A Conversation with Paul Nelson, April 21, 1997

By Jim DeRogatis

One of the biggest privileges that I had during the four years I spent researching Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs was that I got to meet, interview, and get to know in some small sense many of the extraordinary people who were a part of Lester's life. Among the kindest, most thoughtful, and most intriguing was Paul Nelson. We spoke several times and traded several pieces of correspondence while I was working on the book, and for some time afterwards. The following is a transcript of our first conversation. Because of the nature of my project, it focuses on Lester, but I hope that Paul's friends and admirers will agree that it also illuminates many aspects of his own personality, as well as parts of his underrated yet hugely influential legacy as a critic, fan, and record company talent scout.

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J.D.:   How did you start writing about music, Paul?

P.N.:   I was from Northern Minnesota. I wrote one piece for Paul Williams's magazine [Crawdaddy!], but basically, I came up through the folk scene, because of Bob Dylan. I went electric pretty much when Dylan did. I discovered the Beatles through their first movie, not the music. I'm still primarily a movie fan, but it was hard to get a job as a movie critic without credentials...

Anyway, when I first saw Dylan, he was singing Odetta and Harry Belafonte songs, in coffeehouses in Dinkytown, in Minneapolis. I did the Little Sandy Review for three years, and I put out 30 issues in all--two of them after I moved to New York in 1963 or '64. Then I went to Sing Out!, and I was there until Dylan went electric at Newport. I wrote a resignation piece, because I knew what was gonna happen: I could see every person in that whole crew was gonna crucify this guy for going electric, and I didn't want any part of that. That was my resignation. Basically, I said that between Pete Seeger and Dylan, I'll take Dylan.

J.D.:   Many of the pioneering rock writers I've spoken to cite that as one of the first really serious pieces of rock criticism. It made a big impact.

P.N.:   Dylan just got me into the whole thing. I liked the Byrds singing Dylan; I liked Beatles movies; I like the Stones... You could never really make sense of my tastes. They run from the Sex Pistols to Jackson Browne.

J.D.:   Do you remember how you met Lester?

P.N.:   The record companies used to throw these big promotional parties, and probably somewhere in there, I met him when I got started at Mercury Records as a publicist in 1970. I did that for a year and a half, and then I was an A&R guy for three-and-a-half years. As a publicist, I just sort of called up all the writers and took 'em to lunch. I just got into it because I was stone broke and getting divorced. Before that, I had edited Circus for a year and a half. Hullabaloo had become Circus. I had met Lester before he moved to New York. [Richard] Meltzer and [Nick] Tosches used to come around when I was at Mercury, and Lester was a great New York Dolls fan. Signing the Dolls was the best thing I ever did, and the worst, in that it got me fired. I had very mixed emotions about it. I was caught between the craziness of the Dolls' management and Mercury, which was very staid. I was the middle guy, and it was not a good place to be. I sort of knew in advance that the Dolls wouldn't work and would probably cost me my job, but I liked them so much, I still wanted to do it.

I also did the double live Velvet Underground album at Mercury [1969 Live], and Lester of course loved that. [Lou] Reed was real excited about it, too. He was nice to me: I had put "Ocean" out, and he appreciated that. I probably saw Lester in Detroit. The Dolls played in Detroit a few times and I went. I was still writing for Rolling Stone while working at Mercury; nobody seemed to mind. Today, I don't know if you could do that. There was one other guy who did that, and he worked at Warner Bros. Anyway, I did reviews for [Jon] Landau and [Dave] Marsh at Stone, and then took over for Marsh [as record reviews editor].

J.D.:   What was it like working at Rolling Stone?

P.N.:   I used Lester and I used everybody. Peter Herbst and other people at Stone liked my Circus record column, and Herbst asked me if I wanted to do Rolling Stone. The money was much better, so I said yeah.

J.D.:   Did you get along with Jann Wenner?

P.N.:   The first three-and-a-half years, I won most of the arguments. The last year and a half, I didn't win any of them. I just decided to leave after that. Wenner was gone a lot of that time--maybe a third of the year--and it was fine then. Then he would come back and have to prove he was the boss. It was sort of systematic, when your turn came... He'd tear the issues up to prove he was boss. Invariably, he made things worse, and he hadn't even read the magazine. It was just capricious, and totally meaningless: "I've got you under my thumb."

J.D.:   Tell me about Lester being banned from the magazine. He'd been barred in the early '70s, and then he returned when you were record reviews editor. Lester told me you really went to bat for him, and he appreciated that enormously.

