from the experiences of celebrities. But rock stars rarely inspire good literature, good self-help, or even good trash, because rock biographers are rarely good hacks, much less good writers or (heaven forfend) good critics. Given a dearth of as-told-tos and ghosted or genuine memoirs, all juicier forms, semi-pros whose main interest is the rest of their advance glut the racks with official and unofficial life stories. A certain quantum of candid revelation is de rigueur, but the emphasis is always on sex and drugs rather than love and money — that is, on epiphenomena. Deep thinkers need not apply.
Nevertheless, in this individualistic culture (and this existential world) we’re in the forgivable habit of criticizing art via artists, and so rockstar bios constitute the largest subclass of rockbooks. As such, they’ve engendered critical hierarchies of their own. In my view, it’s mainly the abysmal competition that accounts for the inside reputations of John Goldrosen’s authoritative but staid The Buddy Holly Story, David Henderson’s inspired but wildly uneven Jimi Hendrix, Dave Marsh’s comradely but adulatory and rather sloppy Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, and Lester Bangs’s eloquent but wrongheaded Blondie. At least these authors cared enough for their subjects to try and write good books about them, and except for Goldrosen all had something to say about the art as well as the artist. The results in each case are admirable and useful. But while the music involved is most certainly up to the standard of The Wizard of Oz or The Thief of Bagdad or Some Like It Hot, not one of the books is within two leagues of John Lahr’s portrait of his father Bert or Richard Schickel’s analysis of Douglas Fairbanks or even Norman Mailer’s ruminations on Marilyn. And neither are such profitable tomes as Jerry Hopkins and Daniel Sugerman’s No One Here Gets Out Alive (which claims Jim Morrison as a god and then describes him as a jerk) or Albert Goldman’s Elvis (the hepster calling the bopcat square), though both are more solid than Dave Marsh or Greil Marcus would have you believe. In fact, it’s not impossible to understand why Myra Friedman’s priggish, condescending Buried Alive is regarded by the ignorant as the best biography in the field — in terms of sheer craft, it is. Or rather, it was.
Blame money first: most rock biographies, and indeed most rockbooks, are written fast because they’re written cheap — big-advance subjects like Janis and Jimi are rare. But they’re also written fast because they’re sold fast — editors who assume all rock stars are headed for instant oblivion press for instant copy. So Marsh and Bangs executed variations on the quickie, turning out their 40,000 or so words (cut from 85,000 in Bangs’s case) with the alacrity of craftsmen confident of their right to a decent hourly wage. And thus they managed to get cherished ideas about rock and roll into Books in Print if not between hard covers, while most of the best rock writing remains buried in yesterday’s papers. Their quickies were also labors of love — Marsh’s love of Springsteen, Bangs’s love of spouting off. They were rockstar bios as exemplary/expedient rockbooks.
Both Tosches and Robert Palmer, author of another current Jerry Lee Lewis bio, have taken a different route to the rockbook in the past: the pop text. Not surprisingly, neither elected to cover rock and roll per se — unless you count Sound Effects. Nik Cohn’s Rock from the Beginning, a history published more than half the music’s lifetime ago, remains the only honorable attempt at that sisyphean undertaking ever essayed by an individual acting alone. Tosches’s 1977 Country: The Biggest Music in America is pure gonzo scholarship, so outrageous that I felt let down when jacket copy that began “If you’re looking for a cogent, comprehensive history of America’s most popular music…” didn’t continue “…then steal Bill C. Malone from the library, sucker.” Alternating garish anecdotes, many apocryphal and several completely made up, with the kind of catalogue-number fanaticism only record collectors can read without artificial stimulants, Country attempts to prove that America’s most conservative popular music is in fact its most radical. Where Marxist George Lipsitz makes a similar case by doggedly documenting the music’s class origins and consciousness, Tosches’s book is all fucking and fighting and getting high. As history, it’s partial and absurdly distorted. But as vision, it’s hilarious and instructive, a perfect rockbook combo; it’s not the key to country music, but it breaks down some doors.
