The Underground Man
A Tribute to Paul Nelson, 1936 - 2006

Paul Nelson, one of the originators of rock criticism--he founded the Little Sandy Review in the early '60s and continued to write and edit for a variety of publications in the '70s and '80s--was found dead in his Manhattan apartment on July 4. Several of Paul's colleagues and friends discuss the man's profound influence on music criticism and on their own writing.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

After midnight
By Steven Ward

I never heard of Paul Nelson until 1990. I was 22 and a friend had given me a Christmas present--a prized possession then and now. The present was Kurt Loder's Bat Chain Puller, a book collection of my favorite music writer's articles from Rolling Stone.

It was around that time that I was really digging deep into the writers--the people--behind the rock journalism I loved so much. Back then, as I still do today, I immediately turned to Loder's Acknowledgements page to see what other writers he name checked. This is a common practice of mine that has always led me to other writers of nonfiction I might like. For instance, checking out the Acknowledgement pages of a couple of Robert Christgau's "Consumer Guide" books helped me discover Vince Aletti and Tom Smucker. (Thanks, Robert.)

So Loder gives nods to the usual suspects--Christgau, Bangs, and Dave Marsh. But there was one name I had never seen before: Paul Nelson. Actually, Loder wrote, "the legendary Paul Nelson." Legendary? If Loder, a writer I revered so much, thought this guy Paul Nelson was so legendary, I needed to find out who he was.

So I immediately hit my college library, attacked the microfilm machine, and started looking through old issues of Rolling Stone. I started reading everything Nelson had written. It was unbelievable stuff--especially his long cover feature on Warren Zevon from the early '80s that zeroed in on the songwriter's demons with alcohol. Two years after that, when I was flipping through a 25th anniversary issue of Rolling Stone, I found an essay inside by former Stone writer Daisann McLane about her time working at the magazine in the late '70s and early '80s. While talking about the "legendary bylines" in the magazine while she was there, she listed names like Cameron Crowe, Chet Flippo, David Felton, Charles M. Young. She also wrote that her Stone office cubicle "was no refuge from the Giants of Rock Journalism." McLane continued, "Over in the next cubicle loomed the most looming presence of all, Paul Nelson, an eminence aswirl in wisdom and Dunhill smoke."

Loder and McLane must have been onto something.

I made a promise to myself then to track Nelson down at some point to find out what he had been up to in recent years. It wasn't until late 1999 when I did some investigative reporting and got a tip that Nelson was working at a video store in Greenwich Village and that he had dropped out of music writing altogether. I called him at the store one afternoon and was absolutely honest with him about who I was and what I wanted. He said he would be happy to talk to me. But he also said he didn't own a computer so we would have to talk on the phone. He also said that he slept most of the day and didn't sleep at night. He said it would be best if I called him at his apartment after midnight when he got home from the video store. So I did and we talked for more than two hours.

That was the first time I ever interviewed a rock critic. I had nowhere to publish my work though. But somehow I knew that people needed to read about Paul Nelson. I thought they needed to know who this guy was and what he contributed to journalism and music. Soon after, I stumbled upon a [now defunct] website called Popped created by Canadian music writer Scott Woods. I found Popped because Scott had posted an interview there with Chuck Eddy, another one of my favorite music writers. I don't remember how, but I talked Scott into publishing the Nelson interview. And that was the beginning of which is seven years old now.

So if it wasn't for Paul Nelson, there may have been no But more importantly, if it wasn't for Paul Nelson, my appreciation of all things artistic would have been much less richer. His writing meant the world to me. I'm sorry I never got to meet him in person but I'm glad I was able to record Paul (in a way) for the world to discover.

Goodbye, Paul.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

A notorious night owl
By Bud Scoppa

(Originally published in Hits as "Requiem for a Rock Critic.")

I found out Thursday that my old friend and mentor Paul Nelson--the best rock critic I've ever read, bar none--died last week in his Upper West Side apartment. This is hitting me hard, despite (or more likely because of) the fact that I hadn't seen him in 18 years and spoke with him just once since then, in 2003--a call in which he sounded exactly the same as 30 years earlier, despite the things he was telling me. A notorious night owl, he'd return to his apartment after a shift at a nearby video store and work until dawn on a screenplay, in longhand (odd for this perfectionist typist), which he had no intention of showing to anyone, he said. He also told me the only artist he had any remaining interest in listening to was bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, indicating that this onetime founder/editor of the prototypical folkzine The Little Sandy Review, the first to call attention to fellow Minnesotan Bobby Zimmerman, had come full circle. What a shame, I thought, that he was receding into a private world when he still had so much to say.

