The Underground Man (Paul Nelson tribute, part 2)

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Never saw him eat a vegetable
By Robert Christgau

Paul Nelson was one of the inventors of rock criticism. Before Goldstein, Wenner, Williams, Meltzer, Marcus, or myself, he was applying modernist aesthetics to vernacular music.

The first time I met Paul Nelson, in 1970, the Mercury artist he sold me on was Tom T. Hall, who I'd never heard of. That was my emotional entree into country music. The Dolls I found on my own, though I couldn't be more thankful for the two albums Paul made happen. Country I owe him.

In 1975, in what I will call a last-ditch '60s moment though basically it just proves how cheap I am, my wife and I relocated from a tenement east of Avenue B to our seven-room Second Avenue apartment without hiring movers. Paul Nelson, never a muscular guy, was one of the most stalwart of the friends who helped lug our books, records, and cruddy old furniture down the stairs and up the elevator. Afterward I took everyone out to dinner at an Asian-Cuban on 14th Street. Given all the meals Paul stood me at Mercury, I've always been sorry I didn't choose a pricier place.

Paul always delivered his reviews perfectly typed on gray-tone rag paper with what I recall as brown flecks--paper heavy enough to line a roof. He hated it when I pencilled X's in the margin. Once I got to the last page before I hit a query. "Damn," Paul said. "I thought I was going to make it this time."

Because I believed too many rock critics ignored black pop, and because I believed Millie Jackson wrote better lyrics than that other Jackson, Browne, I asked Paul to review Still Caught Up for the Voice. My recollection is that he rose valiantly to the task. But there is no trace of the result in the notoriously unreliable Voice card catalogue, nor in my own files. Does anyone out there recall this piece, or better still, own a yellowed copy?

Once Paul told my wife and I the story of how a fire marshall had forced him to clean up his office at Rolling Stone. There was a look of nostalgic longing on his face as he used hand gestures to describe how it had been before the incursion: "You used to have to walk around like this, and then like this, and then like this . . . "

My sister Georgia tells me that she and Paul once took our four- year-old nephew Tim to Universal Studios. Tim got scared of the shark from Jaws and Paul stepped in and bought him some sort of action figure, telling him to hold it up whenever he felt frightened. It worked. Georgia goes on: "Only later did I learn that Paul had had a son who he rarely or never saw in the Midwest. That made the day at Universal more bittersweet--a word I'd say applied to Paul in other situations as well."

I never saw Paul Nelson eat a vegetable.

The last time I ran into Paul, on Third Avenue near St. Mark's Bookshop, he was missing several teeth.

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"As an adult on this peculiar island, still I look for the beauty in songs. As the sun beats down, I'm reminded that memories are as warm as the climate here, and the loved ones who haunt those memories are warmer still. Though these sands and songs bear traces of mother and father, long-lost wife and child, friends, enemies, lovers, their presences exist once again as works of art--nice to think about, pleasant to listen to, but it gets very cold at night. In a college of soft knocks, some professional pessimist once told me that all of existence could be reduced to a cycle in which false expectations, harsh education, and darkest despair went round and round until it was simply too painful for anyone to make the swing from despair back to expectations again. These days, a lot of optimists would probably relate the same fable, adding only that it's too late to stop now."
--Exceprt from Paul Nelson's Stranded essay on Jackson Browne's The Pretender

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A dry, self-effacing wit
By Chip Stern

Was horrified to hear this afternoon that rock critic Paul Nelson had been found dead in his NYC apartment from unknown causes at the age of 69.

The blurb I read on the Internet incorrectly spoke of his 30 year stint at Rolling Stone. When I worked there back in 1981-1982, Paul was the record reviews editor, and he'd been around for what, like 15 years, and was one of the last connections to the early Ralph Gleason-days, when Jann Wenner essentially shoved him out the door.