Palmer’s Deep Blues, published in 1981 and just out in paper from Penguin, is something else entirely — the best book available on a subject that’s always inspired passionate erudition. Although I’m not enough of a blues scholar to attest unequivocally to its originality or accuracy, I guarantee its scope, coherence, and grace. Tracing the blues back to Will Dockery’s plantation in northwestern Mississippi, where in the 1890s guitarist Henry Sloane (teacher of Charley Patton, student of ??????) was heard to play something damn similar, Palmer follows the tradition to its international present with an admirable sense of proportion (except when he overplays his good source Robert Junior Lockwood). Because Delta blues is his subject, he barely touches on the East Texas strain, but that’s regrettable only because he would have made such a good job of it. He completes his self-appointed task superbly, especially the stopover in Chicago with Muddy Waters and his numerous nephews. This is a pop text, yes, but it’s also where to start exploring the source of all rock and roll. A rockbook and then some.
Palmer’s critical virtues have always been on the ethnomusicological side — he appreciates madness, style, and sleaze, but he’s never shown any inclination to incorporate them into his writing. So for the same reason that the star lecturer isn’t always the life of the faculty party, it’s no surprise that Palmer brings off a history with more pizzazz than a quickie. His Jerry Lee Lewis Rocks! began its life in 1980 as a memorable Rolling Stone profile, but stretched out for the rockstar bio people at Delilah, it’s little more than the usual excuse for photographs (many of which are wonderful). Sure the facts are here, as well as a lot of historical background and a few authorial reminiscences that Bangs always made a specialty — Palmer grew up in Little Rock and had his life changed, he says, by “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On.” But he doesn’t seem to put a whole lot of thought, or heart, into his thesis that “maybe rock and roll can save souls as well as destroy them.” And while in Deep Blues he applies his musical expertise to one of the key enterprises of all rock criticism — establishing the technical brilliance of inspired primitives — he never does the same for Jerry Lee’s pumping piano, surely one of the great instrumental signatures. Too bad — I would have liked him to parse those boogie rolls.
Hellfire feels like it was written fast, too — but not ground out like a quickie, really written, in what I envision as a month or two of icy lyric fury. Even at the end, when what begins as heroic narrative breaks down into a string of clipped little items that might just as well have been lifted whole from the trades, the police blotter, and the secret diary of Oral Roberts Jr., the book has the kind of trancelike coherence that has overtaken every writer at the dawn of a specially blessed all-nighter. Basically the tale of the archetypal Southern backslider, it’s been described as Biblical and Faulknerian, and it should be. But Tosches, who has lots of just-the-facts hack in him, sustains a page-turning pace that intensifies its of-a-pieceness. And his tone partakes of the grand, inexorable distance of a genuine epic as well.
Such things cannot be, of course — the epic is of the past. All the oral tradition south of the Mason-Dixon line can’t bring it back unspoiled, and anybody who thinks different is ignorant, pretentious, or both. So Hellfire can only succeed as some kind of mock epic, the chronicle of a would-be hero in an antiheroic age. And indeed, Tosches does cut King James’s English with journalese; he does mix straight reporting and bent faction with the stuff of legend; he does disfigure his story with the mean details of Lewis’s vanity, cruelty, and crazed sense of humor. But Hellfire isn’t mock anything. Without hewing foolishly to the usages of a dead form or trying to write like someone he isn’t, and without presenting Lewis’s excesses as merely cool, colorful, or demidivine, Tosches limns the life of a doomed hero as if that hero deserved our respect, and his. As a dedicated classicist who is also a former snake hunter and a contributing editor to Penthouse, he rejects the notion that there’s something debased or devalued about the mongrel rhetoric he exploits. It’s just there, with all it’s peculiar virtues and drawbacks, and it’s Jerry Lee Lewis’s mother tongue.
Not that this avowed Pindar fan doesn’t respect the past — not even that he doesn’t believe there-were-giants-in-those-days. Like most rock critics with a specialty in roots music, he disdains most of today’s pop, and his Jerry Lee is driven by his heritage as “the final wild son” (Tosches’s phrase) of a family with “a big history” (Lewis’s). Nor is Hellfire at all solemn — in fact, it’s very funny indeed. Lewis’s excesses aren’t merely cool or colorful, but they’re at least that — this wild son has done a lot of exorbitant things in his life, and he’s some interview: “ ‘I mean Elvis this, Elvis that. What the shit did Elvis do except take dope that I couldn’t git ahold of? That’s very discouraging, anybody that had that much power to git ahold of that much dope.’ ” Furthermore, Tosches does play his story for laughs, often finding punch lines in the grand rhythms of his rhetoric itself: “She caressed Jerry Lee and soon told him that she was pregnant. He told her that it was no seed of his that had rendered her so. They lifted their hands in anger anew.” Nevertheless, Tosches never makes fun. There is a humor not of derision of of delight.