P.N.:   There were other people that Landau hadn't wanted to use, and Marsh didn't like. Jann had a problem: "I don't like reviews that don't talk about the record." He told me: "You don't write that way; I like your writing." I said, "Yeah, but I wanna use Lester. I really wanna use him." It wasn't as dramatic as Lester's version of the story, but I convinced Jann that I could take a shot at this. He said alright. It wasn't, "You use Lester or I walk out of this office." It wasn't as dramatic as that. I could win most of the arguments early on. But I think it meant a lot to Lester that I wanted him in the magazine. And he needed the money.

J.D.:   Did Wenner have an issue with Lester?

P.N.:   He never let on that it was a federal case. All he said to me was, "I don't like reviews that wander all over the place." He never gave a diatribe that he hated the man.

Anyway, I printed a few of Lester's reviews. He wrote one that wasn't that good. I think Lester more or less policed himself anyway when he wrote for Rolling Stone. He knew that if he wrote a totally wild review, there was no way in hell I was gonna get it in. You don't win final fights with Jann if he makes a federal case of it. So Lester never turned anything like that in. I don't think he wrote his best stuff for Rolling Stone, because it wasn't really Lester.

Lester had written for me at Circus, too, and he always wrote much shorter for me for Circus or Rolling Stone. He only wrote seven or eight pieces for me total. The only trouble with him that I had in Circus was when he compared some heavy metal band to Idi Amin. That was the only review where [publisher] Gerry Rothberg ever said, "What is this?" He didn't know anything about music, and that was kinda nice. He'd walk by the record player, and it would be Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," and he'd say, "What's that?" But that's O.K., if you admit it.

J.D.:   How did you and Lester become friends once he'd moved to New York?

P.N.:   I guess it was a phone thing, though we'd see each other, too. He used to come up to Mercury, and I knew him better than Nick or Meltzer. I used to see the three of them sometimes. They were pretty much interested in rock, period, and I was interested in movies and other things. I wasn't a drinker, and I wasn't into drugs. But I liked them all. Meltzer and Tosches, I don't think they liked the Dolls much; they were a little disturbed by the first cover, I think. They liked the music, but Meltzer and Nick were a little disturbed... That cover turned out to be a colossal mistake. It turned off everybody. It turned off a lot of radio stations that didn't want to play it, and it was not a good idea. That wasn't the way they dressed, really.

J.D.:   Did you see the Dolls early on as fitting into some sort of developing punk aesthetic?

P.N.:   I didn't really listen much to the MC5. I liked the Ramones, later on. I saw the Dolls as the early Stones: What it must have been liked seeing them thrash away. I never know. If it grabs you, it grabs you. It was exciting and raw. I must have seen the Dolls 200 times, at least. It took years to get them signed, and many battles. But I went to every single show for years.

J.D.:   In Lester's private writings, he talks about the two of you really cementing your friendship during the great New York City blackout.

P.N.:   The one time we spent a fair amount of time together, he stayed over at my house in '77, during the time of the second blackout. The city was out for like two days, and for some strange reason, the little half-block area around me came on before anybody else, after like six hours. The rest of the city was out for another day and a half. So he stayed over there, and we played the Sex Pistols' single for two days straight--"God Save the Queen." When he moved from Detroit, this girl who moved with him had left him and was up in the Bronx, and the radio was saying there were fires up in the Bronx. We'd go up on the roof and look, and you could see fires. He was worried, but we didn't have telephones, and he didn't know where in the Bronx she even was. It was pretty apocalyptical.

He would talk about everything, and he sat down and wrote like two or three pages of something--just sat down and rapped it all out, all the while talking. I just thought, "Jesus, hell!" I don't write unless I have to, and then I fucking hate it. I just like it when it's done, but I never have fun. But he'd just get a thought and write 16 pages. I get a thought and it takes me two weeks to write the first paragraph, and it's no fun at all.

We were so completely opposite. I was thinking about what we had in common: He used to call me all the time after that and read me things. He just met this girl and he wrote this story after the first date. He'd ask me when should he say he loves her and all that. I think we both had that romantic thing about us--that naive sort of romantic. I always thought they were the best pieces. There's only one in the book [Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung], but he read me several which were stunning. It was just wonderful stuff. I think I became his confidante in that area. He thought I understood that stuff.

J.D.:   He wrote that you both shared a sort of romantic idealism.

