For a few hours on Friday, September 9th, the Jefferson Market Public Library, at 6th Avenue and W. 10th, will be Mecca for literary hipsters of every stripe.
At 8pm that night, the incomparable Nick Tosches will be holding forth, doing a reading in celebration of his new book, Save The Last Dance For Satan.
Nick first gained notoriety as one of "The Noise Boys" back in the early 1970s. He, Lester Bangs, and Richard Meltzer, pioneered a style of rock criticism that sought to emulate the glamorous and rebellious transgressive nature of the best of Rock 'n' Roll. The writer became as intrinsically important as the subject matter. In the hands of lesser talent, this would have been an annoying development. But, with Nick, it was manna from printed-word heaven.
Nick went on to become what I call a bio-poet, writing definitive biographies on Dean Martin, Sonny Liston, Jerry Lee Lewis, in a style that simultaneously celebrated and debunked the myths of his subject matter. Mr. Tosches has written many books. Novels, poetry, criticism, all of them written with a command and respect for the English language that borders on worship.
Below is my account of the last time Nick Tosches did a reading of his work in New York City. He shared the stage that night with an acolyte, Andre Williams, a true Outsider Art author. While the event scheduled for September 9th will only feature Nick, I think the story below will give you a feel for what's in store.
Here we go...
The garish posters started showing up around the East Village a few weeks ago, looking like a boxing match announcement from the Sonny Liston era. Hell, the dual ben-day dot portraits (God, I love a good ben-day!) were enough to draw me in. Turned out to be something akin to a literary throw-down at St Mark's Church's "Poetry Project."
Whoa! One of those grainy B&W faces is Nick Tosches, one of my personal favorite writers of all time, and one of the Great American Writers of our time, by any standard.
So, most definitely, I'm there for this showdown on Friday, February 5th 2010.
Turns out my old Max's/CBGB pal, Miriam Linna, original drummer of The Cramps (Good Got Awmighty!), and the founder of the astoundingly cool Norton Records the preeminent R&B, garage and outsider reissue record label on the planet, has inaugurated a book publishing company as well called Kicks Books ("Good Reading For The Minions"), and Sweets by Andre Williams is Kicks' first release.
Norton also has much of Andre's R&B-type musical offerings available, too (Andre wrote and produced "Shake A Tail Feather," baby). So, Miriam sends me a copy. On the back cover, Nick Tosches writes, "Andre Williams is a real, natural-born, blown-in-the-glass writer, the kind they hardly ever make anymore. The rewards his stories offer are many and fine. Heed what I say."
I heed, and read.
Damn! This Andre fella writes like he's presenting a treatment to Quentin Tarantino and doesn't want Mr. Q's interest to wander for a syllable! All plot, no filler. The rawness and immediacy and pure storytelling flies off the page. Nuanced niceties and grammatical toiletries be damned. Out the way! Williams has a story to tell! And what a story.
Sweets, she of the book's title, is an almost-too-gorgeous teenager when we first meet her. Her tale takes off like a cheetah, starting with the horrendous moment of simultaneously losing six of her Black Panther brothers, as in siblings, to her impregnating rape a day later, her brief career as a bordello girl, to her self-willed destiny as the ultimate queen of drug dealers in 1970s Chicago.
If you're looking for frayed and delirious elegance, a sacred reverence for words and language, and a pure noir artistry in storytelling, you read the incomparable Nick Tosches. If you want to be shot out of a sawed off shotgun and into Instant Action, you pick up a copy of Sweets by Andre Williams.
Okay, so now it's Friday night at 2nd Ave and East 10th St.; the advertised event is about to take place and the hipsters are filling a large room in the back of St Mark's Church. But, mock not, this is a special demographic of hipster. No "How Many Hipsters Does It Take To Change A Lightbulb?" "Oh, Dude, It's A Very Obscure Number"-type nouveau trend-chasers.
No, these are dyed-in-wool Lifers, Boomers and Gen Xers who have devoted their aesthetic existence to the Odd, the Real, the Edge. The dress code seems split down the middle: mild biker/Goth chic, scruffy ducktails or defiantly shapeless cuts, cuffed jeans, scuffed boots, hennaed hair, discreet tattoos, and/or the Mad Men look, early '60s skinny suits and ties, stingy brims, cocktail dresses, moderne costume jewelry, cat's eye make up.
The room, built for about 120 people tops, has over 250 packed into every corner, three and four deep where there aren't folding chairs.
