Article first published as Kevin Avery on The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson on Technorati.
From the 1960s to the early 1980s, Paul Nelson was known for writing passionate, insightful criticism of folk and rock music that showed a partiality for singer-songwriters. He, and his record collection, was of great importance to Bob Dylan early in his career. As an editor at Rolling Stone, he influenced many great critics, such as Charles M. Young and Mikal Gilmore. But suddenly, in the early 1980s, when editorial decisions at Rolling Stone ran contrary to his thinking, Nelson walked away from music criticism. In fact, he dropped out of criticism entirely, choosing to spend his remaining years in relative obscurity, working at a video rental store. He died in 2006, but not before writer Kevin Avery contacted him about a potential biography. After Nelson’s death, Avery was tapped to compile this new Fantagraphics book, Everything Is An Afterthought: The Life And Writings Of Paul Nelson, in which Avery documented Nelson’s career as well as collecting his writing. In addition to discussing this book, Avery also discussed his other Nelson-related book that he edited, Conversations with Clint: Paul Nelson’s Lost Interviews with Clint Eastwood, 1979-1983 (Continuum Books). To mark the release of both books, Avery recently allowed me to interview him via email.
Not to toss a large question your way, but how did Paul Nelson help to shape present day rock criticism?
I’m probably the wrong person to ask. As a result of immersing myself in the music and criticism of the Seventies and Eighties, I really don’t follow rock criticism much anymore, but what I do read bears very little resemblance to the kind of writing that Paul did. Paul’s writing was more contemplative and expansive—in contrast to some of what I read today, which is dictated by time and space constraints (some of the very things that brought Paul’s tenure at Rolling Stone to an end in 1982).
In gathering this book, were there certain key parts to the collection that proved harder to track down then others?
Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson is actually divided into two books: Book One, which is Paul’s biography and sets up Book Two, which, while continuing to tell Paul’s story, presents an anthology of some of his best writing. Tracking down the various writings that I wanted to include in the book wasn’t that difficult—the challenge was documenting the last twenty or so years of his life, after he left Rolling Stone and “began to erase himself from the world” (as Anthony DeCurtis recently chillingly wrote). He closed the door on most of his many friends and colleagues and began leading an increasingly private life (which was hermetic to begin with).
What were the biggest logistical challenges to developing this book?
Selecting those writings of Paul’s that would not only demonstrate what a fine writer he was but would also serve to tell his story. Paul was a very autobiographical writer, although not overtly so. Sometimes, as with the Rolling Stone cover story about Warren Zevon’s battle with alcoholism, he was a reluctant participant in the story. But in Paul’s other work, I think even the casual reader could sense his presence lurking between the lines.
What I wanted to do was structure the book so that, after reading the first half of the book, Paul’s writing, in the second half, revealed just how much he had almost surreptitiously been telling his own story all along—in record reviews as well as articles.
In terms of Nelson’s peers and associates, were there a few that proved to be a critical path in terms of giving you the proper frame of mind on the body of Nelson’s work?
At the risk of failing to mention several people who undoubtedly contributed on this front—and there were many (the usual suspects jump to mind: Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, and Kit Rachlis—I’d have to say that Paul’s good friend Jay Cocks, a fine critic in his own right who went on to forge a very successful career as a screenwriter, provided me with the best insight to not only the work Paul had done but also placing it in perspective with rock music and rock writing as a whole. And not just the rock music and criticism of the Seventies of the Eighties, but where it had come from and where it ended up going.
How much fun was it to appear on Kick Out the Jams with Dave Marsh, discussing Nelson’s work?
Lots of fun. Speaking as someone who as a teenager used to sit cross-legged on my bed reading these guys’ work—guys like Dave, Christgau, Greil, Jay, and of course Paul—anticipating reading what they had to say about notable new albums as much as I anticipated the albums themselves—on that level this project was a dream come true.
Before embarking on this project had you known that Bob Dylan had stolen folk records from Nelson at one point early in his career?
Yes, thanks to Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary No Direction Home, where Paul himself tells the story. Though, as I point out in the book, Paul always claimed that the records actually belonged to his best friend at the time, and cofounder of The Little Sandy Review, Jon Pankake. On the other hand, Jon said they were Paul’s. Regardless of their ownership, Dylan took them.
After researching the book, did you find that your view of Nelson changed (for the better or whatever) as you learned more about him?
I certainly understood him better and, as a result, now appreciate his writing even more. While I was writing the book, I experienced the same thing that I think many people have expressed after reading it: an immense sadness. Paul’s story is a tragedy that, by and large, took place behind closed doors in small illegal sublets scattered throughout New York City. There’s an inevitability to what happened to him, but he did the best he could with what he had to work with.
But that sadness passed. It was replaced by a genuine appreciation of the man and the great writing he left behind.
Would punk music have flourished as much without Nelson’s advocacy for it?
What Paul did, especially by way of his amazing Rolling Stone review of the Sex Pistols’ debut album, was help introduce punk to the mainstream. Because he was a critic of some gravitas, famous for writing about singer-songwriters like Dylan, Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen, and Neil Young, I think he undoubtedly engaged some people who otherwise would’ve never considered giving punk a listen. And certainly, when he was editor of the record-review section at Rolling Stone, he encouraged writers like Charles M. Young and Mikal Gilmore to write about bands like the Dead Boys, Joy Division, and Public Image Ltd.
Care to talk a little bit about your Clint Eastwood book?
Absolutely. It’s called Conversations with Clint: Paul Nelson’s Lost Interviews with Clint Eastwood, 1979–1983. Even though it came out first, a few weeks before Everything Is an Afterthought, it’s actually my second book.
I’d always remembered, since reading the aforementioned Zevon cover story in Rolling Stone, that Paul had interviewed Clint Eastwood. In the piece, Paul mentions that he’s interviewing Eastwood for a story. But such a story never materialized anywhere. I hadn’t thought about those interviews with Eastwood in years, but then Dave Marsh mentioned them in a remembrance he wrote about Paul in 2006. Over the next few months, as I began researching the book and conducting interviews, several people asked me if I knew the whereabouts of Paul’s Eastwood tapes. Ultimately, they were found in Paul’s apartment after the medical examiner unsealed it.
The interviews, over seventeen hours’ worth, range from 1979 to 1983, and were intended for a Rolling Stone cover story that Paul, for various reasons, was never able to write it. What struck me while I listened to the tapes for the first time was the obvious friendship that quickly developed between these two men. They clearly enjoyed one another’s company. As a result, Eastwood is much more open and revealing—about his career and his aspirations, about his influences—than the Eastwood we’re used to reading about. Paul had correctly predicted, as far back as 1971, that Eastwood would become a “major force” as an actor and director.
Conversations with Clint presents these interviews as an occasional but ongoing four-year conversation between two friends.