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.
1. The classic science-fiction author Ray Bradbury has died. I never really kept up with his work, but when I was a kid I thought Illustrated Man had the coolest book cover in the universe. "The Veldt" was my favorite story from that collection. Here's more on Ray from Boing Boing, io9, Neil Gaiman and Ed Champion.
And while I've gotcha here:
2. Beautiful visualizations can occur when great authors pick up the brush.
It's hard for me to describe how big an influence the Beastie Boys have had on my life. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I found lifesaving inspiration in records like Paul's Boutique and Check Your Head that I could not have found anywhere else. If it were not for the Beastie Boys, I'm pretty sure there would have never been a Literary Kicks.
I know a bit about the Beastie Boys. I've seen them in concert several times, though the live format didn't play to their strengths. The best way to listen to the Beastie Boys is with earbuds in, the world shut out. Their recordings were dense, complex and sophisticated, their rhymes expertly crafted for maximum effect. Each of the three had a highly distinct voice; you can listen to any line in any Beastie Boys song and immediately know whose voice you're hearing:
1. Michael Stutz recently shared his theory that a diner in Jack Kerouac's hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts might have been the inspiration for the name of Sal Paradise, the On The Road narrator. In a follow-up conversation, Michael told me more about the Paradise Diner: it opened in 1937 (when Jack was 15 years old) and can be found on Google Maps here.
2. The poet Adrienne Rich has died. Jamelah Earle has written about this.
3. My younger daughter compelled me to read Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games last year, and we were both fairly blown away by the movie (as was Benoit Lelievre and many, many others). The Atlantic has published a good list of the story's mythological and pop-culture sources. (I'm only surprised this article doesn't mention Gone With The Wind, since Katniss's richly layered love triangle with Peeta and Gale strikes me as a clear echo of Scarlett O'Hara's tortuous confusion over Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes).
1. A favorite baseball player of mine died last week.
2. Here's a fun literary site that's been making the rounds: police sketches based on descriptions of fictional characters, by Brian Joseph Davis. I'm particularly impressed by his Emma Bovary and Humbert Humbert, but I sense subconscious influence in the Daisy Buchanan: this sketch does not have the requisite bright ecstatic smile, and looks exactly like Mia Farrow in the movie.
3. Katy Perry says her song Firework was directly inspired by Jack Kerouac's On The Road. I still don't like the song but this helps a little.
There were two incarnations of the fabled Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris.
The first store was the labor of love of Sylvia Beach, an American expat from New Jersey. It lasted from 1919 until 1940 when it was closed by the Nazi occupation. But during its best years it was the haunt of “Lost Generation” writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. James Joyce used the shop as his office, and it was here also that Sylvia Beach published Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922.
In 1951, another American (and English language) book store sprang up on the Rive Gauche, on the banks of the Seine, a stone’s throw from Place Saint Michel. This bookstore, originally named Le Mistral, was opened by bohemian wanderer George Whitman. His goal was to create“a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”. Under the sign “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise”, Whitman opened his bookshop not only for browsing and reading, but he also provided couches and beds for tired literary travelers to spend the night.
YES! Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters), the first Litkicks Kindle book, is generating some heat, climbing up the Amazon Political/Ideologies chart to number 21, which I am thrilled to note is two higher than Mitt Romney's No Apology, clearly a less exciting work.
Thanks to my swell friends who tweeted me up and Facebook'd me up, and to Conversational Reading, Literary Saloon, Lightning Rod's The Poet's Eye and the great Maverick Philosopher for posting blog notices. (If you blogged about the book and I missed it, please send me the link).
One person (who I do not know) has already reviewed the book on Amazon. This is a lukewarm but well-written and thoughtful review, and I'm sorry the reviewer feels I "didn't do my research" because I didn't know that Ayn Rand had addressed the validity of psychological egoism. I know Ayn Rand has addressed this, but I believe she's done so only superficially, and not satisfactorily. Indeed, that is the entire substance of my book: a critique of Ayn Rand's ethics on the basis of her reliance on the (weak) scientific doctrine of pscyhological egoism. However, I do appreciate the fact that this Amazon reviewer named "poem2poes" took the time to read and understand my book, and I am happy to have survived my first Amazon bad review. (May the next one please be better.)
This is the song that made me take Yoko One seriously as an artist, as a genius. "Don't Worry Kyoko" is a 16-minute blast of noise that appeared on John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 1972 album "Some Time In New York City". It's a musical tour de force that manufactures a primal scream, intended to represent Yoko's agony over her separation from her daughter, and it's also a howl for the Vietnam War, for a once-celebrated death penalty victim named James Hanratty, and for the plight of every human being on earth. Yoko mainly intones "Don't Worry" over and over, fast and slow, loud and soft, sometimes saying "worry, worry, worry" instead of "don't worry, don't worry", maintaining throughout a measured, controlled but near-hysterical intensity. Listening to the song can be a drenchingly emotional experience.
Yoko One has been made fun of through most of her career, and when comedians make fun of her primal scream schtick they are often making fun of "Don't Worry Kyoko". Despite the mockery, the song is a masterpiece, and it has more structure than its detractors admit. John Lennon was the co-author, after all, and John Lennon knew a bit about writing songs.
1. Scientists have discovered linguistic signals indicating that sperm whales may refer to themselves by names when they speak. Sounds like the kind of fact Herman Melville would have been interested to hear. It also makes me think of T. S. Eliot's cats with their "ineffable, deep and inscrutable singular names".
2. Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, a tremendously popular book of philosophical poetry first published in 1923, will be adapted into a film, apparently with a series of directors contributing interpretations of separate chapters.
... And suddenly Neal stared into the darkness of a corner beyond the bandstand and said "Jack, God has arrived." I looked. Who was sitting in the corner with Denzel Best and John Levy and Chuck Wayne the onetime cowboy guitarist? GEORGE SHEARING. And as ever he leaned his blind head on his pale hand and all ears opened like the ears of an elephant listened to the American sounds and mastered them for his own English summer's night-use. Then they urged him to get up and play. He did. He blew innumerable choruses replete with amazing chords that mounted higher and higher till the sweat splashed all over the piano and everybody listened in awe and fright. They led him off the stand after an hour. He went back to his dark corner, old God Shearing, and the boys said "There ain't nothing left after that." But the slender leader frowned. "Let's blow anyway." Something would come of it yet. There's always more, a little further---it never ends. They sought to find new phrases after Shearing's explorations; they tried hard. They writhed and twisted and blew. Every now and then a clear harmonic cry gave new suggestions of a tune that would someday be the only tune in the world and which would raise men's souls to joy. They found it, they lost, they wrestled for it, they found it again, they laughed, they moaned----and Neal sweated at the table and told them to go, go, go. At nine o'clock in the morning everybody, musicians, girls in slacks, bartenders, and the one little skinny unhappy trombonist staggered out of the club into the great roar of Chicago day to sleep until the wild bop night again. Neal and I shuddered in the raggedness.
British jazz hero George Shearing died on Valentine's Day at the age of 91. The blind piano player was one of two famous jazz musicians immortalized by direct appearance in Jack Kerouac's novel On The Road (the other was vocalist Slim Gaillard).
Just for the fun of it, I took the quote above from the recently published original scroll version of On The Road rather than the canonical edited text. The main difference is the lack of paragraph breaks; most of the original words made it verbatim into the published book.