As I mentioned in a post last week, the plan is to transfer all the archived rockcritics material on to the main site here, and we begin with Steven Ward’s classic 2000 interview with Paul Nelson. Published six years prior to Nelson’s death, and 11 years prior to Kevin Avery’s fantastic bio (click “Paul Nelson” on the sidebar for more posts about that), this was an auspicious debut, not just for rockcritics.com but for Steven Ward (who of course went on to conduct something like 75% of the interviews for the site).
On a technical note, I’ll be leaving these interviews intact for the most part, resisting the urge to re-edit or embellish them with photos. In fact, I’m pretty sure Steven asked Nelson for a picture, but (not surprisingly) had no luck obtaining one. It’s amazing that he got as much out of Nelson as he did.
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What ever happened to rock critic Paul Nelson
By Steven Ward, March 2000
Rock writing was not the first choice of Paul Nelson. A pioneer of rock criticism, and one of its most talented practitioners, Nelson (who cites Ross Macdonald as a literary hero) was originally more interested in detective fiction and movie criticism. Still, the Warren, Minnesota native entered the world of music criticism in the early ’60s and wound up changing the way people listened to the music, while helping to launch a “New Journalism” that barely exists anymore. Before Richard Meltzer, Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus exploded onto the rock journalism scene, Nelson and a college buddy started their own Minnesota-based folk-music criticism magazine in 1961–Little Sandy Review. Nelson and his friend, John Pankake, wanted to champion music’s traditionalists. While Nelson stood in the audience and watched fellow University of Minnesota student Bob Dylan turn his acoustic-strumming folk music into an electric guitar thunderstorm, others in the audiences booed and threw various objects at Dylan. Nelson, on the other hand, was mesmerized and wrote about Dylan’s new music as though rock would never be the same.
Nelson’s folk-to-rock epiphany happened at the same time Dylan transformed music forever on stages at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Forest Hills, New York and Carnegie Hall–all shows that featured Dylan performing half-acoustic and half-electric shows. Dylan and Nelson both created and recognized a new kind of rock music at the same time from two different perspectives–performer and audience member.
Nelson wrote about the music that moved him. Whether his subject was a singer-songwriter like Jackson Browne or the punk rock debut of the Sex Pistols, Nelson’s trademark was writing about the music that changed his life. He wrote feature stories, concert reviews and record reviews for Sing Out!, Circus, The Village Voice, The Real Paper, andRolling Stone. He was one of Rolling Stone‘s most influential record review editors. Nelson also worked for Mercury Records in the first half of the ’70s in publicity and A&R.
Today, Nelson no longer writes about nor listens to rock music. He lives in New York City and works in a video store, surrounded by his real love in life–films.
Nelson has not yet given up on writing completely. During a two-hour telephone interview with Nelson on March 6, 2000, he told me that he is working on a screenplay. Nelson, a very private individual, did not want to discuss any details about his film project except to say that he believes Hollywood would not want to go anywhere near it because it’s “so different than anything Hollywood is putting out today.” Nelson had no problems sharing with me his reasons for disappearing from the world of rock criticism. The interview took place just after midnight after Nelson arrived home from work late one night. Nelson is still a night owl, a creature who has always preferred the late night hours–a great time to read, listen to music or watch his favorite Bergman films.
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Steven: Where should we start?
Paul: Let’s just ramble.
Steven: How old are you Paul?
Paul: Let’s not start there. Dylan and I came to New York at the same time. I knew him at college actually at the University of Minnesota when he was Bobby Zimmerman. He was from around Hibbing, Northeast, I was from the Northwest, Warren, Minnesota. Sixty miles from Canada.
Steven: Do you remember the age you were when you discovered music and writing? Did it happen at the same?
