Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Everything About Paul Nelson

By Alan Bisbort on Sunday, July 1, 2012 11:30 am

Paul Nelson was the most important rock critic you’ve probably never heard of. As a writer, he -- along with Paul “Crawdaddy” Williams and Greg “Who Put The Bomp” Shaw and a few other trailblazers -- helped turn rock ‘n’ roll fan-chatter into modern rock criticism by combining a deep intelligence and historic knowledge with a passion for the music itself. Nelson’s name had an added aura to it, though, because he came out of the pure, undiluted folk tradition and saw rock ‘n’ roll as a logical step in musical evolution. His name is attached to seminal folk publications like Big Sandy Review (which he co-founded) and Sing Out! (the venerable magazine that lured Nelson to New York from Minnesota), as well as the Village Voice, Circus and Rolling Stone.

Coming of age with fellow Minnesotan Robert Zimmerman, Nelson was an early supporter and friend of the man who would become Bob Dylan. Nelson did not flinch at all when Dylan “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, to the chagrin of the folk purists. Nelson was, in fact, at the Newport festival cheering Dylan on. Nelson’s perspective was wider than most. Indeed, from his earliest folkie days to the end of his life, he devoted his energies to one simple idea that may or may not be true: pop culture -- music, books, print culture, film -- can change the world.

It might, however, be as a human being where Nelson made his biggest mark, at least from the evidence presented with sensitivity and intelligence by Kevin Avery in his new book, Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson. In a different time, Avery’s book would be considered “essential reading” for anyone hip. But that time is long gone and Nelson himself disappeared before his reputation could accrue the venerable status accorded Lester Bangs, Hunter S. Thompson and Greil Marcus.

Among the extraordinary things we learn about Nelson in Everything Is An Afterthought is that he was one of the only major rock critics who went on to work for a major record company when he joined Mercury (Bud Scoppa is the only other critic/company man who comes to mind). Nelson worked in Mercury as an A & R (artists & repertoire) man, not as a hack or flack. Inside the record company beast, he operated the way a mole tries to subvert the intelligence operation of a foreign enemy. That is, he nurtured and befriended the artists he admired, like the New York Dolls, Rod Stewart, Elliott Murphy, Graham Parker, David Bowie, Mike Seeger and Warren Zevon, and simply ignored those he didn’t.

As a Mercury honcho, he was ultimately responsible for opening the floodgates for punk rock by not only signing the New York Dolls to a record contract but by facilitating their two gauntlet-tossing Mercury albums. Though these albums, like the early Ramones albums, sold only respectably, they nonetheless altered the musical landscape of the 1970s the way the Velvet Underground and Dylan “going electric” did in the 1960s.

Following five bittersweet years at Mercury, a considerably less energetic Nelson was hired by Jann Wenner to be the record reviews editor at Rolling Stone. Here, he nurtured other writers while simultaneously curtailing his own writing efforts, partly for lack of inspiration but mostly due to a self-torturing perfectionism that effectively paralyzed him (he simply could not make his deadlines). Bill Flanagan, a fellow critic and good friend quoted in Avery’s book, has a more interesting explanation. For all those who bemoaned Nelson’s lack of productivity as he got older, Flanagan says, “That kind of assumes being a rock critic is a glorious vocation.”

At this point, Nelson no longer found the emotional and intellectual connection to rock music that he still retained for the writings of, say, James M. Cain and Ross MacDonald or classic film noir cinema. Writing seemed to be more than just a job to him, and he couldn’t fake it now that the feeling of connection was severed. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find outlets for his movie criticism or for the noir detective novels he was writing. One could say that he was more honest with himself than many rock critics who, each year, convince themselves that the latest crop of guitar strummers are the equal of the Who, the Beatles and the Stones. (Hell, the Stones aren’t even the equal of the Stones anymore and Townsend just sold all the rights to the Who catalog for millions so that they’ll now be made into advertising jingles.)