Along with legitimizing me as a rockcrit and label geek by taking me under his wing, getting me in Rolling Stone and hooking me up with a gig at Mercury Records, where I worked alongside him, Paul also showed me how to look and listen more deeply than I ever had before, and how to articulate what I found there. It wasn't just records; he also introduced me to filmmakers from Truffaut and Godard to Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood, film critic Andrew Sarris and novelists like his beloved Raymond Chandler. Paul spoke as eloquently as he wrote, in a manner fellow veteran Dave McGee described earlier today in his own remembrance as "logical, impassioned, understated, and exuding great dignity, poise and class."

Paul had a form of aesthetic X-ray vision that enabled him to unfailingly penetrate to the heart of the matter, his embrace of Dylan plugging in at Newport merely being the most famous example. (By sheer coincidence, I watched that segment of No Direction Home just last night and said to Peggy, "What a smart guy he was," my use of past tense simply reflecting the sense that he'd stopped using his rarefied gift prematurely.) I remember going to the Mercer Arts Center with Paul in early '72 to see the New York Dolls for the first time. Thinking they were a cartoon band of non-players, I bailed after the first set, then got a call from him after the second gently but strongly suggesting I give them another chance. He was right, of course. He signed the band and together we worked with them, my initiation into "artist relations."

It was most likely for Paul's sake that Rod Stewart told me in his midtown hotel room that he aspired to emulate the career of Dylan, selling a few hundred-thousand copies of each album to a loyal following. Then there was an unforgettable weekend in Boston capped by a Faces show at the Boston Gardens we watched from behind the speaker stacks. Paul loved Rod, and Jackson Browne, and he tried really hard to sign a young Bruce Springsteen, which now prompts me to wonder, for the very first time, what if he had?

For a while I was a junior version of Paul--every day we'd walk down Sixth Ave. to 46th St. in our Frye boots, go into La Strada, order the veal picante and two Cokes each from Pepe the waiter and smoke Sherman's browns on the walk back to 110 W. 57th St. The version of me that I eventually came up with wouldn't have been possible without the shaping of my sensibility Paul so generously performed. I'll always treasure his love and insight.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"Johnny Rotten may be confused, but he's got a right to be. He's flipped the love-hate coin so often that now it's flipping him. Overpowered by his own psychic dynamite, he stands in front of the mirror, 'in love with myself, my beautiful self,' and the result is 'No Feelings.' You say, 'Holidays in the Sun,' and he says, 'I wanna go to the new Belsen.' On 'Bodies,' he doesn't know whether he's against an abortion ('screaming bloody fucking mess') or whether he is one. Rotten seems to stroll right through the ego and into the id, and then kick the hell out of it. Talk to him about relationships and you get nowhere: 'See my face, not a trace, no reality.'"
--Paul Nelson on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, Rolling Stone, 1978

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Conveying the passion
By Debra Rae Cohen

It's as hard to write an elegyas it is to write about music--that damn self keeps getting in the way. My ears, my friend, my grief. Clear the self out of the elegy, though, and the spirit one's trying to invoke may manifest only as a series of tics: the Shermans, the hamburgers, the cap. Clear the self out of the music writing, or at least sweep it to the rear, and you get--what? That was what Paul tried to get us to think about, those of us who knew and loved and wrote for him during his tenure at Rolling Stone, though many of us were too young and clueless to understand the lesson--how to convey the passion of the music rather than merely one's own passion for it. A difficult task for young things desperately in love with our own brilliant locutions and coveting the oracular role that Paul, despite himself, played a part in defining, it was, in the end, no easier for Paul himself, though for reasons very different: gradually, like nacre, the strength of his feeling complicated, encrusted, and finally immobilized his ability to express it in writing.

He never answered his telephone, and so his voice at the other end of the line was always a hushed and somehow touching surprise. I can hear his voice in my ear now; it's saying, as it so often did, "Don't be ridiculous."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Predating music criticism as we know it
By Billy Altman

In a genre of writing that almost by definition hinges on ego, Paul Nelson always strived to convey to his fellow listeners what he heard in music, not simply what he heard. It seems to me it was precisely that sense of mission, and that difference in purpose, that set him apart from most of his colleagues--that, of course, and the fact that his intrinsic body of musical/cultural knowledge and scholarship was truly in a league of its own.

