Nick Tosches, Unsung Heroes Of Rock ’N’ Roll: The Birth Of Rock ’N’ Roll in the Dark And Wild Years Before Elvis (New York: Scribner’s), 245 pp., occasional photographs, chronology, discography.
This strange book deals with obscure, not-quite-country and not-quite-r&b artists who saw pop music as a source of ready cash but gained no more than expressionist or formalist satisfaction. Aside from Tosches the only writers to approach these performers (the Treniers, Amos Milburn, Roy Hall, Hardrock Gunter, 23 more) have been British pedants concerned most of all with the color of the label on the original issue of their first records. Tosches is more concerned with what god they might have followed—Baal, Beelzebub, this or that Canaanite fertility deity. His syntax is always perfect, and that love of grammar gives tension to his altogether Gnostic themes: what did the singers know that you don’t, and what must you give up to know what they knew? The first thing you must give up is the certainty that by giving up everything you will find out anything. The book casts spells, but Tosches’ god is a Trickster; by and large, the music doesn’t make his case. It’s thin, hesitant, genre: Roy Hall wrote and sang “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” but only to call forth Jerry Lee Lewis. The final truth of Unsung Heroes is not that everything you know is wrong—the case Tosches wants to make—but that the mysteries of cultural practice are bottomless.
Artforum, December 1984