Interview: Nick Tosches, author of everything from ‘Power on Earth’ to ‘Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ (1985)

By BOB ANDELMAN

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: I recently found this typewritten story in my files from July 25, 1985. Probably produced on my Apple IIc! I believe it was a freelance piece I wrote for the St. Petersburg Times when I was writing most of the paper’s pop music articles and reviews. This version was not edited by the paper.)

The Vatican. The Mafia. Hundreds of millions of dollars, earned and laundered. International finance and intrigue. It sounds like a Mario Puzo novel, but it’s actually the setting for Power on Earth, a journalistic work-in-progress by Nick Tosches.

For Tosches, the new book marks a change in stride after establishing himself as a writer of mostly music articles and short stories for Rolling Stone, Playboy, Penthouse (including the text for the much-publicized Madonna photos), Creem and the Village Voice. He has also written four books, including biographies of Jerry Lee Lewis (Hellfire) and Hall & Oates (Dangerous Dances).

He is a man who congratulated himself in the introduction to Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll by writing, “Thanks are due … most of all to me, without whom this book might never have been written.”

He is also a man who began a chapter of the same book by writing, “This is not a funny story, so try not to laugh,” and a page later added, “I told you that this wasn’t funny. I forgot to tell you that it wasn’t interesting, either.”

Tosches’ levity and asides to the reader will be missing from the much more serious Power on Earth.

The story of international financier Michele Sindona (scheduled to be published in 1986 by Arbor House) is a major departure for the 35-year-old author.

“It’s probably the biggest thing I ever tackled,” he admitted recently while being interviewed in his compact, Greenwich Village apartment.

Michele Sindona was one of the world’s most powerful financiers of the 1960s and ’70s, owning banks and companies around the globe, and hotels throughout his native Italy and France. He held the land where the Montreal Stock Exchange sits, according to Tosches, and owned large shares of Paramount Studios and Gulf & Western. Tosches speculated that Sindona was worth about $500 million in the mid-’70s.

In 1974, Sindona’s empire began to collapse. He first came to public attention as mastermind of the Franklin National Bank failure, the largest collapse in national history. Just four years into serving a 25-year sentence for those crimes, Sindona became a central character in the vatican Bank scandal. Last September, he was extradited to Milan, Italy in a unique legislative deal to face charges of bank fraud and instigating murder, both relative to the loss of millions to the vatican. Now 65, Sindona is in prison and still on trial.

“I came across him as the one person in the world that interested me,” Tosches explained. “I thought, ‘But how the hell do I get in touch with this guy?’ My girlfriend, sometimes having the brains that I lack, said, ‘Write a letter.’ I wrote a letter. Two weeks later, I got a call from his lawyer saying go down and see him.”

The two met in prison and Sindona quickly agreed to be the subject of a Tosches book. According to the author, “The book deals with how a poor boy from Sicily becomes the head of the Vatican Bank, acquires $500 million and becomes friends with presidents, sheiks, and Chiang Kai-shek, and then suddenly falls …

“He’s also going to reveal some things that have never been revealed, among which is something which no government actually knows, although they claim to, which is how large amounts of money are laundered. They just know how money is passed from one place to another; they do not know how you take $10 million and make it appear clean … He said there were certain people (still) in the Vatican who knew exactly what happened … He’s going to reveal some things about who in certain governments has been selling missiles to Khadafy. He’s also going to reveal how, with a thousand dollars, you can make a million.

“This is a book about power and wealth that actually centers on someone that actually had power and wealth and amazing knowledge. His first job was as a Latin teacher and he moved up from there.”

Sindona’s cooperation on the book has been “wonderful,” Tosches allowed. For the former financier, there may be no good reason not to cooperate. Outside of courtrooms, he won’t be going anywhere for a long time.

“I was with him on his 65th birthday in the womens’ prison they have him in,” Tosches said. “He looked terrific, smiling. I said, ‘You’re never gonna get out of here, how can you be in such good spirits?’ He said, ‘Nothing bothers me. What can you hope for? To die.'”

For Tosches, Power on Earth may reflect a change in subject, but not in the quantity of, and his devotion to, research. By his own description, Tosches is an indefatigable miner for buried facts and clues. His music books are as memorable for their writing as for their attention to detail and painstaking appendices, a standard the writer plans to maintain.

“I’ve always loved libraries and books,” Tosches said, noting he never went to college. “Something’s always intrigued me about the minutiae, the tiny aspects, particles of so-called knowledge or information. It’s self-tormenting. Unsung Heroes – it’s like a modest book, but there were months of hard research, faded microfilm, going blind using eyewash.