Nelson emerges, in Everything Is An Afterthought, as a man of integrity. Yes, his early marriage back in Minnesota fell apart, and he wasn’t the father to his son that he wanted to be (although his son, Mark Nelson, deeply loved his dad) or really could be, long distance. He was also lonely most of the time and increasingly eccentric, chain-smoking Nat Shermans, subsisting on hamburgers and Coca-Cola, had filthy personal hygiene, sometimes slept on the floors and couches of friends and spent his last years in an illegal sublet, like 50 percent of everyone who lives in Manhattan on less than a Goldman Sachs’ salary does to this day. But he was never a drunk or a druggie and one only wishes that he had more personal happiness in his relationships.

As Flanagan further notes about rock criticism: “A lot of these jobs that people invented and fell into in the high tide of the counterculture didn’t have any 401(k) plans. This goes for the musicians as well as the people tangential to musicians. In that sense, being a rock critic is kind of like being a drum roadie. It might be something that’s really fun and plus you make a little dough and sleep late and get to shows for free when you’re twenty-two. But when you’re sixty-two, it might seem like a dubious career path. My feeling was that Paul Nelson wasn’t looking at the world that way. He wasn’t thinking about, Can I have a big success? In terms of success and influence within his medium, well, he had it -- to the biggest degree anybody could have it. He was probably the best music writer of his generation. Maybe of several generations. In a way, there was no higher to go on that pole anyway.”

Above all other things, Everything Is An Afterthought makes abundantly clear, he was a mensch. The book makes room for the voices of nearly everyone of his colleagues and friends whose lives and careers were touched if not shaped by Nelson, including Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Nick Tosches (who wrote the foreword), Walter Kirn, Frederick Barthelme and Jonathan Lethem, who modeled the character Perkus Tooth in his novel Chronic City partly on Nelson.

Perhaps the most eloquent testimonial comes from Elliott Murphy, a brainy, talented singer-songwriter who Nelson championed and whose career -- earmarked for stardom as yet one of a handful of “next Dylans” -- fizzled in the face of America’s disinterest (Murphy moved to France and has since carved a respectable career in music there). Here's what Murphy said:

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.’ Once upon a time, Paul Nelson was my hero and in many ways his life was a tragedy. But nobody ever wrote about music that matters with such poetic intensity, such delirious commitment as Paul did. He opened my eyes, ears and imagination to the holy trinity of Music, Books & Film.” Dave Marsh called Nelson “equal parts Hammett and Bartleby” and addressed those who have never heard of Paul Nelson: “I don’t know if the story of my friend and mentor, colleague and neighbor will break your heart. But that’s exactly what it did to mine, and in a way that leaves me grateful.”

After the 1980s played out, Paul Nelson simply disappeared, turning his back on the music scene and on writing (at least for publication). For the last two decades of his life, he eked out a marginal existence as a night clerk at Evergreen Video, a Manhattan video shop. He would be occasionally spotted and waved down on the New York City streets by old friends and music biz colleagues, some of whom were appalled by his slovenly appearance and physical dissipation, and others who desperately wanted to find ways to help him. Still, he seemed to have made no enemies and was one of the few critics whom musicians considered a friend.

Though he disappeared from the public arena, Nelson was far from forgotten. Everything Is An Afterthought possesses the same life force as anthologies representing two other passionate, late and lamented rock pundits, Lester Bangs (Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung) and Greg Shaw (remembered in Bomp!: Saving the World One Record at a Time). Together these books remind us of how deeply some people cared for the music and its larger pop culture that we all now take for granted.

One of those touched by Paul Nelson was Parke Puterbaugh, who worked with, and was mentored by, Paul Nelson at Rolling Stone. Puterbaugh went on from there to write or co-write several books (including some with yours truly). Most recently, he published the well-received biography Phish: The Biography. He continues to freelance as a rock ‘n’ roll writer, most frequently for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C.

I recently talked with Parke Puterbaugh by phone from his home in North Carolina.

Alan: Let’s talk about Paul Nelson. I’m interested not just in your experiences with him but to use Paul as a way to talk about larger issues of rock criticism and the decline and fall of popular culture. To start, when and how did you first meet Paul Nelson?

Parke: At Rolling Stone. He was already the reviews editor when I was hired as a copy editor.