Concerning that knowledge and scholarship, while I'm sure that every coming obituary and tribute will prominently mention Paul's signing of the Dolls during his brief period as a Mercury A&R man, as well as his '70s/'80s tenure at Rolling Stone, it should not be forgotten that Paul's work as a writer--both stylistically and aesthetically--predated pop music criticism as we've come to know it.

There were no "rock critics" in 1965 when Paul, already an established and respected journalist/commentator on the folk scene, wrote an impassioned defense of Dylan's move to electric music in the pages of Sing Out!--the magazine of record of the folk movement for which he was then serving as managing editor. And then he promptly quit the magazine, on principle; he simply could not reconcile working for supposed "liberal-minded" music lovers who he saw closing those very minds to new sounds and ideas.

His exit from Sing Out!--like Dylan, he moved to rock and, like Dylan, rock was by far better with him in it--was an early example of Paul's moral compass--as prominent in his work (and, I should add, as accurate) as any critic I've ever known. Which, I guess, is one of the reasons why he and Lester Bangs (and Robert Palmer) always were so close to each other, even though their three personality types and writing profiles could not have been more different. They all deeply cared about music, and wanted to share what they believed great music, regardless of its source, could do for the human brain, soul and gut.

I'm guessing that wherever they've now convened, the volume on the stereo has just gone up--and so has the level of the discussion.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"Where's your sense of humor and adventure, America? In rock & roll and matters of the heart, we should all hang on to a little amateurism. Let's hope these guys sell more records than Elton John has pennies. If not, shoot the piano player. And throw in Paul McCartney to boot."
--Paul Nelson on The Ramones, Rolling Stone, 1976

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

A complex and worthwhile guy
By Richard Riegel

(E-mail sent to Steven Ward)

I appreciate you passing on the news about Paul, though I'm sorry to hear it. I'd just seen him on TV last night, making brief comments about Dylan in the re-run of the No Direction Home special on PBS. There was no caption on the screen at the time, and if Teresa had asked "Who's that?", I was going to say, "That's Paul Nelson." But she didn't. Not quite as spooky a final encounter as my receipt of a letter from Rick Johnson the same day he died, but another reminder how aged & mortal "we" first-generation rock crits have become.

I never had any contact with Paul when he worked as an editor or as a publicist, but I know he was respected by writers whose opinions I continue to trust, namely Richard Meltzer and of course Lester Bangs. Though the book itself has become extremely obscure (Robert Matheu was completely unaware of it when I mentioned it to him one time), Lester's and Paul's book on Rod Stewart remains one of the stranger artifacts of Lester's too-short critical career. I've never re-read the book since I first got it in 1982, as I don't particularly care for the central topic, but at the same time it's given Paul Nelson cachet in my mind, just for the fact that he collaborated with Lester, maybe even made the publication possible with his biz contacts.

If Paul was at Univ. Minnesota at the same time as Dylan, he was born maybe ca.1939-40, possibly even in Bob's own '41 [actually 1936, I see in the RS obit, guess he "lingered" around the UM campus a few years, like Rick J. at Western Illinois U.] Which means Paul was only slightly older than Christgau ('42), Marcus ('45), your reporter ('46), et al. Nelson often seemed older than that to me because he dated back to the brief folk-critic era, which most of the rest of us had missed or purposely skipped. But even though he may have been a Jackson Browne- and bluegrass-loving folkie at heart, he did more to advance true punk music than some of its more prominent adherents did. Truly a complex & worthwhile guy.

Thanks also for linking us back to your interview with Paul, which I'd read before, but not for some time. I was interested today to find Paul reciting so many of my own current estrangements from the music-writing scene (too-short reviews, etc.), six or seven years ago. Again, I'm sorry to see Paul Nelson leave us, but I appreciate your efforts to remind everyone of his importance to our scene.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"Some Girls is like a marriage of convenience: when it works--which is often--it can be meaningful, memorable and quite moving, but it rarely sends the arrow straight through the heart. 'It took me a long time to discover that the key to acting is honesty,' an actor told the anthropologist Edmund Carpenter. 'Once you know how to fake that, you've got it made.'"
--Paul Nelson on Some Girls, Rolling Stone, 1978

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Long, slow vanishing
By Jonathan Lethem

