Paul Nelson had an unabashed passion for the music, cinema and literature he loved. His immersion in the culture of rock and roll and affinity for its creators made him more than just an observer. He didn’t sit outside of the music, he lived in it. If it’s possible for a writer to be embedded in rock and roll, Nelson was embedded. From his early days as co-founder, editor and writer of the rootsy The Little Sandy Review and his influence on a young Bob Dylan, to his days as a contributor and editor at Rolling Stone magazine and A&R man at Mercury Records (he signed the New York Dolls), Nelson did more than chronicle the musical landscape of several decades, he helped define it. I can only think of a handful of music critics who had the intensely personal relationship to what they wrote about that Paul did - Lester Bangs, Robert Palmer, Chris D. and Nick Kent come to mind, though Paul was very much his own man with his own distinctive style and point of view.
Paul forged friendships with Dylan (see the video below), Warren Zevon, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne, Rod Stewart, The New York Dolls, Clint Eastwood, hardboiled novelist Ross McDonald, among many other iconic figures in music, literature and cinema. He managed to do it by being as serious in writing about pop culture as the artists who were creating it. He shared his life and thoughts (which were basically steeped in movies, music and books) with the people he covered, built bridges of trust, and ended up being the kind of guy who writers and performers listened to, confided in and, when Paul was going through his own personal hell, rescued.
Nelson never became as well-known among rock fans as many of his peers, mainly because he was just too damned tough on himself as a writer and as a result wasn’t very productive. But what he did write is generally considered to be some of the best to ever appear on the pages of Rolling Stone. And when he couldn’t write at the level he expected of himself he just stopped. But while he was writing, he was as they say, a critic’s critic, admired by some of the best essayists, reviewers and thinkers in both music and film. Mikal Gilmore, Greil Marcus and Nick Tosches, Jay Cocks, Eastwood, among many, were big supporters of Nelson and, in the end, many were coming to his aid as he struggled with poverty, poor health and depression.
Paul didn’t sell his soul for rock and roll, but he may have pawned his heart.
Kevin Avery’s biography of Paul Nelson, Everything Is An Afterthought, The Life And Writings Of Paul Nelson, combines Avery’s reverent, engrossing and richly detailed depiction of Nelson’s life with interviews with the musicians, filmmakers and writers who knew Paul during his four decades of being everywhere but nowhere. With his quiet presence, cloistered life, and low tolerance for bullshit, Paul was not a natural when it came to the fame game or compromising his standards for the sake of a buck. For that reason he never managed to parlay his great skills into a business stratagem. There was something almost spiritual about Paul, an aura, he could be at the center of what was happening without anybody noticing until he had left, leaving his trace like a trail of cigarette smoke crossing paths with a beam of moonlight. Once you think about it, it’s gone…an afterthought.
Everything Is An Afterthought also collects a motherlode of Paul’s writings, some published for the first time. If you’ve never read his work, you’re in for a highly entertaining and compelling journey, full of intimate and insightful encounters with legends like Rod Stewart, Eastwood, Jackson Browne and Zevon (whose life he may have helped save) and critical essays that are classics in a field where there are very few classics.
Nelson could really nail it when it came to his appreciation of punk and most everything else, but he loses me in his almost religious zeal for the music of Jackson Browne and his disdain for Patti Smith. But when a critic gets so much right, he/she compels you to re-think assumptions and question your own obsessions and biases. So based on his positive take on Jackson Browne, I went out and bought several of the songwriters CDs for the first time in my life. After listening to them as much as I could bear, I realized there was no changing my mind on Browne. I don’t get it. And when it comes to Patti Smith, Paul doesn’t get it. But the thing I really appreciate in reading Paul’s writings is you get to a place where even if you disagree with him you want to really explore why. He challenges you, not outrightly, but through the sheer force of his own enthusiasm and the particulars of why he digs what he digs. That’s what great rock writers do - they send you to the music.