Alan: What year was that?

Parke: 1979. I knew him from then until I left the magazine to do write a travel book with you in July 1984.

Alan: Right. He was still there when you left?

Parke: No, he was gone about a year earlier, sometime in 1983.

Alan: I read all about his departure in Kevin Avery’s book.

Parke: He didn’t get the boot so much as he was driven to resign.

Alan: When you first met him, were you aware of his back story as a writer? It extended back to The Big Sandy Review which he cofounded and which is now considered a seminal publication. And his editing of Sing Out!, the magazine responsible for bringing him from Minnesota to New York.

Parke: Those were huge things indeed, but at the time I was barely out of college and I still rocking away to the harder, louder stuff I was into. The early folk scene didn’t mean so terribly much to me, at the time. I grew to have a deeper appreciation of it, of course. I caught up with those figures as I got to know Paul.

Alan: He wasn’t the sort of guy who would bring it up, was he? You know to tout it as his cred, lord it over you with his great laurels.

Parke: No, he was completely unpretentious and unassuming and would never ... of course, things would come up if we were having a conversation about, say, Bob Dylan and he would say something like, “Oh, yeah, he borrowed my Ramblin’ Jack Elliott albums back in Minnesota.” It was a casual comment, never horn-blowing in any way. At that time, Rolling Stone was home to a lot of alpha males and females, especially on the writing side, and Paul was just the antithesis of that.

Alan: What was the work flow like for you at the time? You were a copy editor and worked with Paul, who was the reviews editor, but you also worked with other editors of other sections, didn’t you?

Parke: I was one of four copy editors, and we would copyedit whatever flowed our way. The copy chief basically doled out the work as it came to her from the assigning editors. I was likely to get anything. However, after a relatively short period of time, Paul and I gravitated toward each other and developed a good working relationship, so I always got the record review section.

Alan: You weren’t just working under Paul Nelson ... there were other editors?

Parke: Absolutely. Every one of them. Any feature, interview ... anything, really. For example, I was William Greider’s copy editor, essentially, for a few years.

Alan: Didn’t you copy edit something by Frederick Exley or have to call him about a correction at a bar in upstate New York?

Parke: No, no, that wasn’t me. Terry McDonnell and Jann Wenner would have had direct contact with Exley. But you know at that time we had a lot of leeway as copy editors to do line editing and substantive editing and serious querying of authors. We were not just changing punctuation marks and making sure the words were spelled correctly. There was an exceptional amount of responsibility given to the copy editors that I don’t think I’ve ever seen duplicated at a national magazine. It made the job a lot more interesting.

Alan: You would be getting printouts and editing on the page with pencils, right? Were there computers then?

Parke: Thank God, no, at least until 1983 or thereabouts. Believe it or not, manuscripts were still set in hot lead in a print shop across town. Pouches were ferried via messengers to and from Rolling Stone. And it was all pasted up by hand with Xacto blades and those glue rollers they used on the mechanicals. From an editing standpoint, I preferred printed manuscripts to working on a computer screen, and still do. As a writer, I’m all aboard for word processing. And from a production perspective, I can imagine it was very tedious and time-consuming to work in the traditional way. But to this day I prefer editing on paper.

Alan: I’m the same way. When I work on the copy desk at the newspaper, I really must have all the pages printed out, to work from them, and then go back to the computer and input all the changes. Of course, I take it a step further, though. I prefer to write longhand and then input what I’ve written in the computer. At times, it’s as if I’m writing something several times but it feels like I have some control over shaping it, like a potter on a clay wheel perhaps. It’s easier for me to think with a pen in my hand than at a keyboard. Did Paul Nelson think of himself as one of the workers vs. “The Man”? Just from reading Avery’s book, it seems to me he had a contentious relationship with Jann Wenner. Or, rather, it grew to be contentious.

Parke: It grew to be somewhat contentious, but there was a mutual respect between the two of them. Otherwise Paul would have never been hired in the first place. Paul was really part of music history and Jann knew that, being a Dylanphile to the great extent that he was. Paul’s full-time reentry into the world of journalism after his five-year hiatus at Mercury Records was at Rolling Stone when Jann hired him as the reviews editor. In every way - the writers he used, the records he chose to review, and the way he edited that section - I don’t think anything to this day can touch those record sections in those years.

