Rod the Bod

“‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ still needs modest defenses. Eerily mimicking the feel of the Stones’ ‘Miss You,’ Stewart’s band plays every extant disco signifier: four on the floor drums, locked-down bass, guitar fills too groove-conscious to do anything besides stay out of the way, sax solo. The key, though, is the amazing synth line, lumbering across the track, suggesting a scenario much colder and sleek than the one written by Stewart (noting the synth is one of my earliest memories). This is the second curious thing about ‘Sexy’: it’s a singer-songwriter narrative bedecked in polyester, which, thanks to the synth and rhythm section, intensifies the comedy.”

Alfred Soto on disco-era-and-beyond Rod Stewart. I have some thoughts on this, may try to express them later, but I don’t read Alfred’s piece as a rebuke to the Bangs/Nelson [insert most ’70s rock critics] line on Rod. I dig the visors, though.

Paul Nelson and Lester Bangs Rod Stewart

From the Archives: Interview with Paul Nelson (2000)

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 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.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

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!CircusThe Village VoiceThe 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.

–  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

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.

Continue reading “From the Archives: Interview with Paul Nelson (2000)”

More links to Nelson/Avery

  • Dulani Wallace interviews Kevin Avery at the Vinyl District: “He would only really enjoy writing about things that meant something to him personally, so there are few clues about his own life in many of his pieces. So that became the idea—the first half of the book is the biography, the second half of the book is Paul’s writing. It’s kind of like Paul telling his own story.”
  • Review at The Stash Dauber: “Part of why I find Nelson’s story so disturbingly resonant, I have to admit, is that I see something of myself in him (although he accomplished significantly more and operated on a more highly exalted plain than your humble chronicler o’ events), and something of my father (who spent the last 30 years of his life working on an academic paper that was never completed, let alone published). “


[Photo of Paul Nelson by Lawrence White]

“Immense amount of collective guilt”

Kevin Avery on the process of compiling interviews for his Paul Nelson bio/compilation.

It snowballed. One person would lead me to two others who would lead me to four others. A lot of this was accomplished by good will, old friends of Paul’s who really wanted to see his work in print again. I found that among Paul’s friends there was the most immense amount of collective guilt that I’ve ever encountered. They felt like, as a whole, they had let him slip away. Paul didn’t make it easy. A lot of them did try to call Paul and he didn’t return their calls. Paul was very good at shutting doors in his life and not turning back.

Highlights from Sing Out!, 1964-1966

The blog My Life – in Concert! posts scanned highlights from the pages of Sing Out!, the “folk music bible” that served as an early stomping ground for Paul Nelson and was a prequel of sorts to rock criticism.

Sing Out! is a folk-focussed journal that was inaugurated in 1950 and survives until this day. But it was in the mid-60s, at the height of the folk music boom, that Sing Out! reached its circulation peak and had its greatest cultural impact. Suffice it to say, as a magazine collector, student of social history, and music nut who has a big love for a lot of the 1960s folk music and artists, it was one sweet treat to stumble onto multiple copies from this core era.

The post includes gems like this:

The ads are terrific as well.

Carducci on Nelson

Paul Nelson: First You Dream Then You Die. Joe Carducci reviews Kevin Avery’s twin Paul Nelson books.

What’s impressive about Avery’s biographic half of [Everything is an Afterthought] is that he’s produced both an intimate personal bio and a comprehensive professional bio as well. He’s talked to virtually everyone who Nelson inspired or mentored in rock criticism starting in the latter half of the sixties and into the Rolling Stone years. These knuckleheads are a who’s who of American rock criticism, God help us. Most were of the baby boom but seemed to have had their rock and roll baptisms in the Thames. Whatever memories they didn’t have of humid, mossy southern rock and roll meant the best music was often wasted on them; they had preferences for style, lyrics and accents. In their birthdate-determined uni-mind it seemed Dylan went electric because of the Beatles perhaps that was Jan Wenner’s contribution to musicological assumption-jumping. The album (or the ten inch) was the preferred format in the folk scene and albums began to define the more pretentious collegiate experience of rock music by 1965. There was great rock and roll made in this period, here naturally, and now in Britain as well, but a kind of class-based misunderstanding of the object of music writers’ alleged expertise was developing and it going to be a problem. Before we knew it, the working class, non-Southern rock and roll of 1958 through 1963 by Eddie Cochran, Richie Valens, Johnny and the Hurricanes, Dick Dale and the Del-tones, the Wailers, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Beach Boys, etc., was forgotten and no matter the amount of R&B in their sets the British Invasion given credit for introducing white Americans to black music. It was write there in black and white in the Rolling Stone magazine.