Of all the books I’ve read this year, Everything Is An Afterthought is the one that has meant the most to me. In Paul Nelson I see a little bit of myself. I think any artist who has ever been trapped in that dark zone between desire and desolation, creation and emptiness, may understand what made Paul Nelson both a beautiful soul and a tragic one. But as sad as Paul’s life was toward the end, it is what is left on the page that makes you understand that, when all is said and done, life is good when you do what you love and you do it not only for the sheer pleasure of it but also as some kind of act of faith. Paul was a true believer and movies, music and books were his holy sacraments.
Paul died in July 2006 in a small New York City apartment on 78th street. He had been dead for a week when his body was discovered. It sounds like a lonely death but Paul was surrounded by videotapes, records, CDs and books. So, one might say, he died among friends.
Fantagraphics Books is releasing Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson next month.
Kevin Avery talks about his book:
Marc Campbell: What is it about Paul Nelson that inspired you to write a book about him?
Kevin Avery: I first discovered Paul’s writing in Rolling Stone, when I was a teenager living in Salt Lake City, Utah. His words connected with me in a way that critical writing seldom—if ever—did. You could tell it was important for him to accurately convey how he heard the work he was writing about; how it made him feel. At the same time, there was often the suggestion that whatever he wrote about was in some way part of his own story. Though it was never overt. There was an ongoing mystery to it.
In any case, as the years went by, it just seemed increasingly criminal to me that this amazing writer’s work was pretty much relegated to back issues of old music magazines that, by and large, were only available on eBay. I wanted to do something about that.
Marc: At one time, rock and roll critics were almost as interesting as the music and artists they wrote about. I’m thinking of Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Nick Kent, Cameron Crowe, Lenny Kaye and Paul Nelson, among others. They were kind of like literary rock stars. Do you think Paul had problems dealing with the attention he was receiving as a high profile critic and was he too much of a purist to last in that environment?
Kevin Avery: I don’t think he put himself into the position where he could be the recipient of that attention. He often withdrew to his apartment, behind the safety of a closed door and a prehistoric answering machine that his friends grew to despise. Even when he did frequent the Seventies rock scene, there was something “alone” about him.
As for the second part of your question, I don’t know if I’d label him a purist. It’s difficult to call someone a purist who is equally willing to embrace the music of Bob Dylan, Bernard Herrmann, Jackson Browne, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones. It was the fact that he wasn’t a purist that got him in trouble with the traditional folksters in the Sixties—because he championed Dylan when he plugged in and went electric.
Marc: The role of the rock critic seems greatly diminished these days. Is it a dying art?
Kevin Avery: To be honest, I don’t follow it that much anymore. I think part of the reason Paul stopped writing critically wasn’t because rock criticism was becoming diminished but rather the music he used to love writing about was becoming diminished.
Marc: Paul was ahead of his time when it came to championing punk bands like The NY Dolls and The Ramones. As a music editor for Rolling Stone he was discouraged from being a cheerleader for punk. In retrospect, he was right about the importance of punk and Rolling Stone was like an old hippie in refusing to embrace a new generation of rockers. The cost of being ahead of your time can be high and I think Paul suffered as a result. Do think this rejection of his aesthetic/taste by the old guard was one reason that he abandoned rock writing?
Kevin Avery: It wasn’t so much the rejection by the old guard as it was the hesitancy of audiences at that time to buy the music. As a result, a lot of the bands broke up and, to quote Paul, “rock got rather uninteresting.” Even some of his favorite, more commercially viable artists were letting him down. That, combined with severe seismic shifts in his personal life, caused him to lose interest in the music.
Marc: What was it about Paul that allowed him to become friends with such notable artists as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Warren Zevon? He seemed closer to his musician friends than he was to other critics.
Kevin Avery: He certainly had his close critic friends—Dave Marsh and Jay Cocks immediately leap to mind. But I understand the question. He was able to create that close bond with musicians, I think, because they sensed that here was a guy who not only understood their work, but he also understood what they went through to produce that work. He was a kindred spirit in the deepest sense.
Marc: Paul’s writing style is cleared influenced by the detective novelists and film noir that he admired. I think he was more suited to a life of being a novelist than being involved in the fickle and trendy world of rock and roll. Would you agree?