Alan: True. Those were the years when I would run down to the drug store to buy copies of Rolling Stone. I never subscribed -- I had subscriptions to Creem and Fusion -- but I always knew that the reviews would be well done, entertaining, edifying, etc. They were like little short stories, practically, just seamless and substantive critiques of these albums. You didn’t get the idea they were cranked out in a half hour.

Parke: Warren Zevon made the comment, quoted in Kevin Avery’s book, that some of Paul’s reviews of his work were better than the songs themselves.

Alan: The magazine was financially healthy then, wasn’t it?

Parke: Absolutely. The music industry was blowing and going at that time, and there wasn’t this convergence between rock music and other entertainment forms. Music was still kind of ostracized from Hollywood and Madison Avenue, which I thought was a healthy state of affairs. This was before MTV, which was a major game-changer that redefined the way music related to other pop culture forms and became more and more absorbed into them. That’s when you began to see the unholy marriage between the ad industry and rock music.

Alan: You were involved along with Paul with what I thought was an important kind of issue, and as far as I’m concerned a turning point in rock criticism, which led to having to put stars and number systems on the reviews and put the kid gloves on when you wrote. It all grew out of that Meat Loaf brouhaha, which Avery details in the book [Parke wrote a scathing joint review of an album by Meat Loaf and a solo LP by his writing partner, Jim Steinman, that ended with the lines, “Both LPs race along like a flash flood, their excesses sending them over the banks of listenability and out to sea. Or out to lunch, as the case may be.”]. Now, were picking on Mr. Loaf or were you picking on his cohort, the guy who wrote his songs and then got it into his head that he, too, would record albums? Or both?

Parke: Kevin Avery termed that review “snarky.” At the time, I was new to rock journalism, kind of a babe in the woods. Like you, I wanted to write about rock music. That was my dream. I was basically mentored and raised on the writings of Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, Paul Nelson and on down the line. I was striking that tone largely because they had. I was heir to that approach. In my earliest reviews, that’s kind of how it went. That was when the reviewer really did stand apart from the musicians. He wasn’t trying to cozy up to them, trying to be their buddy, hoping to get invited backstage to hang out. Rather, he was trying to be honest, sometimes brutally honest, and maybe at times too sarcastic.

Alan: Well, maybe. But there was truth under the sarcasm. There was a distinctive voice in each review back then. You could almost guess without looking at the bylines which reviewer wrote it. Every reviewer had his or her own way of writing and seeing the world. That is, the rock critics who had attained and displayed a certain level of talent and wit. And those, generally, were the sorts Paul would hire to write the reviews. A reader would come to sort of anticipate this level of writing, and many of the critics would review the same sorts of albums, sort of carving out their turf. And I am gathering that Paul Nelson was fine with that, right?

Parke: Yeah. He cultivated what I thought was the most deep-thinking pool of reviewers in America. A lot of them also wrote for the Village Voice.

Alan: Who were some of the people you’re talking about?

Parke: Tom Carson, Robert Christgau, Debra Rae Cohen, Ariel Swartley. Jay Cocks, who was the movie reviewer for Time, wrote for Paul. Even James Wolcott.

Alan: He wrote for Rolling Stone? Was he doing reviews?

Parke: Yeah, he did several. I will never forget an amazing review he wrote of Another Green World by Eno. That one actually appeared in Creem. But he did a brilliant review of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music for Rolling Stone. There were also various Stone staff writers, like Timothy White, Charles M. Young (I loved Chuck Young’s writing!), Fred Schruers, Chris Connelly, Kurt Loder, me.

Alan: That was a great lineup. That was like a Final Four team of rock criticism right there.

You were also doing some features then, or was that later as a freelancer?

Parke: I started with record reviewing but pretty quickly began doing some short music section features. I was writing some longer music features by the time I left in 1984. And it continued from there as a freelancer all the way up to 2004.