Paul: I don’t remember but my parents used to tell me they had some 78s when I was a kid, and at a year and a half years old I could remember what the songs were by memorizing scratches on the label. I mean I couldn’t read, but I would say, “I want to hear this one,” or something like that, indicating that I was always right about the title. I have no idea what the songs were. I remember the first records I got. Two of them. From listening to them on the radio. Warren had 2,000 people. We had no record store or book store. We had one movie theatre and one drug store that sold magazines and sold paperbacks and that was culture. I saw every movie in town. My father subscribed to Time and Newsweek and I had to order any books I wanted to order from Minneapolis. It was like strange America. My high school was completely backwards. O. Henry was the great American writer. It was a very censored experience. I had no idea what classical music was, I didn’t hear any classical music until I got to college. I felt like the dumbest kid in college because everyone else taking English classes had read all of these people who I never heard of. I read every book in the town library. There was about 40 of them and they were all about baseball or Shakespeare. I didn’t understand Shakespeare. I got the gist of it but it was the size.
Steven: Was that when you decided to become a writer? Or was that much later?
Paul: I don’t remember writing stories as a kid. The only good teacher I had in high school was a journalism teacher. She was the whole experience. I learned more in that class than I did in anything else. Changed my life all the way around. Her name was Mary Lou Sullivan. I wanted to be a writer, not necessarily a journalist. I wrote short stories in high school and worked for the local paper. I covered sports events for the high school teams. Crap work. I never liked journalism per se. It was just a typical weekly paper. It wasn’t interesting. I wasn’t surprised that I could do it, I never had any problem with it.
There’s something I didn’t answer before, let me go back.
Steven: Your first records?
Paul: Right. A Hank Williams 45 when he was recording as Luke the Drifter and the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker, “My Funny Valentine.” I still collect Chet Baker.
Steven: How did the music and the journalism come together?
Paul: I wrote about a couple of records for the high school paper. I guess it really came together when I went to college at St. Olaf first in Northfield, Minnesota. I got a scholarship. Graduated second in my class. St. Olaf was about 40 miles from Minneapolis, my first real big city. I loved going to big towns. Going to bookstores and to see movies. I left St. Olaf and went to the University of Minnesota my second year. My first half year I stayed in a dorm. Then I looked for a room somewhere else off campus in a rooming house. The guy in the room next to me, his name was John Pankake. I had this baseball game, it was a dice game. The kid next door knocked on my door, he recognized the sound of the dice and the game. And we became friends. He was a movie nut and loved reading too. Somewhere before that I had heard of Pete Seeger, probably at St. Olaf. He was the pre-eminent guy at the time. I think I saw a concert in Iowa, that’s where I came across folk music. Anyway, John was the same way and we decided we could not afford to buy records and folk music was getting reasonably popular so we decided to start our own magazine just to get the records for nothing. And it worked. The Little Sandy Review…we had three subscribers for the first issue. It got up to 1,000 before it ended.
Steven: When did you first hear Dylan’s music?
Paul: In Minnesota as Bobby Zimmerman. He was doing Harry Belafonte and Josh White songs. He was not writing his own songs yet. He didn’t show much promise then. It changed fast. He sought us out at the Little Sandy Review.
Steven: How long did the Little Sandy Review last?
Paul: 30 issues.
Steven: What happened after that?
Paul: I was already in New York before the Little Sandy Review ended.
Steven: Sorry to interrupt, but what was your major in college?
Paul: English and Art. I started in journalism but quit after one class because I decided that Mary Lou Sullivan already taught me everything I needed to know about journalism. I was bored silly. I waited to take all my requirements–courses people usually take in the beginning of their college careers–at the end. At first, I just took classes I was interested in.
Steven: OK. You said you were in New York.
Paul: I got there through the Little Sandy Review. It was an amazing coincidence because when I was a kid, I saw the New York movies twice knowing that I was going to go there one day at a very early age. I guess it was a case of going from the smallest to the biggest. I did not know what I was going to do there once I got there, but I knew I was going after college. I went to New York around 1963. Not many people get to experience that–going from the small town America to living in the biggest city in the America.
Steven: Is that when you started writing for Sing Out!
Paul: Yeah, that’s when the whole folk revival took off. It was the most serious folk music magazine in the world and all of a sudden they needed a managing editor. They offered me the job, so I took it.
Steven: Greil Marcus pointed out to me that you wrote some serious pieces on Dylan turning electric for Sing Out! in 1965?
Paul: I defended him. I quit Sing Out! because I knew they were going to nail him to the wall for not writing protest songs and I did not want any part of it.
Steven: What happened after you left Sing Out!?