I’m making big claims for Tosches’s complexity of tone, and I’m sure not everyone will read him that way. His elevated periods can be dismissed as rodomontade, his jokes a sarcasm, his compact narrative and penchant for interior monologue as proof that he didn’t do his homework. Then again, you can also dismiss Jerry Lee Lewis as one more unholy roller, or pigeonhole his achievement as a couple of classic rock and roll songs, a piano insignia, and a fling as a country star. But I would argue — having listened long and hard, I would swear — that there’s a lot more there. Lewis’s offhand arrogance, candid insincerity, and unshakable sense of destiny are not qualities commonly found in any artist. He’s very much a modern, set apart not so much by the elementary truth and transcendent power of his singing and playing as by his self-consciousness itself. His distance from his own show of fervor can seem positively eerie upon reflection, yet it in no way diminishes that fervor — if anything, the distance helps the fervor penetrate and endure. Tosches has absorbed this sensibility if he didn’t share it all along. In Country, he avers (pace Bird and JB) that Jerry Lee Lewis’s mastery of 20th century rhythm is rivaled only by Faulkner’s, but what author has learned from subject hardly stops there, and where it ends is with that same synthesis of distance and fervor. This is why Albert Goldman’s half-truths about rock’s attitudinal roots in “the put-on and the take-off” are so irrelevant — it’s radically unlike “Mad or the routines of Sid Caesar” because its formal roots are in the ecstatic, vernacular music of the American South, just as Tosches, who is touched with the spirit, is radically unlike Goldman, who has all the largesse of an unemployed gagwriter.
Lewis believes that the source of his fervor is beyond question. “I got the Devil in me,” he told Sam Phillips just before cutting “Great Balls of Fire.” “If I didn’t have, I’d be a Christian.” And while he’s hardly the first Southerner possessed by such a notion, no one else has ever had the genius to dramatize Christ’s defeat so graphically. Not only is Jerry Lee a sinner, he’s a proud sinner, and not only is he a proud sinner, he’s a bored sinner; he’s always interpreted the breakup songs, for instance, as if no suffering would ever bring him around. You win again, he seemed to say — and you’ll win again after that. And what does it matter? I’m still the Killer. Grrrrrr.
What Tosches believes is harder to know. I suspect, however, that the source of his own fervor isn’t second-hand — isn’t just his passion for Jerry Lee Lewis. Tosches’s account of Pentecostal fundamentalism maintains an objective if not skeptical tone. But like everything else in this terse, intense book, it never gets theoretical, never socializes, and though nothing else would be formally appropriate I’m left wondering. Not only does it seem that Tosches envies Lewis the simplicity of his Manichaeism, which is bad enough, but it also seems that in a less literal way he counts himself in thrall to the same dichotomies. Tosches makes no bones about the wages of this belief, always linked so intimately with romantic agony in extremis — he leaves Lewis unloved and without male issue, his career and his IRS account in tatters. His judgement, however, is muted. If Lewis has traded an eternity in hellfire for some great music, you can’t help but feel that Tosches has gotten a fairly great book at similar cost.
As a skeptic in the matter of eternity, I don’t really believe that myself, of course, and Hellfire is fairly great indeed — the finest rockstar bio ever and up with Mystery Train among all rockbooks. But as such it raises philosophical questions, for it reminds us that even the much more reflective Mystery Train is rooted in — and perhaps limited by — the Puritan tradition and/or the Great Awakening, which between them sometimes seem to ground all American culture. Because Nick Tosches, Greil Marcus, and Jerry Lee Lewis each takes this heritage seriously, each creates worth that isn’t mock anything, that connects us with an epic, heroic, deeply felt past. But in escaping modernism’s cul-de-sac they don’t escape modernity, which is why it’s worth remembering that in the end both Hellfire and Mystery Train aren’t epic at all. They’re tragedies of damnation. I’m not lodging a complaint — these aren’t just fine rockbooks, they’re fine books, a lot finer and more durable than most of what passes for literature and criticism these days. But one reason for that is that neither of them is content with such achievements. To the either-or — and beyond!
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 6, 1982