Kevin Avery: Yes and no. I agree that he could be the most beautiful stylist, and that that style would have been well suited to novels. Some of his longer pieces—“Rod Stewart Under Siege,” “Warren Zevon: How He Saved Himself from a Coward’s Death,” and his noir-influenced essay about Dylan—more than hint at what he might have accomplished novelistically. But those pieces did not come to him easily. While he certainly had those aspirations, he didn’t seem to have the temperament to withstand a novel-length work.
Marc: Your own style of writing has a novelistic feel in that it doesn’t just settle for conveying facts or describing situations but creates a drama and a certain tension that had me flipping through the pages of “Everything Is An Afterthought” as though I were reading a good mystery. Have you written fiction or have any plans to?
Kevin Avery: Some of my earliest published pieces were short fiction, which are now part of an unpublished short story collection. In 2006, I had just finished the first draft of a novel when I received word of Paul’s death. That same day I set the novel aside and began work on what became Everything Is an Afterthought.
Marc: Paul’s friendship with Clint Eastwood seems like an odd pairing. Why do you think they had such an affinity for each other?
Kevin Avery: Unsurprisingly, Clint’s a no-nonsense guy. So’s Paul. To quote Steve Forbert, “He liked it pretty real.” Eastwood, who has little use for Hollywood or its sycophants, must have found Paul and his Midwestern honesty quite refreshing. As somebody else put it, there wasn’t a jive bone in Paul’s body. I truly think Clint just enjoyed hanging out with him.
Marc: I remember when Eastwood was seen as some kind of fascist pig back in the early 70s because of his role as Dirty Harry. In the book, he comes off as a pretty cool guy, someone who was there for Paul when he was going through some rough patches. What’s your take on Eastwood?
Kevin Avery: Paul was one of the very first critics to, in a national publication—Rolling Stone—challenge those other critics and their dismissal of Dirty Harry. He clearly saw in Eastwood an acting and directing talent that, especially at that time, the majority of critics didn’t. And even if they had, it wouldn’t have been fashionable to say so. But Paul didn’t fret about fashion. He liked what he liked.
As far as my take on Eastwood, I really don’t have one. I enjoyed listening to the tapes of his conversations with Paul. It’s easy to see why Paul liked him. They clearly formed a friendship, and I really wanted that aspect of their relationship to come across in the book.
Marc: Paul certainly had a self-destructive streak. His diet of Coca Cola and candy bars, his aversion to vegetables and addiction to tobacco seems like a form of slow suicide. Do you think he was basically an unhappy person?
Kevin Avery: I don’t think he was a happy person, but he certainly found enjoyment in the music and books and, especially, movies he admired. And no doubt he had periods of great unhappiness. He definitely, by his own admission, had bouts of depression.
Marc: Paul’s writing has a classic, timeless feel. There’s nothing “hipster” or gimmicky about it. He doesn’t have Lester Bangs gonzo style for instance or Richard Meltzer’s William Burroughs-like fractured edginess. He’s more disciplined and low-key. He writes about rock and roll (perhaps the least respected art form) with the sensibilities of a serious writer. Do you think the fact that he wasn’t into booze, drugs or being king of the hipsters, might have figured into why his writing is free of a lot of hippie dippy excess and pop culture overkill?
Kevin Avery: It goes back to what Steve Forbert said about Paul liking it “pretty real.” I think Paul was wise enough to know that flowering up his writing like that would only serve to date it.
Marc: If Paul were alive and you had him over to your house what music would you put on the sound system?
Kevin Avery: Whatever he wanted to hear.
Marc: Is rock and roll dead?
Kevin Avery: Recently, someone asked me who was the most prominent critic ever to declare that? And when? A little research revealed that, according to Robert Christgau, Richard Meltzer started saying it back in 1968. Based on the music that’s come about since then, he was clearly mistaken.
Marc: What’s your next project?
Kevin Avery: In 1976, Paul conducted over forty hours’ worth of interviews with detective novelist Ross Macdonald. I’m considering publishing a book based on those interviews. And, of course, there’s that novel that I set aside back in 2006.
In this short clip from Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, Paul Nelson recounts the days when Dylan was a vinyl thief.