Paul: Well I resigned out of protest because I knew what they would do to Dylan. I kept on watching Dylan’s shows, like at Forest Hills. One Sing Out!critic left after the acoustic section of his show out of protest at the Carnegie Hall show. A lot of people left except me. It was quite scary. I made it a point to applaud Dylan.
Steven: That’s when people booed him.
Paul: Right. Forest Hills was scary. People would come up to me and say, “Joan Baez would never sell out.” And I would say, “what does she have to sell out?” When Phil Ochs did the same thing at Carnegie Hall a decade later, people reacted the same way.
Greil Marcus might be the world’s most famous rock critic–with the possible exception of the self-proclaimed Dean of American Rock Critics, Robert Christgau. When I asked Marcus about Paul Nelson, the Berkeley-based critic wrote as eloquently about Nelson as he has written in the past about his idol, Elvis Presley.
Marcus on Nelson:
“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. His contribution, going back to the Little Sandy Review in Minnesota, carried forward in his crucial Sing Out! piece on Dylan’s electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, his Rolling Stone pieces on Jackson Browne and the Sex Pistols, etc., was to insist on a moral dimension to pop music, or perhaps one could say pop practice, or public speech in the pop arena. Paul saw people making or avoiding choices, striking out in one direction or holding back and fading into the crowd. He was sensitive to the risks and the degree of courage or nerve it takes to make a public choice, and to thus stand alone and stand exposed. I think this crucial verge is what he looked for, consciously or not, and what he was drawn to. In his writing, it provided a sense of how high the stakes in pop music could be. Paul was a maddeningly slow writer. He suffered writer’s block. I think this is because he respected his subjects so much he was terrified of getting anything wrong.”
Steven: Were did you work next?
Paul: I think it was Circus. I worked there twice. I worked at Rolling Stone twice. I freelanced some. The first time at Circus I was the editor but at the time it was primarily a teenybopper magazine. [There was] a special editor for that section. I had to gain some legitimacy for it and line edit it. I wrote most of the other articles and reviews but there was still a lot to do, so I did Q&As with rock and rollers. I think Procol Harum was the first one I did. I made a crucial mistake. I interviewed all of them at the same time so when I played the tape back I did not know who said what. I didn’t know any better.
Steven: When did you first work at Rolling Stone?
Paul: I worked there for nine months or so around the time I left Circus. I did a big story about the Hell’s Angels and the Fillmore East having a big argument once. I worked in New York for Rolling Stone as a reporter or something like that when they were all in San Francisco. It did not work out.
Steven: How did you start working for Mercury Records in 1970?
Paul: I knew all the rock writers. I had stopped working for Rolling Stone and went back to Circus for the second time around. Gerry Rothberg was in charge. I liked him a lot. He knew nothing about rock and roll. He once walked by me when I was playing “Like a Rolling Stone” and said, “who is that?” But he didn’t interfere. And he was a sweet guy to work with. He was the nicest guy I ever worked for. I had a lot of fun there. I used to write the letters to the editor there because it was faster than going through the real stuff. I had fun with that. I had Dick Diver from the Fitzgerald novel write in from upstate New York. Whatever I wanted to get into the magazine, I would write a letter to the magazine and say, “you ought to interview these guys.” They never caught on.
OK. The Mercury Records job. I just wanted to make some more money. I met this girl, we were both broke and I needed money. Ron Oberman at Mercury asked me if I wanted to work for him because I knew all these guys, the rock writers. I thought I would give it a shot. Ron was not a bullshit guy. I was not going to lie to a writer. I was not going to ask a writer to write a good review if the record is bad. That’s the worst thing you can do and Ron told me that was fine. I got a good expense account. I said, why not try it. I got to meet a lot of different writers. I don’t think I met Christgau until I took him to lunch. Dave Marsh came in from Detroit at the time and I never met him before either. We all used to live on selling review copies in those days. They would come up to the offices for records and I would load them up. It was kind of a game. Nobody at Mercury really knew. I also met Richard Meltzer and knew Lester Bangs from when he wrote reviews for Circus.
Steven: What did you think of Meltzer and Bangs?
