Thursday, January 05, 2012

Literary Notes From All Over

Okay, I'm not gonna make a totally big deal about this -- the book speaks for itself -- but the review the New York Times ran of Kevin Avery's splendid new bio of the late rock critic Paul Nelson two Sunday's ago is really the most reprehensible hatchet job in memory, and I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention it.

The author is David Hajdu, who once wrote a very good biography of Billy Strayhorn, but has apparently gone mental since then.

Here's the opening paragraph.
Paul Nelson, a propagandist committed to some dubious values, had a gift for imbuing disreputable, even dangerous ideas with discomforting grace. You might almost say he was the Leni Riefenstahl of rock criticism. One of the first writers of the post-Elvis era to take the popular music of his time seriously, he never liked black music and thought the blues were overrated, negligible in comparison with the work of overtly cerebral and conspicuously poetic artists of the ’60s and early ’70s like Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne. Nelson revered Browne. He subscribed, both in his writing and in his life, to the macho outcast myths of noir movies and pulp fiction, and he seemed blind to the importance of the great female artists nearly absent in his writing, like Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin.
Wow. If you don't write about Joni Mitchell you're as bad as one of Hitler's PR people.

Words fail me on that one, Dave.

This one bothers me too.
Nelson made fans, chief among them other writers and musicians who shared his devotion to the ideology of the white American bad boy. Nick Tosches, in the book’s foreword, calls Nelson “one of the most singularly subtle, eloquent voices of his time.” Bruce Springsteen, about whom Nelson wrote with acuity as well as fervor, tells Avery: “Paul’s writing meant a lot to me emotionally. . . . When you went onstage that night you remembered: Hey, you’re working on a promise to keep, not to just yourself but to him. He put his ass on the line for you in that last story, so you better be good. . . . You felt like: This guy needs this thing as much as I do, needs this music or whatever that spirit is you’re trying to manifest or need to feel manifested.”
Let's just say that anybody who can describe Springsteen as as an ideologue of "the white American bad boy" has not exactly been paying attention.

Look -- I know David Hajdu, and in fact I owe a lot of what I laughingly describe as "my career" to myriad professional kindnesses he's showed me over the years. So I'm loathe to say this, but frankly that review is just shameful. I don't know if David or somebody at the Times had some kind of personal animus against Paul Nelson, but the rest of the essay simply reeks of score-settling, and the Times did itself absolutely no credit by publishing it.

End of rant.


geor3ge said...

And Godwin wept.

Gummo said...

Paul Nelson, a propagandist committed to some dubious values, had a gift for imbuing disreputable, even dangerous ideas with discomforting grace.

Isn't that what rock'n'roll is all about??

I mean, Lou Reed's "Heroin" never won any accolades from the Better Business Bureau. And when Jagger sang, "I got nasty habits/I take tea at three," I don't think he took it with buttered scones.

And even Hajdu's beloved blues are mostly about disreputable people doing disreputable things. Or are drunkenness, adultery, casual violence and other classic blues tropes exempt from Hajdu's judgment because they're sung about by black people? This is almost reverse racism.

There's obviously something personal there. Too bad.

steve simels said...

The first paragraph, no less. I couldn't believe what I was reading...

edward said...

Pretty sure Mick got his scones buttered;>

Gummo said...

Ah, edward, I stand corrected.


Brooklyn Girl said...

Well, Bruce wrote about cars and girls, so that must make him BAD.

steve simels said...

Good-bad, but not evil.

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to take a dump on anyone's scone but I think I side with Hajdu on this.

Fuck the lyrics (most of the time), the question for me is - does the music make me shake my ass and make me a little crazy?

That's what matters to me.


Anonymous said...

sometimes it's best if critics don't get too close to the artist (Marsh, Landau)

cthulhu said...

I read "Heros and Villains", and it had some interesting stuff in it, but the overall tone was just nauseating - the guy seems just too pretentious for words, and appears to have a real animus to any white male musician with the temerity to believe in himself (the white male musician, not Hadju). Well, excuuuuuuuse me, but I freely admit that I prefer Cream's version of "Crossroads" to Robert Johnson's - I just like sizzling electric guitars and kick-ass drums (even Ginger Baker on occasion :-/).

In other words, as far as I'm concerned, Hadju, can, well, bugger off, as the Brits might say.

(word verification: tortlet)

cthulhu said...

OK, against my better judgement, I clicked the link, and discovered Hajdu dumping on Raymond Chandler. Pearls before swine...

(although I do apologize for misspelling his name in my previous post)

Jeff Alan said...

Simels, you once again put it as succinctly as that other great "critic" of popular myth, E. Hemingway.

David Hajdu said...

No score setting here. I never knew Paul Nelson. I admire his intelligence, his seriousness, and his devotion to rock. But his obession with the myth of the macho male loner badass poisoned his work. I stand by the piece and also love Steve Simels, the most under-appreciated of all great rock critics. The book I want to read is the as-yet unwritten study os Steve's life and work.
David Hajdu

David Hajdu said...

Steve and co.,
I just posted this on
A critic who aims to be serious and is willing to be tough, in the name of seriousness, has be willing to take tough criticism himself or herself. I'm not going to get involved in a debate over my piece on the new Paul Nelson book. I stand by the piece. As I wrote, I consider Nelson an important writer who helped establish the field that we all practice. He elevated the art he criticized, and he wrote beautifully. I recognize and appreciate that, while also recognizing (without appreciation) the facts that Nelson had little regard for black music, little interest in the actual music he wrote about, indifference to women (for the most pat), and a treacherous attachment to the tropes of male heroism. He was a complicated figure, and I tried to confront the complications in his work. I never met him and had no agenda in my piece other than confronting the facts of Nelson's work and their meaning. Best to you all,

Chairman Ralph said...

Actually, I read that review, and it made me want to seek the book out -- so, in that sense, it did the job. And let's face it, what happened to this guy in the last third of his life was not a pretty sight...if he'd hung in there and found a way to keep going, maybe he'd have found a place, if only on the Internet. But I had no idea what happened to Nelson, honestly, till I read those obits -- so if Mr. Hajdu really planned some kind of a hatchet job, it had no impact on me, being a latecomer to the party. I don't take reviews all that seriously, Bob said, "Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters." :-)