The blurb also spoke of his championing of Bob Dylan's transition to an electric band, but failed to mention how he was a college friend/associate of Brother Zimmerman. Not so much a mentor as someone with an informed point of view and a very provocative record collection that Dylan would reference often, sometimes surreptitiously (as Paul explained to one of Martin Scorsese's minion in the director's Dylan biopic).

Paul was lovely, gentle man, with a very dry, self-effacing wit...and a damn fine writer. I warmly remember his collaboration with Lester Bangs on a quickie Blondie book, although Paul allowed that his contribution was mainly take-out food, and that Lester banged it out in one wild weekend gush of verbiage (and amphetamines).

I often felt that it was rather cruel of Jann to put Paul out to pasture, but he was a rather obvious reminder of a musical and spiritual and socio-political past Brother Wenner no longer wanted to reference.

When I ran the jazz department at HMV's ill-fated East Side Manhattan superstore, Paul Nelson used to wander in from time to time, a laconic yet friendly presence in his cap and shades, looking for what few recordings by cool jazz icon Chet Baker that he did not already own. I always looked forward to Paul's visits, as I always learned something, and he was very gracious to me, both as a colleague and as a devout music fan. The last time he came in I played him the Daniel Lanois-Neville Brothers-Aaron Neville reading of Dylan's "With God On Our Side" and Paul was very moved by the performance.

He seemed, not so much a lonely man, as a solitary figure in a world of his own, a living artifact, the ghost of a much more enlightened period of music listening and music writing, an elegant man in his downwardly mobile, beatnik way. I come away mainly with a profound impression of his kindness as a man, his deep love for all manner of music, and his ability both as a writer and editor to cut right to the chase and the essential ideas and images that might convey a passion for music, pop, folk, jazz, rock and otherwise. A generation or three of Rolling Stone writers benefited from his sure editorial hand and keen ear for language.

That he died alone, and largely forgotten save for the predictable obits is sad beyond belief.

What is exceptionally weird, is that he only just recently crossed my mindscape while I was driving, much as two dear old friends (a bassist and a keyboardist) did in the solitude of my cab. I managed to track the two musicians down after an absence of like 20 years, and we are presently working on a band project, much to my delight.

In Paul's case, I used to have his phone number, but we too had fallen out of touch. We were hardly running buddies, but he was someone I had great affection for. I seemed to recall Paul's crib was somewhere on Vernon Boulevard in Queens, right near my garage, and I had made a mental note to myself to call around and try to get his current phone number.

Paul was a quietly impressive man. A man who kept his own consul, but was generous enough to let some of us rummage around in the back rooms of his mind every now and again.

I am deeply wounded by his passing. I would hope that Rolling Stone would at the very least offer a sampling of some of his writings to mark his presence as much as his absence.

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"The only publicist who didn't on some level demand (or even solicit) a return on his generosity, the only major-label guy who in fact was generous, was Paul Nelson at Mercury Records. After a typical lunch he would walk you to a closet, 'Take 40 records,' that being the max he'd determined could be carried on foot to Sam Goody's--so cab fare wouldn't cut into your monetary score. He was so nice I felt bad I never wrote up any of his crummy acts, certainly not David Bowie, who had at least a couple releases on that label."
--Richard Meltzer, intro to Hunky Dory review in A Whore Just Like the Rest

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Late nights in quiet conversation
By David McGee

Paul was one of the first writers I was introduced to when I started freelancing for Rolling Stone in 1975, and in the ensuing years we became good friends. When I joined the organization as a full-time employee in 1981, as the editor of Record magazine, Paul was quick to share with me news of any new and interesting records that came across his desk as record review editor of Rolling Stone. We spent many late nights in quiet conversation about anything and everything under the sun during the time he was there, and like everyone who knew Paul, I found him exceedingly generous with ideas and support. He even asked me to edit his letter of resignation to Jann Wenner, which came on the heels of an especially bitter falling out with Jann over the content of the Reviews section. I've never forgotten the last line of that letter: "This is it, old friend." The letter was quintessential Paul: logical, impassioned, understated, and exuding great dignity, poise and class.

See you on the other side, old friend.

