Saturday, August 27, 2011

"From rotgut to milkshakes, do-rags to ponytails": Tosches, rock and roll, and Satan

Nick Tosches' new book Save The Last Dance For Satan is a slim, raucous descent into the hidden history of late-50s/early-60s rock and roll, specifically the pay-for-play, Mafia-greased machinations among DJs, record producers, promoters, and many uncredited musicians.  The book, the third in a new series of paperbacks issued by Kicks Books—ie., Miriam Linna and Billy Miller at the venerable Norton Records—began life eleven years ago as an article in Vanity Fair; in his introduction, Tosches says that he'd always wanted to flesh out the story, and the book has the tone and style of Tosches' best magazine pieces: brisk, narrative, and well-researched.  The 30,000+ word count allows Tosches enough room to explore his subject while keeping things focused and clear of indulgences that have at times derailed his writing.

What Tosches focuses on is the layer beneath the layer beneath the layer of pre-Beatles history, peering behind Dick Clark's smile and Perry Como's suits at the corruptible, corrupted promoters and producers—men and women—who did what they had to do to get their minimally-pressed 45s played on regional radio stations, in the hopes of breaking big onto Billboard Top 40.  If they had to consort with connected men, do business out of sham offices in Chicago's Playboy building, attend meetings with a newspaper wrapped around a steel pipe, or play a song by a nobody artist simply because they dug the tune, payola be damned—then they did, without apologies, and with the hard-bitten, ethics-ignoring drive of characters in a film noir.  Tosches wants to blow away what he sees as the precious layer of Brylcreem-and-bobby-socks-nostalgia that has been laid over the decade before the the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan arrived to get things dicey and edgy again: things were always pretty dangerous, Tosches reminds us, it's simply that history has done its best to erase the those dangers.

The book's a quick, fun read, and it benefits from Tosches doing what he does best: adopting a quasi-hard boiled tone while letting the genuine participants—among them Hy Weiss, producer and owner of Old Town Records, members of Bronx doo-wop group the Jaynettes ("Sally Go 'Round The Roses") and their producer and session player, and Jerry Blavat, aka "The Geator With The Heater," a Philadelphia-area oldies DJ—speak for themselves, in incriminating, sometimes self-deluding, but always lively and honest ways.  The heart of the book is the sound of these voices.  Tosches' well-earned tendency to become a participant in the book's telling is here, but he doesn't steal any light that isn't his.  He's at the large tables in the smoky backrooms where these altercockers are holding forth for him (and for themselves) for posterity, but he lets us in that privileged room for accuracy's sake, and to give us the kind of there-by-proxy thrill that he's good at dramatizing.  Ultimately, and rightly, Tosches lets his generous curiosity about this era lead him. In a great moment, one of these old timers pulls Tosches aside after a conversation about the legendary and possibly Mafia-connected Moris Levy, founder of Roulette Records and infamous record executive:
But alone, some speak differently. One takes me aside, his arm around me, whispering though we are in earshot of no one.
    "Let me tell you," he says. His hushed words are delivered slowly and surely.  "Morris simply could not have done what he did alone."
These kinds of moments, born of Tosches' decades-long and hard-earned involvement in and excavating of popular culture's seamier underworlds, give his book authenticity and character.  When Tosches later mentions his relationship with Robert De Niro, he does so not as a look-what-celebrity-I-know cheap stunt, but as a genuine contribution to the story.

Save The Last Dance For Satan should be a gobbled-up by Tosches' fans and by anyone interested/obsessed with the shadowy, dubious state of commercial popular music in the 1950s and 1960s. (About the novelty 45 "Gila Monster" and the wild story behind it: "There are those today who treasure this record as one of the artefacts of rock and roll at its trashiest depths."  He knows who those trash-treasuring folk are.)  A slim volume, the book is peppered with Tosches' turns-of-phrase that straddle Old World diction with 20th Century crassness.  My favorite description, Tosches at his witty best, comes when he's describing a certain record promoter: "a promotion man of the non-defenestrating kind," a reference to an earlier account of Hy Weiss' confessing to having dangled a deadbeat kid by his ankles out of a high-rise window. Weiss got what he needed; the other promoter doesn't know what he's up against.


Nick Tosches is reading from Save The Last Dance For Satan in New York City on September 9 at Jefferson Market Library at 425 Sixth Avenue (Tenth Street).  And Kicks Books is selling a specially-created cologne inspired by Tosches, so you can smell like him.  If you want to.

UPDATE: here's a great interview with Tosches about Save The Last Dance For Satan on the 9/3 Fool's Paradise With Rex program on WFMU.   Rex spins some great Satan-related tunes, as well.

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