Paul: Meltzer was really good for awhile but I didn’t know what he was talking about after that. I got along with them. They were all drinkers and I wasn’t. We all got to know each other at all the press parties. l also liked Nick Tosches, Jay Cocks, Chet Flippo, Bill Flanagan and Charles M. Young. Mikal Gilmore was another younger writer I liked.
Steven: I was re-reading Christgau’s 1976 Village Voice essay on the “Rock Critic Establishment” where you were profiled along with Christgau, Jon Landau, Dave Marsh, and John Rockwell. What did you think of that piece?
Paul: Nobody ever took us seriously. No one ever tried to bribe me in my whole life as a critic. Not one. I got along with everyone in that bunch. I didn’t see them all that much. We would see each other at concerts and press parties. I liked them all but I have not seen any of them in a long, long while.
Steven: Which publication is your favorite as far as Paul Nelson’s most prolific time for writing about music?
Paul: Mostly Rolling Stone.
Steven: Did you discover the New York Dolls?
Paul: I signed them. I was fired because of them. I knew they were going to have to be a big success or I would lose my job and I did. None of the people at Mercury were really into music. They were all businessmen.
Steven: Did you miss the writing while you were with Mercury?
Paul: I still wrote for Rolling Stone. I just didn’t write about Mercury albums. Today, that would not happen.
Steven: Your peers in those days–Tosches, Meltzer, Marsh, Marcus, Christgau–did you have a favorite?
Paul: They were all good. I didn’t compare them. They were all more historically orientated and interested than I was. I just tended to write about what I really liked and about what moved me. I didn’t care if it was the Sex Pistols or Leonard Cohen. Like Marsh hated Cohen and all the singer-songwriters. Most were into punk rock and hard rock, no balladeers, no Jackson Brownes and I just liked what I liked and let the chips fall where they may. I was the only one who liked singer-songwriters and punk rock.
Steven: You took over from Jon Landau as record reviews editor at Rolling Stone?
Paul: Dave Marsh actually. It was 1977 or 1978. I worked there from then until 1983.
Steven: Your 1981 Rolling Stone feature on Warren Zevon was amazing. He was recovering from a serious bout with alcoholism.
Paul: I got letters from alcoholics after that for months. The first few days after it ran I got like 104 letters from alcoholics. Zevon answered them all I guess. I sent them to him.
Steven: You were close to Warren Zevon. In fact, you participated in his intervention to try and get him some kind of medical help for his addiction.
Paul: It was not planned but I did. When I went back to Rolling Stone the second time, Jann [Wenner] offered me extra money to be a feature writer and the record reviews editor. I picked just the record reviews editor job because I was incapable of writing about someone that I did not like. So he paid me per piece I wrote. Either I had to love them or hate them. He let me pick the articles I wrote.
Steven: Did you prefer the reviews to the feature stories?
Paul: There were so few of them, I only did articles when I was interested in them. I think I did the first four or five lead reviews when I took over. I wanted to bring in some new writers.
Steven: Any names?
Paul: I don’t remember them. I didn’t want some hack doing the reviews.
Steven: Former Rolling Stone writer Kurt Loder called you “legendary” in his book, Bat Chain Puller.
Paul: I don’t know why I’m legendary. Tell him to call me. I haven’t seen him in a long time. He and David Fricke were two of the good writers at Rolling Stone at the time. They worked at Circus first and were really good. I have fond memories of a lot of writers but I was really a loner.
New York Times pop music critic Jon Pareles, a former staff writer at Crawdaddy! and Rolling Stone, told me he wished he would have gotten to know Nelson better when they worked together at Rolling Stone.
Pareles on Nelson:
“In my short time working at Rolling Stone, circa 1980, Paul was enigmatic. His office was famously chaotic, filled with albums and thick cigarette smoke–Nat Shermans I think He was always friendly, but taciturn, keeping to himself and steering clear of the magazine’s office politics. I was young and shy about famous by-lines, and I regret I didn’t get to know him better. Paul is one of the writers who transformed rock criticism in its formative years, making it a discipline fit for adults. The clarity and muscle of his style, his broad knowledge, and his willingness to be moved by what he heard showed rock critics that it was possible to be professional without turning clinical, and that good rock writing could be more than a consumer advisory, heartfelt and intelligent.”