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Incapable of hype
By Danny Goldberg

I saw Paul Nelson several times over the last few years in Evergreen Video an arty independent video store just across the street from Shopsins restaurant on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village where my family lives. Except for discoloration of his teeth, Paul looked the same to me as he had in the seventies. When I first met him he seemed prematurely old for a rock writer, but since he already seemed middle aged-he never seemed to age. Both in the early seventies and 35 years later he was wistful about his past with Dylan in Minnesota, perpetually staring off into the distance.

Paul's dry laconic with masked an innocence that was notably even in the earnest world of rock criticism. He always seemed intensely vulnerable to me, akin to Neil Young's memorable description of Kurt Cobain, "like a light-bulb without the glass." Hiding behind tinted glasses he barely ever made eye contact and exuded self deprecation about every aspect of his life except his acute and fine honed artistic taste.

As a wannabe rock critic in the early seventies working as an editor at Circus magazine, I was thrilled when Paul, in his brief stint as a Mercury PR man called me to have lunch with him. His name evoked had the full aura of an early Crawdaddy! and Rolling Stone heavyweight. However Paul was the least snobbish of people. His intensity was about aesthetics, not about position. He was totally devoid of the kind of competitive streak that many smart people inject into conversations. It turned out that Paul had a soft spot for Circus because he had also worked there and he loved to joke about publisher Gerry Rothberg's eccentricities. Paul's most notable achievement at Circus had been a marathon interview with Peter Townshend that was so long it took sixteen instalments in the monthly magazine to run it all.

Paul was hopelessly miscast as a PR guy. He was literally incapable of hyping an album or artist he did not believe in and was always apologetic when he called about a Mercury artist. Unless it was someone like Micky Newbury who he actually respected, Paul was far more likely to go into a track by track analysis of the latest Leonard Cohen album on Columbia than even to mention a mediocrity on Mercury. I don't know how he got himself into a position where he was able to sign the Dolls (not normally the kind of thing a PR person could do at record companies) but I suspect he just wore out his superiors. But he did enjoy the expense account that allowed him to take a long list of writers to La Strada and other mid-town restaurants.

In the mid-nineties when I was President of Mercury I had the notion of creating an anthology about the history of the label. I asked Paul to write it but he shuddered at the idea of having to speak to Irwin Steinberg, who was the principal executive of the company in its early decades and who tormented Paul when the New York Dolls failed to have commercial success. (Paul did write an elegant chapter about the Dolls. The book was never finished, a casualty of Universal's acquisition of Polygram but I still have it on a shelf somewhere and will post it later in the Summer when I find it.)

It seemed to me, when I saw him thereafter at Evergreen, that Paul was clinically depressed. It was one of the awful mysteries of the creative spirit that such a brilliant, principled and unique writer had such a hard time being productive in his later years. Notwithstanding his apparent melancholy, Paul was always gracious and elegant host. He would never push an opinion about a movie but if asked could give incisive, brilliant and totally individual insights on almost any title.

Not very many rock critics were well liked by the artists they wrote about but when Warren Zevon got terminally sick and was carefully deciding who could and who could not have his home number, he unhesitatingly okayed Paul as one of those who he would talk to in his last months. Dylan completely controlled the editorial decisions in No Direction Home, so the inclusion of Paul's anecdote about Dylan stealing his folk albums in Minnesota was not only amusing, it was Dylan's way of confirming Paul's role in his early life.

And of course there was his writing. I hope someone does an anthology of his work. He really was one of the best. Although I will miss the fact that I can no longer look in on him at Evergreen---I am happy in the knowledge that as someone truly pure of heart, he is surrounded by the golden light.

