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Paul Nelson: word perfect

Before turning his back on journalism, Paul Nelson helped Bowie, Dylan, and Cohen on their way to the big time. In 2006 he starved himself to death, his press clippings and record collection the only witnesses

Taken from the December 2011 issue of Dazed:

The first time I saw Paul Nelson was a small photograph tucked into the table of contents of a 1978 issue of Rolling Stone. Alongside the entry for his “Rod Stewart Under Siege”, was a picture that just didn’t seem right. I couldn’t reconcile the headshot – tartan newsboy cap, moustache, dark glasses, Nat Sherman Cigarettello poised for puffing – with the writer whose reviews and articles had changed how I heard music; the man who, in my mind, had become a trusted friend, the way only a good writer can. He looked nothing like I’d expected him to. Maybe someone at Rolling Stone had slipped in the wrong photo.

In the 60s, Paul Nelson had helped invent rock criticism. In the 70s, mostly at Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and Circus, he established himself as someone who could write perceptively about the great heart that beat at the centre of Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground, Ross Macdonald’s elegant detective fiction, the failed romanticism of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or the magnificence of the Sex Pistols – sometimes all within the same piece. Among the artists who had benefited from his critical eye were Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, the Sex Pistols, Elliott Murphy, and the Ramones, to name just a few.

Fellow critic Greil Marcus wrote: “His writing was flinty, elliptical and romantic, an unusual combination. He was drawn to loners and the excluded. There was something seductively hermetic about his work, an invitation to a closed room.”

Paul Nelson’s byline, already becoming scarce by the end of the 70s, disappeared altogether in 1982. Except for a dozen or so pieces in the 90s, Paul Nelson was never heard from in print again.

I was wrong about that photograph, though I wouldn’t know it until the next millennium. On September 26, 2005, when Martin Scorsese’s documentary about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, premiered on American television, Dylan himself introduced his friend Paul Nelson, whose visage, when it came onscreen, was indeed the same one I’d seen in Rolling Stone. Still sporting a newsboy cap, sans the dark glasses and smoke, he looked the same but older, a little tattered, as if he’d been through quite a bit over the last 27 years. Like all of us, but more so.

Paul Nelson was born in 1936 in Warren, Minnesota. Enduring a religious upbringing that would have unhinged even Flannery O’Connor, young Paul grew up wanting those things that his parents and their Evangelical Mission Covenant beliefs denied him: books, movies, and music.

While attending the University of Minnesota in 1957, Nelson and fellow student Jon Pankake founded The Little Sandy Review, a homegrown journal devoted to serious folk music. Little Sandy came to the attention of a local musician and student, Bobby Zimmerman, whom Nelson and Pankake introduced to the music of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Woody Guthrie. Zimmerman, who would soon morph into Bob Dylan, admired what Paul and Jon were up to. He also admired their folk music collection. Once, when he knew they’d be away from their rooming house, he absconded with 20 or 30 choice records. It’s a tale that Dylan and Nelson recount in Scorsese’s No Direction Home.

Nelson moved to New York in 1963 to accept a post as managing editor at the preeminent Folk magazine, Sing Out! He often found himself in direct opposition with the publication’s staunch traditional mindset, but never more so than on the evening of July 25, 1965, when Dylan, to the dismay of folk music purists – and Irwin Silber, Sing Out!’s publisher – plugged in his guitar at the Newport Folk Festival and began playing what was being called the “New Music”. Standing in the photographer’s pit, Nelson – truly between rock and a hard place – cheered as the majority of the audience behind him booed. His allegiance shifted from serious folk music to serious rock ‘n’ roll. “I choose Dylan,” he wrote in a Sing Out! article that doubled as his letter of resignation, “I choose art.” Dylan (who once referred to Nelson as “good critic Paul” in a letter to Silber) had gone electric, and so had he. 

Throwing himself back into freelancing, he spent the next four years perfecting his highly autobiographical writing style, in publications like Hullabaloo (later called Circus), Rolling Stone, the New York Times, Penthouse, and Crawdaddy! He wrote himself out.

Wanting a break, in 1970 he accepted a publicist job at Mercury Records, where he worked with artists like Captain Beefheart, Jerry Lee Lewis and David Bowie. “David wasn’t all that famous,” Nelson wrote in his memoirs. “Then he went to Los Angeles to do publicity there and metamorphosed from this deliberately drab, troubled-but-serious moth, very reluctant to meet the flame of fame into a veritable flaming creature – all glitter and glam, lipstick and gowns – butterflying his way through notoriously bright Hollywood nights.”

“We in New York were stunned,” he continued, “We didn’t mind, but none of us had seen it coming. Did we meet the real David Bowie? Or did they? Maybe he was genuine in both places. Or maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he still had quite a few more personalities to go. Whatever, I still liked him.”

Bowie liked Nelson, too, “He was one of the kindest, most generous men I’ve met in or outside of the music business.”

Paul also worked closely with Rod Stewart, who especially admired his knowledge of literate rock ‘n’ roll: “That’s why I recorded 'Only a Hobo'. I’d never heard it before until he played it to me. He was such a Dylanologist... and he would turn me on to such obscure Bob Dylan songs.”

Paul was soon promoted to A&R, where he was responsible for discovering Blue Ash, the great band from Youngstown, Ohio.

He also produced 1969 Velvet Underground Live, the classic double-album that captured the legendary band live in Texas shortly before their demise.