P.N.:   It was a need. He was looking for somebody. He'd sit in terror and wait for a call, and I'd say, "Lester, it's gonna happen in two hours." But I think he was invariably disappointed. I guess it's such an unrealistic approach that it would be amazing if it ever worked. But I liked that part of him, and that was universal. He wrote a lot about it. I remember playing Jackson Browne for Lester, and converting him. I said, "Lester, it's all about love and loss and all this stuff--why don't you want to hear it? Some of this is just about as heart-rending as it gets." The Pretender and love is running away. He would never have even listened to it and just judged it by whatever the Jackson Browne lore was among hard rockers. He couldn't like this stuff; he liked hard rock. Then I played a Neil Young song about salmon spawning upstream, this big romantic thing, and he just thought that was the greatest song in the world. It was ludicrous, but moving. But he would never listen to any of this stuff that he sort of panned.

J.D.:   How did the two of you come to do the Rod Stewart book?

P.N.:   He bailed me out on it, basically. I wanted to do a book on somebody else, Jackson Browne, and they were insisting that it be Rod Stewart. I'd known Stewart well at Mercury. He was really likeable then, and we were really good friends. Then he sort of went off to other areas where I couldn't relate to him at all.

I didn't really want to do it. I don't think Rod wanted to cooperate at all, because I did this one piece in Rolling Stone that some people thought was favorable and others thought, "God, how could you write such a negative piece?" I did it and I just got bogged down. I must have told Lester this, and he just said, "I'll do it with ya!" He just sat down and batted out a hundred pages at a stretch--that Kerouac thing. He must have had five times as much as we used in the book, and I was struggling over my forty pages or whatever.

Lester probably wrote 70 percent of the book. Most of the chapters are his, but he still said, "I want your name to be first." Then we decided we should do something together for it. Since we didn't write alike, I didn't see how we could write a piece together. I suggested a conversation, that would make sense, and we did it for a few hours. I don't think either one of us thought we did much of anything, but that's one of my favorite things [the chapter "Two Jewish Mothers Pose as Rock Critics" in Rod Stewart]. Every time I look at, it I'm amazed at how well it came out. We didn't do anything to it--that's what we said--and it didn't seem like anything when we were talking, but somehow it worked magically in print. That's my favorite part of the book, and one of my very favorite things I've ever been involved in.

J.D.:   Why didn't you do any other books, Paul?

P.N.:   I wish I wrote more, too. I don't like writing. I was gonna do the first Dylan book, but Dylan refused permission for his lyrics. That killed that pretty much. That would have been the first rock book. I wanted to do Jackson Browne, but this other guy got in there. I never liked that many people that I wanted to do a book on. I was gonna do a Neil Young book, but I left Rolling Stone when my mom had cancer and she was in Sloan-Kettering for a year and a half, and that whole experience put me in hell. I didn't write anything for three or four years after that.

Anyway, Lester and I just liked each other. In a way, both of our writing is autobiographical. His was very online; mine was whatever I wrote about. But there was mutual respect, I guess. He was just a plain-talking guy. He wasn't a careerist, and I wasn't either. And I think he cared a lot about everything. I wouldn't want to hang out with somebody who was out of control, and I don't think he ever came around when he was in a wild state. I don't think I knew him that well; we just got along amazingly well when we spent time together. When Lester died, I volunteered to do the obit for Rolling Stone. It really was a dog trying to write that right after I knew he was dead, but I had to do it. It was so never knew when you went too far gushing. I remember walking into the video store, and that Jackson Browne song we'd listened to was on. I burst into tears and left the store. That was tough as hell, and I hate to rewrite, but some parts [of that obit] were just too emotional. I remember when the book came out [Carburetor Dung], I was real excited about it, and I read one piece and put the book away and hid it. It was like he was in the room, and it was too tough. He was one of those rare writers that you read like one paragraph by the guy and he's sitting there in front of you. I couldn't take it. I didn't even want to see the cover of the book; I wanted it out of sight. I knew I wasn't going to read anything in the book for a year because the same thing would happen.

As much as I knew him, he affected me that way... It was a very special kind of friendship, even though we didn't see each other that much. I gave him a TV once, and he kept bringing that up... He and Nancy were just getting into New York, and I just said, "I've got a TV; do you want it?" He never forgot that. He'd go on and on, like it was the greatest TV he'd ever seen, but it was really a piece of junk. I guess that sorta says something about him, and maybe about me.

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  • Paul Nelson Tribute, Part 1 (Bud Scoppa, Billy Altman, Richard Riegel, David McGee, Jonathan Lethem)

  • Paul Nelson Tribute, Part 2 (Chip Stern, Danny Goldberg, Robert Christgau, Kurt Loder, Fred Schruers, Deborah Frost)

  • More online tributes to Paul Nelson

  • What Ever Happened to Rock Critic Paul Nelson? ( interview, by Steven Ward, 2000)