Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson by Kevin Avery

Reading this book moved me a lot more than I thought possible for a biography-cum-anthology of a music scribe's work -- especially one whose scrawl I'd barely read. Of Paul Nelson's writings, the only ones I remember vividly are the four articles he contributed to The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll in 1976, on Bob Dylan (written in the form of a detective novel and withdrawn from the second edition of the book), Rod Stewart, folk-rock, and Lou Reed-David Bowie-Mott the Hoople.

But Nelson was one of _the guys_, and present at the creation to boot. Born in Minnesota, 1936, he established the template for rock criticism with his writings on folk music in the proto-fanzine Little Sandy Review. He gave the future Bob Dylan his first Woody Guthrie records (actually, Bobby Zimmerman _stole_ them, which he admits in his autobiography, although he only mentions Nelson's roommate and collaborator Jon Pankake in that connection), and quit Sing Out! magazine over the publication's lambasting of Dylan's plugging in at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. His personal integrity remained sterling to the bitter end.

Nelson got the New York Dolls signed to Mercury Records, for whom he worked as a publicist and A&R man from 1970 to 1975 (recounted hilariously and at length in the self-interview "Looking Back"). He edited the Rolling Stone record review section from 1978 to 1982, then walked away from writing (and ultimately, music and decades' worth of friends) after clashing with publisher Jann Wenner over the section's direction, wound up working in a Manhattan video store, struggled financially, and died alone in his apartment, aged 70. When his body was found, he'd been dead for a week.

Nelson was a stereotypical gloomy Swede who had complicated relationships with his family, abandoned a wife and son, and pursued a series of unsuccessful romantic affairs. He had obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and struggled with dementia in his later years. He'd contract for work that he never delivered, a few of his pieces were recycled for publication more than once, and he labored for years on a never-completed screenplay. But he had a gift for intuiting an artist's intent and eloquently expressing that understanding. He loved cinema (Little Sandy Review could have been a movie rag but for a coin toss) and detective fiction, and his music writing was filled with allusions to the former and rendered in a painstakingly-crafted style that borrowed its taut, clean-lined lucidity from the latter.

Author Kevin Avery -- a Nelson Uberfan who's also compiled for publication his subject's extensive interviews with Clint Eastwood, conducted for an unwritten Rolling Stone feature on the screen icon and filmmaker -- recounts Nelson's life is as poignantly as Doug Simmons' 1991 Village Voice interview with ex-New York Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan (now downloadable as a PDF), or Josh Alan Friedman's Austin Chronicle piece on Keith Ferguson. He had access to all of Nelson's papers and associates.

Avery recounts Nelson's memorial service, where writer Anthony DeCurtis decried his colleague's winding up working in a video store, to which Nelson's friend Michael Seidenberg responded, "I think all you guys just get nervous that this can happen to you." Part of why I find Nelson's story so disturbingly resonant, I have to admit, is that I see something of myself in him (although he accomplished significantly more and operated on a more highly exalted plain than your humble chronicler o' events), and something of my father (who spent the last 30 years of his life working on an academic paper that was never completed, let alone published).

And part of why I didn't read Nelson more extensively back in the day is because he, like most of his contemporaries (save St. Lester), was more concerned with the primacy of the text than with the way things _sounded_. He violated the journalistic taboo against getting close to the subject, and made friends of performers like Jackson Browne, Rod Stewart, and Warren Zevon -- which meant that he was able to achieve a depth of insight not available to conventional interviewers. I just didn't happen to have any interest in those people back then, although I can see the magnitude of his achievement, reading those pieces now.

The ones that stand out the most for me -- besides the aforementioned Mercury reminiscence -- are the Dylan piece from the Rolling Stone book; a retrospective of the New York Dolls' meteoric rise and fall, penned for the Village Voice a month after their demise; and Nelson's harrowing account -- written for Rolling Stone over months and finally run in a truncated form that devastated its author -- of Warren Zevon's struggle with alcoholism. (Now I'm going to have to seek out a copy of the the Rod Stewart book Nelson collaborated on with St. Lester, to read their conversation "Two Jewish Mothers Pose As Rock Critics.") You might have different favorites, if you care more about, say, Jackson Browne or Bruce Springsteen than I do. But if you care enough about music criticism to be reading this blog, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of Everything Is an Afterthought.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

With all the talk about St. Lester as the only person who cared about sound, you--and too many others--forget about Robert Palmer, who knew more about music than all of his peers combined.

5:08 PM  

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