Steven: Greil Marcus said that you were a slow writer because you respected your subjects so much, you did not want to get it wrong.
Paul: It was not that, I just wanted to get the story the way I wanted it. And if it did not get there–where I wanted it to go–I did not turn it in. I didn’t hack it out. If I didn’t like it, I did not want it published. I wrote them for me. I was not really thinking about anyone reading them. I admit that I was a slow writer and I missed some deadlines but I must have made a lot of deadlines too or you would not be writing this story about me.
Steven: Tell me about your favorite writers?
Paul: Ross Macdonald. Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby was the great American novel. Nabokov’s Lolita. Hemingway, Graham Greene. The whole hard-boiled school. Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald. Macdonald was the only one still alive, so I was determined to meet him, which I did.
Steven: Zevon was also a big Macdonald fan, right?
Paul: I loved his first record. I was back to freelancing when I saw him at The Bottom Line. I saw him perform and we talked afterwards and all he wanted to talk about was my meeting Ross Macdonald. We hit it off right away. He’s a very serious guy.
Steven: You wanted to write detective novels.
Paul: I could never get one going. I could not think of anything interesting. It seems obsolete today. You don’t have detective novels anymore. They would have to be period pieces.
Steven: What did you do after leaving Rolling Stone?
Paul: I did various jobs. A little freelancing. Jann was setting rules I did not agree with. The reviews had to be short. I could never write anything short in my life. I told him he was asking us to write sonnets. He wanted 22 lines. That’s like four sentences. Writers don’t want to count words. I did not want to do it anymore. During my last years at Rolling Stone I was losing interest in the music.
Steven: You demanded Lester Bangs’s re-instatement at Rolling Stone when you were record reviews editor there. He was banned from the magazine before that. Why did you stand up for him?
Paul: It’s not as heroic as it sounds. There were others. Lester was a good writer. He did not write many reviews for me. Other people were banned for pissing off people at the magazine but I wanted them back too. I don’t want to go into names. It was not just Jann. Others there got pissed off at certain writers.
Steven: So after you left Rolling Stone, what did you do?
Paul: I did a bunch of odd jobs. I was a copy editor at Jewish Week. I did it because I just wanted to edit and not write. I didn’t want to think for a while.
Steven: When did you stop writing about rock? The last time I saw your by-line it was in Musician when did your Freedy Johnston feature story in the early ’90s.
Paul: I also did a pieces on Suzanne Vega there. It was a long one. And I did stories on Bruce Hornsby and Chet Baker. I did those four for Musician and someone at People got my name and I did three or four reviews for them in the last couple of years. The reviews were tiny. Those were my last pieces on music. I did four and I’m not sure how many they printed. I know they printed the one on Guy Clark. It was a great live record. I loved it. I did a Townes Van Zandt one after he died. I don’t know if they printed that one either.
Steven: You told me you don’t follow rock music anymore or read rock criticism anymore.
Paul: I don’t. I don’t read Rolling Stone anymore. A lot of us that worked there used to pose the question to one another, if we didn’t work there, would we buy the magazine and my answer turned out to be no. Everything is all People magazine now. It’s all celebrity driven. You can’t say anything bad anymore.
Steven: What music do you listen to now?
Paul: Bluegrass. Ralph Stanley is my favorite artist in the world. I still like Chet Baker. I still collect his stuff. I did not give up on rock all together. I still like Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Springsteen, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams and Jackson Browne.
Steven: As a music writer, did you find yourself drawn to the lyrics of a record more so than the music?
Paul: Yeah. The sad secret is I don’t know one damn thing about music. Notes. I don’t have a clue if something is off or what. I could not technically talk about the music. I could tell you if it moved me and why but I could not tell you how it got there musically. Feeling and emotion was important.
Steven: Why did you turn your back on rock music?
Paul: I got the feeling a lot of artists today are corrupted before the record company gets to them. They just want to make the money. It all seems formulaic to me, what little I hear. I’m talking from an idiot’s perspective. Somebody played me a Beck record recently and I could not understand why anyone would get excited about him. Is he good? He didn’t do anything for me. His music seemed harmless and uninteresting.