“With the Sindona book, God, it makes the Unsung Heroes research look like child’s play,” he continued. “Trying to run around Italian libraries with different catalogue systems and writing letters to cardinals in the Vatican, asking for interviews in Italian, dealing with the Italian prison system and the international department of the FBI …”

So thorough is the author’s search for important and trivial facts about his subjects that he has a tendency to completely exhaust his interest in them when he’s done. Tosches rarely listens to the Jerry Lee Lewis records he once loved, and predicts that in a year he’ll have no further interest in Italian politics or the Mafia.

“All of those books could have been published with one-tenth of the work. But then again, they’d sort of be indistinguishable. Someday, if I ever write a book about money, I’ll really be in trouble – I won’t have any interest in it anymore,” he said.

• • •

Born in New York but raised across the river in Jersey City, Tosches’ first dream as a child was to be a garbageman, then an archaeologist. “And I was the only kid in the history of Jersey City that wanted to be a farmer. Couldn’t even find grass in Jersey City and I wanted to be a farmer.

“When I was 10, 11 years old, I wrote a novel, which I dictated to my cousin Dorothy, and she typed it out for me. I always wanted to be a writer; now, sometimes, I want to be a plumber … Only fleetingly. I think there’s very little psychic reward.”

Twenty-two years after Tosches penned his childhood tome, he set out to write a definitive history of one of his personal musical heroes, Jerry Lee Lewis.

Hellfire begins with perhaps the most infamous of all episodes in Lewis’s stormy life story, the November, 1977 night the pianist drove to the gates of Graceland, waving a .38 derringer. The Killer wanted to dethrone the King, Elvis.

“I didn’t put it in the book, but I always felt like (Lewis is) so convinced that he’s going to Hell that even if there is no Hell, he’ll invent one of his own and go there.

“(Lewis’s) cousin, Jimmy Swaggert, the evangelist, said he had never actually believed in possession by the devil until he took a long look at his cousin,” Tosches said. “That convinced him.”

The biographer said he interviewed Lewis directly a few times for his unauthorized book, but “with Jerry Lee, you don’t want his help .. He was the worst authority on his own past. He didn’t remember it, or he remembered it wrong. He didn’t even know where he was certain years.”

Hellfire is the kind of story which lent itself to film. “My agent said he’d never seen so many movie offers in one week,” Tosches claimed. The problem came in dealing with a living person. “We had one deal worked out with Columbia Pictures for $100,000. So we went to Jerry Lee and said we’ll split it, 50/50. He said no. Like I mentioned, he’s crazy. Jerry Lee had a better idea, he’s going to make a movie with a guy from France. He’s going to get 100 percent and he’s going to be the creative consultant. I think Jerry Lee had his cousin, Myra, who he was married to, writing the screenplay, and that fell apart. Who knows?

“But it would make a great movie. It wouldn’t make a great movie if it was just Jerry Lee going to church and being a victim of circumstances. I mean, have you seen some of these TV movies? The Tammy Wynette Story with Tammy as the Virgin Mary?”

When he wrote his first book, Country, Tosches tackled a musical tradition that he felt had become a shell of its former self, a cliche. In reviewing the book, Roy Blunt, Jr. wrote, “I wish somebody were making country music that revived the essential hairiness of the tradition as well as this book does.”

Beyond tracing the roots of country back to 1607 and a man named John Laydon, who fiddled “as a man wilde by Fever,” on through a “blowzy” girl singer he interviewed in a Cheyenne motel about Jim Reeves, Tosches used Country to put a blowtorch to many southern music fables.

“Since I was a teenager, I was interested in country music. At that time, country music was a disrespected thing. People back then were always talking about how meaningful rock ‘n’ roll was but nobody said it about country.

“Most country music stuff I had read,” he continued, “it was cliches, myths. People would peg Jimmy Rogers as a hillbilly singer. That’s the farthest thing he was. The guy was probabnly one of the coolest guys of the times. He always dressed the best, drank the best. He was sharp, smart. He was no hillbilly.”

Two of the best-known country stars to be dressed-down in Country were Roy Acuff and Johnny Cash.

“I think Roy Acuff is probably one of the best examples of a guy who is a sleazy politician, who put on an act as a down-home boy, which he never was. He just wanted to take the state of Tennessee for a ride. He thought they were stupid so he played down and (when he ran for governor in 1948) they didn’t vote him into office.