Alan: Getting back to this Meat Loaf thing. I don’t want to flog a dead cow, but your review of the jointly released albums by him and Jim Steinman was sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back in a way, because you had written some earlier reviews that were hilarious and spot-on but they were not what one might call diplomatic. And so the artists got their noses bent out of shape and I gather they or their agents blew smoke and Jann Wenner sent out an edict to Paul that this had to stop. Is that sort of how it went?

Parke: More or less. I think Jann thought that there was a strident tone in that review and others like it that went beyond mere criticism. That it was mockery. And he wanted to keep reviewers on point by sticking to critiques without veering into character assassination. Jann is a very shrewd guy. He was seeing the convergence of popular music with all these other forms of entertainment and the changing attention span of the readership, so that these long reviews, these intellectual soliloquies, were not going to wash in the MTV era. He saw to it that reviews got considerably shorter, with 250 words being a proscribed length for each record. Only a lead review could go over that. And then the star system was implemented to help the reader make a snap decision and not actually have to read the review and figure it out for themselves.

[Note: It was even more draconian than that. Avery quotes from a memo that was sent by Wenner to Nelson that included such edicts as that the reviews would be printed in order, starting with the ones with the most stars and followed by albums by “superstars” and that “this order cannot be altered” and “The standard length of every review will conform to the following length, without deviation: 32 lines.” It also forbade “personal insults” and “gratuitous negative references". In short, it all but assured that the reviews could conceivably be interchangeable with the press releases by the PR flacks for the artists under review.]

Alan: For all that’s said and written about Jann Wenner, he does have a genius for anticipating the direction of pop culture, for better or worse. But I can see that Paul Nelson had the almost exact opposite view. He liked what he liked and he ignored anything else that didn’t fall under that.

Parke: And he let his reviewers peck an album to pieces, summarily pick these albums apart and reveal them for the sheer product they were: cynical genre exercises into ever-more-corporate mainstream music.

Alan: Which it was, Parke! That’s why I don’t understand why the critics can’t simply point that out. I remember getting together with you in New York a few times and we would chortle over some review you were working on at the time. You would play me the album under review, and it was exactly the dreck that you were pointing out in your review. Some hair-metal band or other garbage, somewhat popular and therefore demanding a review, but what you wrote was completely honest. So, what’s wrong with that?! That’s allegedly the reason someone buys a magazine, isn’t it? To have someone you trust deconstruct a particular piece of pop culture and allow you to make the decision of whether or not you would be interested in purchasing or even listening to it. Maybe Zevon was right about Nelson. The reviews were often better than the albums they described. Period. The letters sections and reviews sections were always the best parts of magazines like Rolling Stone, Creem, Crawdaddy, Circus, etc.

It’s now all a big disposable commodity and within a few months the next big thing comes along, but back then you really did want to make informed decisions about what you would listen to, what would be the soundtrack of your life, so to speak, what Kerouac called your “bookmovie.”

Parke: Here’s the bottom line. All this corporate rock was selling platinum copies but, really, what is there to be said, substantively, critically, what is the point of reviewing the 4th or 5th album by Loverboy? No wonder the frustration was coming out in the form of mockery.

Alan: Or anything by Warrant or Toto or any of that tripe. All that’s water under the bridge since the Internet exploded and wiped everything out.

What do you think Paul Nelson would say if he picked up a copy of Rolling Stone today? Would he understand it? Would he vomit at the amount of space allotted to Justin Bieber? Chances are he would put the issue down quickly after picking it up. Although that’s not a complete slam of the magazine. I mean, they have Matt Taibbi, who is the best political writer in America and the best pure writer they’ve had since Hunter Thompson and has done God’s work in defusing the Tea Party and the Wall Street mafia and there are the occasional decent piece on a band like the Black Keys and so on.

Parke: David Fricke is always solid. Now and again they have reviewers who hit the mark, but the reviews now are so short that they’re fundamentally inconsequential. That’s the part I think would get to Paul: the lack of substance.

Alan: There’s also the tendency to give every single release three stars. It all seems to meld into one pot so that you get a sense that none of this stuff is worth more than a few dimes.

