Paul Nelson was a personal writer. He had the ability interpret musicians’ inner workings, insecurities, and ego-centrism. Prior to his death in 2006, Nelson had been a force that propelled the early careers of the New York Dolls, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, to name just a few.
Brooklyn-based author Kevin Avery has assembled a tribute to Nelson’s life and work with Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson, from Fantagraphics Books. It’s equal parts biography and anthology, shedding light on the influential writer.
Mr. Avery took sometime out of his schedule to chat with us about the book and rock criticism as shaped by Paul Nelson.
Tell me a little bit about the book and why you decided to document Nelson.
I used to read his work when I was a teenager. Growing up in Salt Lake City, I used to subscribe to Rolling Stone and the Village Voice and read all of the major rock writers at that time, but there was something about Paul’s writing that always just struck a chord with me. I followed his writing for several years, and then in the early ’80s he kind of disappeared, but I never forgot his writing.
I knew he had been working at a video shop, Evergreen Video in the Village for 14 or 15 years. So, in 2005, I wrote him a letter there and suggested that we work together, and I never heard back from him. In July of 2006, a good friend of his, Michael Seidenberg, called to tell me a couple of things, first to tell me that Paul had passed away a week or two before and to let me know that Paul had indeed received my letter, that he had been very touched by it, and it was something that he indeed wanted to do, but he just was really not in any shape physically or emotionally at that time.
So, that was pretty much the day I started to work on the book, and the more I found out about Paul’s personal life, it very quickly morphed from an anthology into a biography/anthology.
Tell me about the anthology part.
The second half of the book is a collection of some of his best writings—pieces on his favorite artists including people like Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Neil Young, and Clint Eastwood. The book was structured this way intentionally. He was a very personal writer and the more you read Paul’s work, the more you discover Paul between the lines, so to speak.
He would only really enjoy writing about things that meant something to him personally, so there are few clues about his own life in many of his pieces. So that became the idea—the first half of the book is the biography, the second half of the book is Paul’s writing. It’s kind of like Paul telling his own story.
When the tide of the music commentary changed, where did Paul go?
Rock goes through phases, and as Jay Cocks pointed out, by the time grunge came around, Paul wasn’t interested anymore because he’d been through it before. He’d been through it with the Dolls. He’d been through it with the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and at a certain point, I think, yeah, Paul just lost interest in rock music.
It’s not that he disliked it necessarily, though I’m sure there is a lot of it that he did. He was not a fan of rap music, so he went back to his roots, and by the end, he was listening to a lot of Carter Family and Johnny Cash and certainly a lot of bluegrass and almost exclusively Ralph Stanley and the Stanley Brothers.
When he walked away from Rolling Stone in 1982, it wasn’t just because he had issues with Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone and the changing face of the record review section and record reviews getting shorter. I mean, that was certainly part of it, but it was compounded by the fact that the music was changing, and it was going in a direction that really didn’t interest Paul that much. Here was a guy who’d been a pioneering folk critic and then a pioneering rock critic. He loved singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon and then Dylan, and then the punk scene came along, and he embraced it. He saw the Sex Pistols and the Clash, both of whom he admired, breakout or just not survive in the marketplace, and that was very disheartening to him.
So, rather than continuing to be disheartened, I think he just felt like he would rather not write about it for a while. Then in the early ’90s he had a lengthy interview with Suzanne Vega and a lengthy piece about Freedy Johnston, but I think he lost interest again, so that only lasted for a couple of years.
In the book, you write about Paul Nelson’s friendship with Bob Dylan. What was their relationship like?
Paul had been the managing editor of Sing Out magazine, which was a traditional folk magazine. The traditional folksters were very, very reluctant to accept Dylan when he plugged in and went electric. Paul embraced it immediately, and in fact, the piece he wrote in support of Dylan going electric pretty much doubled as his resignation letter from Sing Out.
Paul had already known Dylan for a few years by then, back when Dylan was Robert Zimmerman. They had both gone to the University of Minnesota together. One thing about Paul’s very long relationship with Dylan and writing about Dylan’s music is he took Bob to task just as often as he praised him. While Dylan was the recipient of some of Paul’s most glowing reviews, he was also the recipient of some of Paul’s more scathing reviews as well, but I think Dylan always appreciated that honesty, and he certainly appreciated what Paul wrote and appreciated Paul’s opinion about his music.
Did they stay friends when Paul faded away? Did they ever reconnect?
In 1982 when Paul resigned from Rolling Stone and stopped writing for seven or eight years, he certainly was still in touch with Dylan. Dylan would occasionally reach out. There was at least one phone call in the mid ’80s where Dylan reached out to Paul. They discussed the state of Dylan’s career and what he was doing. For quite a while, Paul would receive advanced copies of Dylan’s albums. Dylan was interested in what Paul thought of his music.
Did Nelson ever express how he felt about vinyl versus digital formats?
Well, what happened was during the mid to the late ’80s, Paul faced several challenges, and one of them was certainly financial. And as a result of that, he had to move around a lot from apartment to apartment and in the course of doing that, he sold a lot of his records or left a lot of his records behind until there was a few years there where he didn’t have music in his life. Then in the late ’80s or early ’90s, his good friend Jay Cocks gave him a Christmas gift of a CD player. That’s when Paul got back in the music and that’s when he got into CDs.
Now, as far as whether he preferred CDs to vinyl, I couldn’t tell you, but knowing that for the last at least 15 or so years of his life, most of Paul’s listening was either done on a portable CD player or on a walkman.
How did Paul get involved with New York Dolls and embracing punk culture?
The Dolls were the precursor to punk and certainly Paul had embraced the punk rock scene in the early ‘70s when he happened upon the New York Dolls. He just fell in love with them immediately, and as Robert Christgau pointed out [about Paul], he saw the genius of the music and the lyrics amid all the racket and flash of the Dolls.
Paul probably attended by his own count, 200 New York Dolls shows. At the same time, he was trying to convince the higher-ups at Mercury Records to sign this unruly band of young men. In 1970, he signed on with Mercury Records as a publicist, and a couple of years later he did A&R, and one of the first bands that he tried to sign was the Dolls.
It was a very lengthy courtship, but to Paul’s credit, he finally convinced Mercury to sign the band, and it pretty much put his job on the line.
We can certainly remember Paul Nelson in a lot of ways, but for introducing an influential sound that would re-shape music, would you say Mr. Nelson bought punk music to a wider audience?
He certainly paved the way.
Photo 1: Lawrence White, 1979. Photo 2: Courtesy of Mark C. Nelson, 1959. Photo 3: Bud Scoppa, late 1971 or early 1972. Photo 4: Courtesy of Mark C. Nelson, 1968.