Music critic Paul Nelson didn't just interview some of the greatest rock musicians of the boomer era, he became their friends. He opened up to them. Some counseled him, a few loaned him money. When the wife of singer-songwriter Warren Zevon saw her husband needed an intervention to face his addictions, she paid for Nelson to fly from New York to Los Angeles -- not to report it, to be there as a close friend.
Some of the most striking moments in Kevin Avery's Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson (Fantagraphics, $29.99, 584 pages) are taken from Nelson's tapes of these personal, conversational interviews. In most instances, the interviewer-interviewee role is reversed. Nelson wrote for Rolling Stone and other music magazines, but also wrote about literature and film. In his last round of chats with actor Clint Eastwood, Nelson opens up about writing to a woman who'd sent him a fan letter (about one of his Zevon articles) and that he was hoping it might turn into a relationship.
"Jeez, I'm pretty lonesome," Nelson admits. "I mean, maybe this will be something."
"Sure," Eastwood responds.
Everything Is an Afterthought is as much a eulogy for the life and work of this influential critic and writer as it is a reflection of how otherworldly the entertainment industry of the 1960s and '70s appears from a contemporary perspective of online bloggers and digital music.
"I think it's hard to imagine today the power of the critics and the way the music business took them seriously," Elliott Murphy, one of the musicians Nelson championed fiercely in his writing, tells Avery. "Because it was really still the time where the music was leading the industry, not the industry leading the music like it is today. These were mysterious people to the music business."
Nelson was a mystery, indeed. Not so much in the second half of this book -- a meaty collection of his direct reviews and colorful articles about Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, his pal Rod Stewart and his beloved New York Dolls, among others -- but definitely in the first half, Avery's thorough but disjointed biography.
A passionate critic, "a writer as brilliant as he was forgotten," Nelson rubbed shoulders with generational icons -- and then just quit.
Born in Minnesota, he knew Dylan before he was Dylan; the Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott records Dylan first heard were Nelson's. He published his own folk zine, The Little Sandy Review, and was managing editor at Sing Out! magazine before following Dylan into rock and roll and landing at Rolling Stone. (Like Dylan, Nelson quickly soured on topical folk songs, saying they were "like sticking a slogan on the Mona Lisa's forehead.")
Nelson's personal relationship with many artists didn't prevent him from being critical of them in his writing. Nelson didn't see the future of rock in Springsteen the way critic Jon Landau did, but he favorably compared "The River" to the Clash's "London Calling"; "Nebraska," however, left Nelson "shocked and dismayed." He was friends with Stewart but still noted that in the '70s the singer had "suddenly metamorphosed into Jayne Mansfield."
Eventually, though, Nelson became utterly disillusioned with pop music. During a 1979 interview with Zevon, Nelson said, "If rock once stood for some sort of a rebellion against whatever you had, like Brando said, really it now stands for complete conformity, it seems to me -- outside of 10, 12 artists: Jackson, Bruce, Clash, you, Neil Young." By the mid-'80s, he was out, taking a faceless clerk job at a New York City video store and retreating privately with his other two loves: movies and crime novels.
Avery's narrative is bookended by a morbid fascination with Nelson's lonely end, living poorly and finally dying in his apartment in 2006 at age 70.
But the dual nature of his book is fantastic, because after reading about Nelson's life we desire and deserve to read his work. Nelson understood Dylan better than most, he held his ground against the "narcissism" of Patti Smith (amen, brother!), and his pieces championing the New York Dolls ooze an infectious enthusiasm for rock and roll's power to hit you where it counts. For Nelson, this wasn't entertainment. It was personal.
"There was no calculation -- Paul was totally idealistic about rock and roll," said Rolling Stone colleague Peter Herbst. "He believed in its transformative power, I think because he was transformed himself."