Parke: It’s all three, three and a half or four stars. Ninety-five percent is one of those ratings. If it’s all so indistinguishable, why not let the content of the review inform you about its relative worth or worthlessness? Most everything occupies that bland middle ground, where it’s all identically good and competent, and maybe just a little something more or less. But the standard deviation is almost insignificant.

Alan: Did you ever hang out with Paul Nelson outside of Rolling Stone?

Parke: We would go to shows together on occasion. I can remember going to see Neil Young at Madison Square Garden with Paul and Robert Christgau. But by then he wasn’t much of a concertgoer or goer-outer.

Alan: Paul was also a long distance runner, which seems so strange given his otherwise terrible health habits.

Parke: Oh, yeah. I really wish I had run with him. I must not have been very serious about running back then. I was doing little 3 and 4-mile jogs around the Central Park reservoir and bridle path and he was training for marathons. He finished his first New York Marathon in 3:36, which is great. For a first-time runner, that’s incredible. It’s a good time for practically anybody.

Alan: All the while he was smoking Nat Shermans and drinking Coca-Cola for his dietary regimen.

Parke: And eating hamburgers. Never ate a vegetable, pushed them right off his plate.

Alan: I seem to recall that you had to go to his apartment when he was out of town, to water his plants.

Parke: Yeah, I brought in his mail, fed his cats, just checked up on the place.

Alan: Where was this? Avery makes the point that he moved around a lot.

Parke: He was stable then. He was a salaried editor at Rolling Stone and lived in the same apartment for awhile. It seems to me it was on Lexington Avenue somewhere in the 50s ...

Alan: Was it filled with videos and books, floor to ceiling ...

Parke: Oh yeah. The most orderly array of books, videos and albums, all very neatly organized and alphabetized. The rest of it was a bachelor wreck of a place. No food in the refrigerator. The comforter looked like it had never been washed. Ashtrays filled with butts, cockroaches and cats running around, cat-box odor permeating everything. The typical New York apartment of a guy who didn’t know how to manage a lot of life’s practicalities and didn’t have a woman in his life to help him with that stuff.

Alan: Above and beyond all these eccentricities, he seems like such a mensch, the kind of guy you were lucky to have known.

Parke: I really treasure all those hours we spent editing the record section together, which would lead into conversational tangents about this and that and everything under the sun: politics, art, news, New York, running. We were in no hurry. That’s what I loved about Rolling Stone back then. It was a place that you practically felt like you lived. I never actually spent the night there. People did on occasion. I’d often leave at 2 in the morning, and I saw the sun come up over Central Park more than a few times when we were putting issues to bed.

Alan: It would seem to be pretty great, when you have a situation like that, at a respected magazine, and with a staff of people you get along with. I can’t think of too many things better.

Where was the office then?

Parke: 758 Fifth Avenue, at the corner of 58th and Fifth. The editorial offices were on the 23rd floor.

Alan: I went up there a few times. Has it moved since then?

Parke: Yeah, there’s a building that takes up a whole block at Rockefeller Center, and they have the entire 2nd floor. The few times I’ve been up there, it struck me as impersonal and severe and modern, especially by contrast to the offices on Fifth Avenue. Just rows of cubicles that remind me of staring at a bunch of cars on a car lot.

Alan: When you were there at the other office, though, would you look up from your desk and see, like, Chuck Berry walking down the hall?

Parke: I’d see Chuck Young walking down the hall! Yeah, people were coming to the magazine to be interviewed or to visit Jann. I remember seeing everybody from Mick Jagger to John F. Kennedy Jr. to Nastassja Kinski to whatever actor was hot at that time, I remember John Travolta holding court, reading his journals to the staff during the making of that movie Perfect.

Alan: What about Hunter Thompson? You told me something a while ago that really warmed my heart toward the guy. You said he preferred to hang out with the people in the mail room rather than hobnobbing with celebs. He was a normal guy, right?