A pretty, shy, young, Liberal Arts woman who represents the presenting organization, The Poetry Project, introduces Lenny Kaye. Mr. Nuggets, lead guitar: Patti Smith division, still rail-thin after all these years, saunters up to the podium and in his off-the-cuff New York way promises us an evening of "under and other worldly" flights of verbal virtuosity and gives an understated "Please welcome..." to Mr. Nick Tosches.
Up the middle aisle stalks a medium build man with a face off an FBI's Most Wanted poster. Dressed in black on black on black on black with a dull copper tie, Mr. Tosches looks like a pit boss or one of the Kray brothers, or perhaps more accurately, Doug Pirhana. After all, Noir Nick's weapons are indeed his merciless use of sarcasm, dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and satire, along with the gift and command of True Poetry.
But, this night Nick is clearly under the weather. He sounds and looks like he belongs in bed, out cold from a 5 ounces guzzle of Nyquil. Mr. NT announces that the evening belongs to Andre and that, he, Nick, is gonna hit us hard with some short and fast readings and then make way for Mr. Williams.
Or as Andre told him before the night started, "You kill 'em, Nick, I'll mop up the blood."
With that, Nick Tosches, in his world weary, permanently pissed-off, slightly sibilant urban drawl, riffed through about 6 or 7 short poems, tearing each page in half and throwing them to the floor as he finished reading. The overarching theme of these trenchant blasts of gorgeous word buckshot was an ongoing and bitter-as-bile critique of the blasphemies religion visits upon its too-easily-led supplicants and Mr. Tosches' own refusal to play along.
At one point, he declared he was "trying to fix what Homer fucked up," and that he was "waiting for an undertaker to give him a shave" with, wouldn't you goddamn know it, "an electric razor."
Abruptly, and frankly, disappointingly, Nick announced that he was sick of his own voice and that it was now Star Time. But "How the fuck do you introduce someone like Andre Williams?" muses Nick Tosches. Well, he tells us, the night before, only Andre could figure out how to put a Vicks Vaporizer together, "The only DaVinci in the room." He quoted his own Sweets forward (see above) and then intoned like an MC at Jack Ruby's Carousel Club in late 1963, "Please welcome every woman's dream and every husband's nightmare... Mr. Andre Williams."
A tall chocolate milk-skinned man, with a face like a battered Bobby "Blue" Bland, dressed in a royal blue three-piece suit, a cockily-angled matching blue bowler, icy white shirt and stoplight red tie and pocket hankie, strides to the front of the sardine-packed room and surveys us, almost-exclusively cracker, bated-breath cravers of the authentic, and says, "The last time I was in front of this many people I was pleading to a judge to not send me to a penitentiary." Swoon!
He then warns us that we're either gonna leave thinking, "Man, I shouldn'ta come THERE!" or "Man, I am glad I went to see that black motherfuckuhh."
Regaling us with his life story's highlights, Andre declared that for most of it, he reveled in "the greatest feeling: being an asshole!" That his long term drug taking, scamming, scheming, drunk-ass asshole-istic lifestyle had led him to the moment when, a few years back, a doctor told him as he lay in a hospital bed with needles sticking into every limb, that the choice was his. Change now and forever or die now and forever. "Well, me liking pussy as much as I do, I wasn't ready for the Great Beyonder. And as time went on, I found it was easier to be a man than an asshole. Being an asshole was way more work."
The book Sweets represents the fruits of his clinical rehab and self-therapy. Mr. Williams went on to thank his supporters and encouragers, Miriam Linna and Nick Tosches, and their "acclommades." God, I love a custom-built word!
Then, he laid out the facts about his book, Sweets. The story of the young strong-willed woman whose "pussy" every other character joneses for, turns out, more or less, to be TRUE! "I'm tellin' you the real!" he stated with stern certainty. He "added some impossibilities" and "equated the characters" in a way that didn't "pull the covers off the brothers and sisters."
He began to tell the story of Sweets, and after about 15 minutes of exposition and scene description, I began to worry that he was gonna divulge the entire damn plot, not a great idea when there are stacks of books at the back of the room waiting to be purchased and autographed.
But, at the precise moment that Sweets first meets her car dealership-owning Sugar Daddy and her "Bull Dagger" bodyguard, Andre Williams looked out into the sea of expectant faces, casually leaned on the podium like a storefront preacher, and said "And that is all I'm gonna tell ya!" and without a moment's hesitation, marched down the center aisle to the merch table to await his flock's acclommades and money.
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