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"Rust Never Sleeps tells me more about my life, my country and rock & roll than any music I've heard in years. Like a newfound friend or lover pledging honesty and eager to share whatever might be important, it's both a sampler and a synopsis--of everything: the rocks and the trees, and the shadows between the rocks and the trees."
--Paul Nelson on Rust Never Sleeps, Rolling Stone, 1979

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A bare murmur
By Kurt Loder

Paul was not a man of many words. He mistrusted their propensity for clutter. And so, as an editor, he was able to bring to the baroque confusion of a neophyte's prose the clarity of cool jazz. And he did this without imposing his own style: he sought only the focus that would allow a writer's voice to emerge. An editing session with Paul, conducted on his part in a bare murmur that compelled the closest attention to what he was saying, was a huddle, a quest, and the aspiring scribe emerged from it with new heart.

To come upon Paul in his old Rolling Stone office, a place of monumental disarray only partly obscured by drifting banks of smoke from the Ben Sherman cigarillos he favored, one might not have imagined him to be a man for whom clarity would be a motivating concern. But in his own writing, he subjected himself to a discipline so strict and unforgiving that in the end, it crippled him. He would agonize through the night over a review or a feature, and if he couldn't get it precisely right, then no one would ever read it. In the end, this struggle must have worn him down. Perhaps he thought that if he couldn't attain the clean line and the mastery of tone of the writers he revered--Chandler, Hammett, Fitzgerald--then what was the point of continuing? In any event, he stopped.

Our loss of his critical perspective was a sad thing. His roots in folk music lent a resonant dimension to his work. And his love of pulp fiction and film noir inclined him to champion beautiful losers, like the New York Dolls and the Ramones. He was both a scholar and an enthusiast--the perfect audience. He was talent's best friend.

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The goddamn semi-colons
By Fred Schruers

He was sometimes heard to instruct a reviewer, "Just connect," but far be it from Paul to link that out loud to E.M. Forster's "Only connect" ("Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height...") He avoided grand references, but there was a daring to his best writing; his somewhat uncharacteristic comparison of the guitar work on Never Mind the Bollocks to World War I soldiers falling slain as they leapt out of trenches is still my favorite metaphor in a rock review.

That semi-colon I just ventured joins the ranks of many others I've doubted, ever since the day he casually muttered--lips clenched around a Sherman, of course--something about "the goddamn semi-colons" in some reviews he'd been editing. You learned from him by osmosis, and Paul knew better than you what your A game was. As many of us fell out of touch over recent years, there were still the memories to flip through--the veal piccata and two Cokes order, with "nothing green" on the side, the standard-issue Bob Seger swag jacket that was his ad hoc winter finery, the night at the Palladium where Zevon dedicated a song to him, the pink "While You Were Out" note from Bob Dylan on a night his fellow Minnesotan was playing the Garden, the mischievous, snickering asides that caused him pleasure (you could see behind the hoisted Sherman that hid his own grin) when you laughed out loud...

He was, without sanctimony, too morally upright for the music business, and even for the publishing business, and when he retreated from both it was like a silent judgment on the entire enterprise that then made many of us a little bit more weary of what had become of it all. We would have saved him if we could. Someone who knew him better than I said some years back, during a shared attempt, "Only Paul can help Paul," which turned out to be true, though hardly consoling.

A few days ago I was rummaging in a desk drawer for a stashed tape and turned up an old Nike swoosh that I cut out of the first running shoes I ever wore out. They were Tailwinds he had abandoned, while they still had good in them, and given to me, his fellow size 11, as a gift to recruit a running partner. That first day we did six slow miles around Central Park in a warm late afternoon rain--the squeak and slap of the shoes fighting it out with the words that always seemed heaved up from well below his voice box. It was a real privilege to hear those words, to benefit from his wisdom and humor and compellingly generous friendship.

The days slide by
Should have done, should have done, we all sigh

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Another world
By Deborah Frost

I wrote to Paul Nelson for years, but never heard from him until the week I moved back to New York City in the summer of 1981. He told me his girlfriend had just moved out and since it turned out, he was just living down 77th Street, only two blocks east from the apartment in which I was camping, asked if I'd meet him at a nearby diner (though not the one he lived directly above) to talk about writing some reviews for Rolling Stone.