More often than not, though, the Mercury brass didn’t hear things the way Nelson did. He was unable to convince them to sign many of the artists whose music spoke to him – among them Elliott Murphy, Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers and Richard Thompson. Murphy says, “Paul had a firm belief that if the music he liked was exposed to the public, then they would like it, too.”

“Paul had a firm belief that if the music he liked was exposed to the public, then they would like it, too” – Elliott Murphy

Paul put this theory to the ultimate test by badgering the label’s managers until they relented and signed a ragtag band of lovable miscreants named the New York Dolls. Just as John Hammond’s signing of Dylan had been christened “Hammond’s folly” over at Columbia, the Dolls became known as “Paul’s folly” at Mercury. Nelson said, “I knew they were going to have to be a big success or I would lose my job – and I did.”

In 1975 he returned to freelancing, where his struggles were mostly with himself. Always a perfectionist, he refused to submit a piece unless it said exactly what he wanted to say. “Every single word had to be perfect,” Betsy Volck says. They worked together at Mercury and lived together for a time. “He set such a high standard for himself that he probably never measured up to what he thought he could do. Who can live with that disappointment day after day after day?” While hundreds of pieces did get written, some significant ones did not. Marathon interviews with detective writer Ross Macdonald (1976), Clint Eastwood (1979 to 1983), and Leonard Cohen and Lucinda Williams (both in 1991) remained forever unwritten. “He needed to love something in order to write about it well,” screenwriter Jay Cocks says. “But then he loved it so much he could sometimes get tongue-tied.” 

Two years as record-reviews editor at Circus led to his being offered the same position at Rolling Stone in 1978. Paul’s four years at the magazine were his most prolific and produced some of his best writing, but his squabbles with publisher Jann Wenner eventually took their toll. Paul loved punk; Jann hated punk. Paul liked writing long, probing pieces; Jann wanted them shorter and shorter. When Wenner instituted a formulaic record-review system that favoured what was hot on the music charts, it was the beginning of the end for them. 

“The first three years I was there,” Nelson said, “I won, I’d say, about two-thirds of my fights with him. If I could argue with him in a reasonable manner and not get angry, I would usually win. The last two years I didn’t win any fights.” 

The most painful loss of all involved “Warren Zevon: How He Saved Himself from a Coward’s Death”, Nelson’s epic profile of Zevon’s battle with alcoholism. He spent over a year getting it just right, but the magazine cut the manuscript from 67 pages down to 40. Paul never recovered from the deep editorial slashes. 

For all of their disagreements, Wenner remembers Paul Nelson fondly. “That visage, those dark glasses, and a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. His sleepy, kind of tired, world-weary voice, it was very quiet and kind of droned. He was just this great character.” 

At the same time, the music Nelson loved had changed. Some of his favourite artists hadn’t lived up to their potential, others had either self-destructed or failed commercially. His beloved punk rock had turned into something hair cut driven that he couldn’t stand. “It was always a combination of having invested all of this in these artists and then feeling disappointed,” music writer Billy Altman says, “and then coming to the realisation that, well, everything in life ultimately disappoints.” 

Music publications had changed, too. Novelist Jonathan Lethem, whose Chronic City character Perkus Tooth had been inspired by Paul Nelson, says, “The editors at magazines were not as interested in the kind of long-form, speculative, casually literate pieces that he was known for.”

Neil Strauss, another in a long line of writers whose work Nelson influenced, wrote about him in his latest book, Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead. Asked what differentiated Nelson from his contemporaries, Strauss says: “Paul’s writing stood out to me because a lot of those legendary critics had an almost chopped up, pop-culture-in-a-blender style. They wrote like they’d been up all night and were on speed and had 12 different records playing at the same time. Whereas Paul Nelson I admired, not just for his criticism, but for the way he put a full, complete sentence together – not a quick, clever turn of phrase. Every time he sat down, it seemed like he had not just goals in criticism but literary goals – and just as finely tuned an aesthetic as everyone else. But he was able to become more than just his aesthetic.” 

“I didn’t want to think for a while,” Paul Nelson told people when he resigned from Rolling Stone. He took on a variety of odd jobs before finally landing at Evergreen Video in the West Village, where he would spend the next 14 years surrounded by old cinema, which he loved even more than music. Evergreen was his sanctuary from writing about music, which, for all its demands on his psyche, proved more a passion than a love, something to be wrangled rather than embraced.

In the last week of June 2006, eviction from his illegal sublet imminent and his mind and body failing, Paul Nelson, 70, died in his Upper East Side apartment. His body wouldn’t be discovered until the following week, on July 4, well after the rats had found him. Though the New York Times amended his obituary to say that the cause of death was not starvation as originally reported but, per the medical examiner’s findings, heart disease, he in fact hadn’t eaten in more than a week. “He just stopped eating,” bookseller Michael Seidenberg says. “When they say he died of starvation, it wasn’t that he didn’t have food – it’s that he chose not to.”

On a shelf nearby the mattress on which he lay were toddler shoes belonging to a son he had only seen a handful of times in his lifetime. The son, like the high school sweetheart Paul had married and divorced, and the woman for whom he had left them, had become footnotes in a life devoted instead to those things that consumed and transformed him. He died surrounded not by friends and family but by videotapes, books and CDs. They filled his cluttered apartment wall-to-wall, floor to-ceiling, along with clippings, manuscripts and old magazines. And in one of them, a 1978 issue of Rolling Stone, a picture of the man himself, looking nothing like you’d expect him to.