Steven: I think he is good, and an original, but seriously overrated by most critics.
Paul: Most of the people I work with are interested in this wallpaper music, electronica. They have no interest or use for Dylan. I guess because we crammed him down everyone’s throat for so long. It’s not that I hate it, but there’s no passion or originality in it.
Steven: Do you have any writing projects you are working on now?
Paul: It’s a script but I don’t want to talk about the plot right now. I just want to finish it. Music was my second love. Movies were my first love. And I loved books. I wanted to come to New York to be a movie critic, but that was hard. But it was easy as hell to be a rock critic in those days. Rolling Stonewas desperate in the old days for writers.
Steven: Do you ever see yourself writing about music again?
Paul: The only thing I would want to write about now is bluegrass and I don’t think I know enough about it. I would like to go off on something that grabs me and bluegrass has been that thing lately. I just like getting immersed in something and that’s not always something involving music.
Steven: Here’s a sentence you wrote from your Stranded piece on The Pretender by Jackson Browne. You wrote, “On this peculiar island, still, I look for the beauty in songs.” What did you mean by “beauty?”
Paul: It was a lyric in a Jackson Browne song. Beauty is what the music does to me, I guess. Whatever moves me.
Steven: Would Jackson Browne’s The Pretender still be your choice today if Greil Marcus asked you to contribute to a Stranded 2000 collection?
Paul: The Pretender is still a great album. It would probably be a Ralph Stanley record.
Steven: I’m going to try one more time. What is your age Paul?
Paul: No. Nope. That’s boring. I was born just after the Civil War.
Steven: You work in a video store now.
Paul: I don’t really want a job anymore where you have to think. The store has a lot of old films and foreign films. A lot of movie nuts come in and you get to talk about the movies. I couldn’t possibly go back to writing about rock. I don’t have any comparison points anymore. Nor do I care to listen to a lot of rock records to learn about them. I would not want to be in today’s music business and it would not want me in it either.
Steven: What do you feel like your contribution to the golden age of rock criticism was?
Paul: I have no idea. I just wrote about what I felt and tried not to make it sound like an advertisement. I didn’t want it to sound sappy. It was not a master plan. The folk music just turned into rock for me. When I heard “Like a Rolling Stone” it changed everything for me.
MTV News guru Kurt Loder was one of Rolling Stone‘s most talented feature writers in the 1980s. When Loder released Bat Chain Puller, his collection of Rolling Stoneessays, he acknowledged Nelson in its opening pages as a legend. When I contacted Loder about this article, he said we are all suffering in a rock criticism world without Nelson’s writing as a part of it anymore.
Loder on Nelson: “I first encountered Paul in the flesh in the spring of 1979, when I arrived at Rolling Stone as a new “Random Notes” writer, and took up residence in the office next to his. I was instantly impressed by his non-stop consumption of thin black Nat Sherman cigarillos and his oceanic knowledge of music going back to the mustiest folk and ranging up through the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls (whose albums he had a hand in bringing to the public via his onetime position as an A&R guy). Paul was one of the great champions of punk rock at Rolling Stone–a difficult position, in as much as Jann detested the music–but Paul went to the mat for it, in one case championing (as I recall) a Clash album for the lead review in the face of Jann’s insistence on spotlighting a piece of product by The Knack. Jann prevailed (of course), but Paul pretty much put his job on the line duking it out.
“Paul was totally devoted to genre art–film noir was a major interest–and he was obsessed with the work of great crime writer Ross McDonald (whom he actually got to interview at exhaustive length before McDonald died). To see how these interests influenced his own work, you should check out Paul’s long quasi-hardboiled piece on Bob Dylan in the original big-red-book version of the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. Like Pauline Kael in another field, Paul demonstrated the possibility of bringing all of one’s knowledge of art and literature to bear on the more circumscribed musical subjects at hand. He was also a great friend to sometimes difficult writers, such as the late Lester Bangs, whose work he talked up despite editorial opprobrium from above at RS. Paul’s occasional romantic entanglements were generally of the tragic variety, much in keeping with the noir ethos he so prized; and his eventual vanishing from the scene, I think, was tragic too.”