Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Literary Notes From All Over (An Occasional Series)

In case I've given anybody the impression (over the last few months) that Keith Richard's vastly entertaining autobiography is the only good rock book that's crossed my desk of late, let me state now (simply and for the record) that Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson by Kevin Avery -- due out this November from Fantagraphic Books -- is an absolutely riveting and (I think) important read. And I say that not just because I knew the guy at the center of the bio a smidge better than casually (if not well) or because I'm quoted in the book itself (although both of those are true facts).

From the jacket copy:
What happened to Paul Nelson? In the '60s, he pioneered rock & roll criticism with a first-person style of writing that would later be popularized by the likes of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer as “New Journalism.” As co-founding editor of The Little Sandy Review and managing editor of Sing Out!, he’d already established himself, to use his friend Bob Dylan’s words, as “a folk-music scholar”; but when Dylan went electric in 1965, Nelson went with him.

During a five-year detour at Mercury Records in the early 1970s, Nelson signed the New York Dolls to their first recording contract, then settled back down to writing criticism at Rolling Stone as the last in a great tradition of record-review editors that included Jon Landau, Dave Marsh, and Greil Marcus. Famously championing the early careers of artists like Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Rod Stewart, Neil Young, and Warren Zevon, Nelson not only wrote about them but often befriended them. Never one to be pigeonholed, he was also one of punk rock’s first stateside mainstream proponents, embracing the Sex Pistols and the Ramones.

But in 1982, he walked away from it all — Rolling Stone, his friends, and rock & roll. By the time he died in his New York City apartment in 2006 at the age of seventy — a week passing before anybody discovered his body — almost everything he’d written had been relegated to back issues of old music magazines.

That sums up both the reach of the book and its central mystery pretty well, I think, although I should add that it omits Paul's particular relevance to the subject of the blog you're reading, which is that during his tenure at Mercury Records he also signed power pop legends Blue Ash to the label.

In any case, I'm only halfway through the book at the moment, but I can tell you that Avery has done an absolutely smashing job of research and that there's a lot to chew on here about all sorts of issues, the least of which (as it turns out) have to do with the cultural upheavals of the 60s/70s/80s, or the rise of sub-literacy in American journalism, rock and otherwise. I'll have more to say about it later in the year, when it's actually in print, but rest assured that this would be an important book if Avery had done nothing more than get some of Nelson's brilliant essays and reviews between hardcovers, where they clearly belong, at last.

Here are two little tastes for you. The first is, I think, the most deadpan funny footnote I've ever read about a writer's stylistic OCD.
26. Later in his career, Paul grew to despise the semicolon. Saying that he'd rewrite an entire paragraph to circumvent its use, he admitted to Suzanne Vega, "It's totally illogical. The semicolon is used by all the best writers. I just won't." He was, however, an ardent believer in the emdash.

And the second is a one sentence album review -- of the 1979 live turkey Bob Dylan at Budokan -- that I would have killed to have written:
"What, besides God, has happened to this man?"

Meanwhile, Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson is available for pre-order over at Amazon here.

Hie thee hence, is what I'm saying.


Blue Ash Fan said...

When I was reading the jacket copy posted here, I was wondering where the mention of Blue Ash was. Thanks for letting people know about that, Steve.

Fun Fact: I grew up across the street from a public swimming pool. Blue Ash performed at one of what were called "Splash Hops" at that pool. Too young to get in, I stood at the fence and watched them play.I think my brother and I were the only people in town who owned their classic first album.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't his signing of The Dolls and Blue Ash what got him sacked from Mercury? If that's true, then he was truly a martyr for the cause.

Definitely going to check this book out.

Faze said...

Nobody admired Paul Nelson more than I did, which made it utterly devastating when, as an A&R man at Mercury in about 1973, he listened to my ultra-poppy band's demo with a distracted air, then waved it away saying, "Who do you think's going to like this? You heard the Dolls? That's what people want. Go listen to the Dolls. Do something like that."
It was as bad as if I'd gotten an audience with a more conventional A&R man, and he'd said, "You know Tony Orlando and Dawn? That's what people want. Do something like 'Yellow Ribbon.'" (Our originals were a million times better than Dolls', by the way.) As I made my way out of the building where Mercury had its offices, I was thinking, "Paul Nelson. Phooey. And what's with the stupid hat?"

I went on to take some satisfaction in the fact the Dolls bombed commercially. Yeah, Blue Ash was great. But there were a lot of other good pop bands out there he could have signed (including my band, the only non-crappy band I was ever in). Instead, he put all his eggs into the Dolls garish basket, and wasted his opportunity to turn Mercury into what Sire became a few years later.

With that off my chest (whew, I waited years for that), let me say that I am inspired by your review to immediately pick up "Everything is an Afterthought", and I forgive Nelson all. He was a great writer, stubborn individualist, and important personage in the heroic age of rock criticism.

steve simels said...

One of the previously unpublished pieces in the book -- and one of the best -- is Paul interviewing himself about his years at Mercury (this was written in 1995). There are stories in there that will curl your hair about the music business, and for what its worth, Faze, I suspect he was simply having a difficult day when he listened to your tape.

fmcg said...

The emdash beats the semicolon all hollow.

Dave said...


I like your style. And thanks for the heads up, Steve.