Parke: He immediately found his way to, and hung out with, the paste-up staff. The arty people. There were all these Lower East Side types who had these Gothic punk bands like Live Skull and Honeymoon Killers. They were all in bands. They were my favorite people there, too. I spent much of my free time at the magazine hanging out with them, just listening to the music they played on the stereo in the production department, which was one floor down from editorial. I thought it was funny that Hunter -- who lived in Colorado and was very rarely in the Rolling Stone office in New York -- gravitated in no time flat to that corner of the magazine, which was on another floor entirely.

Alan: Was he a physically big guy?

Parke: He was a strapping guy who in person lived up to the larger-than-life myth. He looked like he could take you down in a heartbeat.

Alan: And very intense looking, but not like in a drug haze.

Parke: Yeah, he struck me as being right there in the room. And he wasn’t unapproachable, but he just wasn’t in New York very much. His gonzo tenure at the magazine was pretty much over by then. He’d done the vast majority of his work for the magazine while it was headquartered in San Francisco. He just did occasional pieces after the move to New York.

Alan: I love Kevin Avery’s book and wanted to do more than a simple review. Paul Nelson’s writing is good and it stands the test of time, but you keep asking “Where’s the rest of it?” I want more. That’s selfish as a reader, of course. At some point Bill Flanagan had some interesting things to say about Paul and the way others viewed his decline. Flanagan said that he just didn’t want to fake it anymore, he didn’t have any connection to that culture and the music and didn’t want to fake it. He was a man of integrity and he just didn’t want to fake it.

Parke: I think he had his share of battles with various bosses over the years and just retreated after a certain point. He didn’t have any more battle in him or couldn’t find anything left worth fighting for. He wrote a memoir about his time as a publicist and A&R man at Mercury Records that’s one of the best pieces in the book. As with the magazines he worked for, that job eventually turned into an unrelenting uphill battle for him. He was a talented guy who just wanted to do good work. I’m sure he wondered why he always found himself feeling like Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill. So he eventually walked away from the rock – or, I should say, rock.

Alan: Did you ever see him at the video shop where he worked for all those later years of his life?

Parke: No, I didn’t. I was long gone from New York, having left in 1984. The last time I saw Paul was on a bus filled with writers going out to see Bob Dylan at Jones Beach in 1988.

Alan: Did you know he was working at the video shop?

Parke: No, I heard about a job he had working for a Jewish newspaper as a copy editor. But I didn’t hear about the video shop. I wish I had taken pains to keep up with Paul. Although it would have been sad to see him missing teeth and at loose ends like that.

Alan: He seemed to just want to disappear. It’s like what Dave Marsh said, he was part Bartleby and part Dashiell Hammett.

Parke: On a brighter note, he did live to be 71, which is not far off the average male lifespan and fairly impressive, given his terrible eating habits. And he somehow managed to scrape by without having to sell himself out, even if the jobs were well beneath his intellect. I like the fact he became a bluegrass aficionado toward the end, which kind of brought him full circle to the world of pure, undiluted folk music where he began. There’s a nice symmetry to that.

3 Responses to "Everything About Paul Nelson "

I enjoyed this interview immensely.

One thing to add about Paul Nelson is that he nurtured the career of Koerner Ray and Glover, the Minneapolis folk blues group in the mid-sixties. He recorded their first album, Blues Rags and Hollers, and he wrote all the liner notes for their records. And what liner notes! With the Koerner Ray and Glover notes Paul Nelson set the standard. The guy was truly passionate about music.

Back in the early days of rock criticism and magazines like Crawdaddy, (and Rolling Stone when it was a newsprint journal and not a slick magazine) there was a genuine passion for music and what was going on at the time. Guys like Paul Nelson and Lester Bangs really added to the cultural conversation and made us reflect on the music.

You're right. Paul Nelson is somebody I never heard of which is very sad for me and who knows how many other people who remain woefully ignorant of the important work this man did.

The interview stunned me with the depressing turn Paul Nelson's life took there at the end. How is it possible for someone so important end up as a video store clerk? I just have to shake my head at that.

What a great piece this was. It really opened my eyes and educated me. Thanks for delivering such a powerful piece of writing.

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