His friend and lawyer Gregory P. Cimino II, who confirmed the death, said Mr. Tosches (pronounced TOSH-ez) had been ailing but did not cite a precise cause.
In “Dino,” his best-selling 1992 biography of Martin, Mr. Tosches described the famed actor, singer and comedian as a menefreghista, Italian for someone with a couldn’t-care-less attitude. The term just as easily applied to Mr. Tosches, a swaggering tavern-owner’s son who donned silk homburgs, sprinkled his prose with profanity and Homeric metaphors, and espoused the earthy pleasures of French wine, fine opium and fried pork chops.
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Mr. Tosches likened writing to prostitution; was banished from Rolling Stone magazine after he and colleague Richard Meltzer prankishly filed stories under each other’s bylines; railed against his publisher in a 2002 novel, “In the Hand of Dante”; and once fabricated the date of his own death in biographical materials, selecting 2021, the 700th anniversary of Dante’s passing.
He often cited the Italian poet as an influence, alongside Hesiod, William Faulkner and Thomas Mann — even as he began his career in what was then considered a literary backwater, penning rock criticism in the late 1960s and ’70s for Creem, Rolling Stone and Fusion magazines.
Mr. Tosches was credited with helping to elevate rock journalism and was dubbed one of the “Noise Boys,” a group of bold and idiosyncratic writers that included Meltzer and Lester Bangs. “They were all partisans of rock at its noisiest — culture as ecstatic disruption,” fellow critic Robert Christgau wrote in the Village Voice.
Nonetheless, Mr. Tosches often seemed less interested in analytical criticism than in broader commentary. He said he sometimes reviewed records without tearing off the shrink wrap and fabricated the release of albums as a hook to riff off his latest idea.
“I never took the whole thing that seriously,” he told the New York Times in 1992. “What I was doing, I don’t know if it would be considered criticism or even journalism. I was just using it as a rubric to get away with things in print, things that probably would be impossible to get away with now.”
Perhaps his most infamous early piece was a Rolling Stone review of Black Sabbath’s 1970 album “Paranoid,” which began with an imaginative description of satanic sex rituals involving “Shadaic numinae,” “the mirrored sign of Ariael” and a hookah bowl filled “with black opium tars and a dash of Asthmador powders.” The review concluded with Mr. Tosches seeming to confuse Black Sabbath with a rival band, Black Widow.
In addition to reviewing new releases and bluntly interviewing artists such as Patti Smith and Muddy Waters (“Do you like getting drunk?”), Mr. Tosches bestowed late recognition on forgotten and underappreciated performers. His first book, “Country” (1977), profiled musicians including yodeler Cliff Carlisle and emerged out of Mr. Tosches’s conviction that country music had been “damned, ignored and dismissed” by most critics.
He later wrote a companion volume, “Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll” (1984), spotlighting Big Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris, among many others. In Mr. Tosches’s telling, the story of rock was “one of greed and innocence, tastelessness and brilliance, the ridiculous and the sublime,” all coming together to create “a funhouse-mirror reflection of the American dream gone gaga.”
His interest in questions of wealth, fame and desire went on to inform his work as a novelist and biographer, beginning with “Hellfire,” his 1982 book on Lewis. The singer-songwriter and pianist was known as much for his hell-raising style as for tracks such as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”; Mr. Tosches opened his biography with a scene in which Lewis tried to ram his Lincoln Continental through the gates of Elvis’s Graceland mansion.
Police soon arrived to arrest Lewis, who “grinned and shook his head,” Mr. Tosches wrote, “for he knew that the cold, brilliant handcuffs would not long contain him.” In a later sequence, Mr. Tosches quoted Lewis as saying he was “glad” when Elvis died: “Just another one out of the way. I mean, Elvis this, Elvis that. What . . . did Elvis do except take dope that I couldn’t git a hold of?”
In 2006, Britain’s Observer newspaper named “Hellfire” the greatest music book ever written. “Jerry Lee was, to me, like a figure out of the Old Testament, out of William Faulkner,” Mr. Tosches told the newspaper. The book ended with Lee still alive and essentially contemplating eternity, he said, but “it’s the way we all live. Shallow life, shallow ditch. Big life, big abyss.”
Mr. Tosches was born in Newark on Oct. 23, 1949. A grandfather came to the United States from the Italian region of Abruzzo , where Mr. Tosches later traced Martin’s ancestry, and his father worked as a bouncer at a burlesque house before running a bar.
“The things I wanted to be when I was a kid were an archaeologist, because of dinosaur bones; a garbage man, because they got to ride on the side of the trucks; and a writer,” he told the Times in 1992. “If I had become a garbage man, I could have retired by now.”
Instead, he began writing what he described as “reams of garbage,” publishing his first story when he was 19 and also crafting poetry, collecting many of his later pieces in the book “Chaldea and I Dig Girls.” To support himself, he worked in the early 1970s as a snake hunter for the Miami Serpentarium, pouring gasoline down rattlesnake holes. Around that same time, he also took a job as a paste-up artist at the Lovable Underwear Co.
“I had a glue pot, some strips of type, and heart-shaped stickers for pantyhose that said, ‘No bag, no sag,’ ” he told the Times. “One day, I think it was January 1972, I got drunk at lunch and I figured, Well, I’ve been calling myself a writer, let me see if I can do it. I never went back to work after lunch.”
Mr. Tosches went on to combine investigative reporting with flamboyant, first-person writing for magazines including Esquire, Playboy, GQ and Vanity Fair, where he was a contributing editor and once chronicled his quest to visit an opium den.
“Nick has the ability to get completely loose and seem to be saying whatever pops into his mind — to say things that are scabrous, outrageous, confusing — and at the same time do this in a stylistic framework of absolute eloquence and really pristine form,” music journalist Greil Marcus told the Boston Globe in 2000. “It’s like there’s a wild heart beating in this late-19th-century dandy.”
Mr. Tosches’s first novel, “Cut Numbers” (1988), was about crime, a recurring subject of his biographies. In addition to “Dino,” which was slated for several years to become a film directed by Martin Scorsese, he wrote “Power on Earth” (1986), about Italian financier and felon Michele Sindona; “Where Dead Voices Gather” (2001), about minstrel singer Emmett Miller; and “King of the Jews” (2005), on New York mobster Arnold Rothstein.
He also wrote “The Devil and Sonny Liston” (2000), in which he suggested that the former heavyweight boxing champion had thrown his two title bouts against Muhammad Ali because he was controlled by the mob. “Mr. Tosches is an exhaustive reporter,” wrote New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. “He seems to have dug up everyone ever connected to Liston and got them to talk, particularly about the network of mob connections.”
Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
While Mr. Tosches pored over documents and conducted dozens of interviews for his nonfiction books, he said he never wanted to write as a “just the facts” journalist and sought to impart a kind of beauty and wisdom that he found more often in fiction. “There are times when I try to write beautifully, but I don’t know if I’m trying to exorcise my own demons,” he told Esquire in 2012. “If I am, there are other ones lurking beneath, because they keep coming out. Maybe little by little I’m fumigating.”
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