Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson by Kevin Avery 584 pp., $29.99, Fantagraphics Books
It was a scene like out of the hardboiled detective novels that Paul Nelson loved so much when police broke into his New York apartment in 2006. What they found was a dark, dingy room reeking of cigarette smoke and crammed with thousands of books, magazines, records, CDs, and hand-labeled videotapes in stacks so high they blocked out most light from the windows.
And on the bed was the emaciated body of 70-year-old Paul Nelson, starved to death -- though there was plenty of cash for food on the dresser. Oh, and it had been a week before the body was found.
How a man who, at one point, was one of music's most influential and revered journalists could end up this way is startling enough, but in this insightful and riveting biography, Avery has brought the flat-capped, sunglassed, mustachioed, Nat Sherman-smoking, hamburger eating, and Coca-Cola guzzling wordsmith back to life; a writer as fascinating -- and frustrating -- as many of his interview subjects.
Beginning with his work as the co-founder of folk music bible The Little Sandy Review and editor of Sing Out! (where he was an early champion of Bob Dylan) to his influential stint at record reviewer and feature writer at Rolling Stone and later freelance pieces, Nelson was the music writer that other music writers praised. And while friend Lester Bangs' work was brash and bombastic, Nelson's was more sparse and romantic, but no less forceful. He also spent five years working for Mercury Records as an A&R guy, signing the New York Dolls.
Nelson craved for music (and books and films) that resonated with him emotionally. And if they didn't, his criticism could be as withering as his praise effusive. His friendship with Jackson Browne dissolved over a scathing 285-word review of a record by Browne's close friend J.D. Souther. An unpublished one-sentence review of Bob Dylan Live at Budokan read simply "What, besides God, has happened to this man?"
Nelson would take offense to changing even a semicolon of the work he so meticulously wrote, and when RS editor Jan Wenner held a meeting to announce a change in record reviews to a "star system" (largely in response to Nelson's own writings), it was a move so offensive to Nelson's sensibilities that he said, "Excuse me," and left the meeting, never to return.
In 1982, fed up with Wenner's control, and perhaps feeling disaffected with music in general, Nelson walked away from the music journo's dream gig. And save for a handful of pieces thrown at him by sympathetic friends and editors (along with the occasional financial gift), Nelson simply disappeared for 24 years, living a day-to-day existence in a highly eccentric fashion, and working at a video store where he would sometimes berate customers for their choice in rentals.
So what happened? Avery writes that Nelson was plagued by his own crippling mental insecurities and inabilities to even finish work that was assigned to him, of deadlines missed and meetings blown, endless hours of research and interviews that would produce nothing for public consumption. This was a man who received a contract to write a Neil Young biography -- with the promised participation of Young himself! -- and a $25,000 advance. Two years later, with Nelson not producing a single page of prose, the contract was cancelled (Avery will resurrect some of this lost material in his next book, Conversations with Clint 1979-1983: Paul Nelson's Lost Interviews with Clint Eastwood).
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Everything is an Afterthought also contains generous interviews with Nelson's family, friends, and -- most importantly -- fellow first wave rock critics like Dave Marsh, Jon Landau, Greil Marcus, Bud Scoppa, and Ed Ward. They often offer the best insights as fellow scribes. "If the phone rang at three or four in the morning," Charles Young recalls, "I knew it was either the Butthole Surfers or Paul."
Thankfully, more than half of the books pages are given over to reprints of Nelson's own work -- full length articles, book proposals, musings and remembrances on subjects like Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, and Browne, Young, and writer Ross MacDonald. But perhaps the best piece is his first-person harrowing narrative of Zevon's booze-and-drug debacles and the intervention in which Nelson took part.
And while Everything is an Afterthought will bring renewed attention to the work of Paul Nelson, it's the work of Kevin Avery that resonates most as he tries -- and succeeds as much as possible -- to unravel the enigma of Paul Nelson's mind.
For more, visit www.fantagraphics.com/paulnelson.