I got to know Paul Nelson in the mid-eighties, when I'd left college and was drifting in New York City, before I moved to California for what would be ten years. Paul was then spending a lot of time at my friend Michael Seidenberg's bookstore, on East 84th Street, and since I was sometimes living in a room in Michael and his wife Nicky's apartment, and sometimes working afternoons in the store, I'd see a lot of Paul in those settings. From what I understand this was around the time he began his long, slow vanishing from the world of a working music writer, the world where so many others knew him. In his conversations with me and Michael Paul was always so modest it was difficult to get the full facts out of him--his involvement with The New York Dolls, Warren Zevon, The Velvet Underground, and of course his teenage encounters with Bob Dylan and his crucial defense of Dylan's 'going electric.' In my experience, Paul was always more inclined to talk about books and films than about music--over the inevitable hamburgers and Coke at a restaurant called Jackson Hole we'd discuss Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and John Ford. In his gently absolute discernment, Paul was an amazing glimpse of a working critical intelligence for me to encounter. He guided me to my first encounter with The Searchers, which became a huge influence on me, and helped me sort out my callow enthusiasms for all sorts of popular culture, which were pretty undiscriminating. He'd just discovered Philip K. Dick, who I'd already been reading and collecting, and within six months or so he'd read every single book by Dick--he had that tendency to devour whatever he cared about. We'd also watch endless old Hollywood films on VHS tapes he'd made himself from late-night broadcasts, capturing the cheesy local commercials too--Ulzana's Raid, His Girl Friday, White Heat--and I've still got a few of those tapes, with his meticulously-lettered labels. He told us of writing the Rod Stewart biography in tandem with Lester Bangs, describing the scene of Bangs maniacally circling the room and talking while Paul, seated, tried to keep up at the typewriter.

At that point Paul already seemed consciously to be putting music in the past. I'm not sure why. He wasn't curious about anything new I might present him with, and he wasn't thinking all that much about even Dylan anymore. Instead, Chet Baker had become his whole musical world. He'd speak of Baker in reverent and searching tones, seeming to be transported in the same way that he was by Ross MacDonald's prose. Paul was collecting every possible Chet Baker CD he could find, spending, as he had in assembling the Philip K. Dick first editions, a lot of money--with European live performances, it was well over a hundred and fifty CDs, which he'd catalogued and annotated obsessively. (I alluded to Paul's Chet Baker obsession in an essay called "The Beards," though I didn't name him.) He raised money by selling off his old books, even some that should have been quite precious to him, by writer friends. I've still got some of those, and they have a bittersweet feel on my shelf, as though they should still belong to Paul. Very much Paul's acolyte at this time, I followed him down the Chet Baker rabbit hole, and bought at least fifty Chet Baker CDs myself, though I probably only really found listening value in about fifteen or twenty of them, which I've still kept--the rest I long ago sold off. At one point I gently asked if there were any other jazz singers who gave him the same feeling. With that characteristic exhausted-yet-dreamy tone he said that he sort of liked June Christy. I bought a few June Christy CDs and brought them around and he took them and indicated one song--out of forty or fifty--saying: "That's the only good one." I listened fiercely, trying to understand what distinguished that one song (I've forgotten which, now), and what the others lacked. The answer was locked somewhere in Paul's sensibility, and in that case he couldn't help me share it. I guess I trouble over this moment because it felt like a clue to the way he continued to recede into private meanings in the years that followed. It was as though making others understand what he felt about the music and film and writing he loved had been a tremendous effort of Paul's younger years and he was gradually becoming more content to simply experience it alone.

After I moved to California I'd see Paul on visits to New York, either at Michael's place or at the video shop, and for a long time he seemed the same to me. There was talk of a Chet Baker biography, though he felt it was impossible to get a big enough advance to do all the travel and research required, and then eventually the mythic screenplay he'd begun. Increasingly our conversations took on the quality of a rehearsal of past subjects: we'd discuss John Ford, or Ross MacDonald, or Chet Baker, as if Paul was trying to confirm our long-ago common ground. For a long time I chalked this up to the unfortunate nature of long-distance friendship, where the thread grows thin, but eventually it seemed that all threads connecting Paul to the world were getting frayed. And in the past few years I quit searching him out and relied on Michael and Nicky--who'd become his caretakers, in a sense--for updates. As Paul's world grew more circumscribed the reports were less and less hopeful. Michael began to wonder, first, if the screenplay was something that ever stood a chance of becoming real. And then, whether Paul would be able to keep his job at the video store. And then, whether he'd be able to remember to keep making visits out of his apartment to feed himself. The slide was so gradual it felt that it might go on forever, but it couldn't.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

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

  • Previously unpublished interview with Paul Nelson, by Jim DeRogatis (April 1997)

  • More online tributes to Paul Nelson

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