The Skyline, I think this one was called, one of those rare places anywhere in New York, and certainly on the Upper East Side, that still had defied change from the early '60s, or maybe before. It was brown and pale and wear-rubbed shiny, not unlike Paul himself. Paul never removed his brown tweed golf cap or brown cigarillo, even while contemplating his hamburger and two Cokes. Lisa Robinson walked in, and went to a back booth--with someone, probably her sister Deane, who I wasn't actually introduced to until a few years later, but I remembered thinking that this was an odd outpost for a rock critic roundtable, and wondered who or what would happen next. We talked for hours, about life, music, detective lore. Paul refused to order anything green or fruit-like, which struck even me, whose primary concerns about leafy material and substances found in nature at that point in time generally revolved around those that could be ground into powder and inhaled post haste, as odd. The first review he assigned me was Journey. It was no big deal, or torturous editing session. When it appeared in Rolling Stone, I saw that he had changed just one word, like a magician who knows just how and when to deftly pass the wand. It was brilliant.

But our relationship evolved far more outside the Rolling Stone office, than within, and largely due to the fact that we were neighbors, though he preferred not to emerge from his warren above the Lenox Hill Diner until almost dark. Then, still, wearing his woolen cap, no matter what the season, in sockless sneakers and what, for several years, seemed like the same pair of shorts, and always, always with the omnipresent, Nat Sherman dangling from his lips, we would run around Central Park together, at a nice leisurely pace that allowed him to impart his tales of Lester, Jackson, Warren, Dylan and less immediately familiar writers and filmmakers of all genres, and me to soak it all in. He talked about his aging mother, too, and his overwhelming depression that made it impossible for him to write. Later, as time went on, and he was finally evicted, after years, it seemed, of last minute rescues from the Lexington Avenue loft that he'd somehow clung to despite the landlord's long-eviscerated patience, to Stephen Holden's tiny old rental a little further uptown, he wanted to "borrow" money, having exhausted the generosity of all his other friends.

They renovated the Lenox Hill Diner some years ago, and now it could be anywhere on a turnpike (though one with Upper East Side prices) with Greek salad and mirrors and chandeliers and cappuccino that comes in a silly stemmed glass. But the main room is still the footprint of Paul's dark place overflowing with paper and books and Nat Sherman stubs. None of the hospital people who lunch there regularly would ever know that upstairs there was once another world.

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"Needless to say, I loved the man, his writing, what he stood for. When I was having a terrible time trying to write a biography of Rod Stewart, he saved me from a fate worse than deadline by signing on as a co-author and turning out pounds of copy to my ounces. One weekend he wrote eighty-eight pages to my five. Yet when Rod Stewart was published, Bangs insisted my name appear ahead of his.
"Ah, Lester, I know I haven't done you any sort of justice. I wish you could have come over last night and watched Sam Fuller's The Big Red One on TV. Says one young soldier who's survived half of World War II: 'After a while, we began to think of the replacements as walking dead men who had the temporary use of their arms and legs.' That's a joke you'd have appreciated."
--Paul Nelson, "Lester Bangs: 1948-1982," Rolling Stone

"There comes a time in all of our lives when we realize we cannot be to others all that they and we expect us to be, and that moment is often tragic if there is love involved. For me, the art of Leonard Cohen is about that moment, repeated into infinity. When I saw him recently at the Bottom Line in New York City, I was more convinced than ever of his greatness. His solitude, which he seems to carry with him everywhere, even onstage, was in a way far more moving than the audience's enthusiastic acceptance of his work. The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky has written: 'Alas, unless a man can manage to eclipse the world, he's left to twirl a gap-toothed dial in some phone booth, as one might spin a Ouija board, until a phantom answers, echoing the last wails of a buzzer in the night.' Leonard Cohen may be that phantom."
--Paul Nelson on New Skin For the Old Ceremony, Rolling Stone, 1975

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  • Paul Nelson Tribute, Part 1 (Steven Ward, Bud Scoppa, Debra Rae Cohen, Billy Altman, Richard Riegel, Jonathan Lethem)

  • 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)