“I have a very low opinion of Johnny Cash. (He) is one of these guys who makes terrible music and just calls on God for an excuse. I think someday, God’s going to kick him in the ass,” Tosches suggested.

Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll
picks up the first traces of rock music from the 1920s to the 1950s and the advent of Elvis. It is heavily researched yet lightly written, including a final chapter about one “Esau Smith,” who purports to be Presley’s twin brother.

“Most of the people in there, I just really loved listening to. As a matter of fact, Big Joe Turner (“Steak for Breakfast, Gal Meat on a Rainy Day”) is on the turntable now. I really love that stuff. I just really wanted to give those guys credit.

“I was watching television, ‘The Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ and it started with the Beatles. Sometimes I actually think kids are getting stupider, they don’t read, go to school, they take pills. I mean, historical perspective has its value, right? You can’t say that anything started with the Beatles or even Elvis. Nothing has a starting point.”

Many of the men and women Tosches has labeled “heroes” in this book were unsung and long gone when the writer went in search of them.

“I talked to Amos Milburn (“The Chicken Shack Factor”) just months before he passed away, Roy Hall (“See, We Was All Drunk”) in Nashville a year before he passed away. The Treniers (“Their God Wore Shades”) are still doing great, selling out Atlantic City. They still sound like they’re 20 years old. That was cheerful,” he said.

Tracking the old artists, Tosches found, “they were even amazed that anyone, for example, connected that the Amos Milburn who lived in a rundown project in Houston was once the Amos Milburn at the top of the Harlem hit parade, wore silk suits, had hit records.” Finding Milburn was “freak luck,” Tosches said. “I had read in a Billboard or something from 1960 that he retired and lived in Houston. I called up Houston information and got the number.” This was about 1982, 22 years after the magazine article appeared.

• • •

Dangerous Dances, the music book Tosches wrote “for two guys that live in the neighborhood, Hall and Oates” is the one he gets the most mail about.

“This is like, frightening,” he said with mock horror.

“I’ve gotten more letters and fan mail about that book than anything I’ve ever done. Fan mail is always flattering, but it’s so depressing.”

Tosches admitted, “I had never heard one of their albums,” when he start the 1984 Hall & Oates pop bio. Obviously, he wasn’t writing this one for love of music.

“Let’s put it like this – now), keep in mind that I really like Daryl and John as persons, they’re real nice, and to a certain extent I enjoy their music, they were real good to work with, nothing like their public image – the manuscript of that book was 80 pages typewritten, for which I was paid $20,000. So that’ll explain it. At the time, l owed a great deal to the government for taxes and this was a very convenient way to pay. You really can’t beat a deal like that and I was in no position to exercise any sort of moral objections or artistic indulgences because every month I was getting a bill from the government that was bigger than the month before. There are very few deals like that. Some people say, ‘You did it just for the money. ‘” Well, yeah, who else is going to pay my bills?”

Tosches, who said he would like to tackle Dean Martin’s life story one day but has so far been turned down by the singer, said the trouble with current artists of “superstars” is they really have no lives.

“Even Daryl told me that. Once they became famous millionaires, it was just work. There was no more adventure left, nothing happens. They’re on the roiad eight months a year, in the studio three. In the press, they’ve always been painted as snotty. You’re that famous, you have literally a million people trying to get to you everyday and there’s no time. If you don’t see them all, then you’re snotty. The only thing that was interesting was the figures, the sheer amount of money.

“It was interesting to see them working in the studio,” Tosches added. “They know how to make hit records. They go in with no songs and come out with million-selling records. But that’s that. If I had more than $2,000 to my name as I always do, I wouldn’t have done it.”

While Tosches completes the research and writing for Peace on Earth, his agent is shopping around his first novel, Cut Numbers, about the numbers rackets in New York and New Jersey. “This is a real labor of love,” the first-time novelist said. “It’s totally terrifying and funny. It’s real good.”

In the meantime, the writer will finish the Sindona book, which is due at Arbor House in December. “The publisher wants the book in a hurry, Sindona wants the book in a hurry,” Tosches said. “It’s immense work, reading economic tracts in Italian, federal court transcripts, 3,000 pages in both Italian and English.”

The hardest part of staying on schedule, Tosches joked, will be staying sober.

“My Italian’s not that good so if I go out and get drunk it takes me three days before I can write in Italian. And you write a letter to a cardinal – it’s got to be perfect.”

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