Kellow & Kael III (+ Nelson & Clint)

And the reviews keep coming:

  • Jason Bailey, Village Voice: “While Kellow’s analysis is often trenchant (‘The life was seeping out of the film movement of the 1970s, and she knew it. All the more reason, then, to intensify her advocacy for the movies she loved, even for those that she thought simply showed promise’), his conclusions are frequently puzzling. He slams Kael’s appraisal of Ellen Burstyn’s performance in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore for ‘speculating on the private thought processes of the actress’ and engaging in ‘crystal-ball gazing, pure and simple’that is ‘quite out of critical bounds.’ According to whom?”
  • Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly: “As for Kellow’s second strength, it’s an elegantly simple one: He’s a movie lover but not a professional critic. Kael had many axes to grind, but Kellow appears to have none. He just pays attention — an asset for anyone who loves life in the dark.”
  • Somewhat related: Richard Brody, in this New Yorker piece uses Conversations with Clint: Paul Nelson’s Lost Interviews with Clint Eastwood 1979-1983 (edited by Kevin Avery) as a launch pad to discuss the hostility between Kael and Clint Eastwood. Nice to see Brody giving the Nelson/Eastwood book its due, but his axe-grindey conclusion is something else: “P.P.S. The returns have long been in, and, despite the friends and followers who colonize the columns of publications across the country, Pauline Kael has lost. Clint Eastwood is rightly recognized as one of the most distinguished directors of the last forty years (and his career continues to advance from strength to strength); the same is true of Woody Allen (she preferred the early, ‘funny’ Woody). Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, John Cassavetes, Otto Preminger are justly considered consummate artists; The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a locus classicus of the political cinema. Ishtar was welcomed with ecstasy at its 92nd Street Y screening last spring, and its creator, Elaine May, was received like the exiled heroine returning. Nobody would mistake Nashville for the cinematic second coming of Ulysses or Last Tango in Paris for that of “The Rite of Spring”; when Shoah returned last year, it was not discussed as a ‘long moan.’ And the list could go on for quite a while.” (Is this guy a critic or a scorekeeper?)

Finally, Kael gets tweeted:

Interview with Kevin Avery, re: Paul Nelson

Paul Nelson: The legendary rock writer’s life story is music book of the year… Kevin Avery in conversation with Marc Campbell at Dangerous Minds:

Marc: At one time, rock and roll critics were almost as interesting as the music and artists they wrote about. I’m thinking of Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Nick Kent, Cameron Crowe, Lenny Kaye and Paul Nelson, among others. They were kind of like literary rock stars. Do you think Paul had problems dealing with the attention he was receiving as a high profile critic and was he too much of a purist to last in that environment?

Kevin Avery: I don’t think he put himself into the position where he could be the recipient of that attention. He often withdrew to his apartment, behind the safety of a closed door and a prehistoric answering machine that his friends grew to despise. Even when he did frequent the Seventies rock scene, there was something “alone” about him.

As for the second part of your question, I don’t know if I’d label him a purist. It’s difficult to call someone a purist who is equally willing to embrace the music of Bob Dylan, Bernard Herrmann, Jackson Browne, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones. It was the fact that he wasn’t a purist that got him in trouble with the traditional folksters in the Sixties—because he championed Dylan when he plugged in and went electric.

{Be sure to click on our Paul Nelson tag for more.}

Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead

Neil Strauss, interviewed by Andrew McMillen:

Firstly, I want to talk about the final chapter of the book [Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead], and the epilogue. I thought it was a very touching note to end on; it wrapped everything up nicely. It made me wonder; was that section about Paul Nelson always going to close the book?

No. I don’t think any book is ever planned. It always sort of just happens. I guess I knew I wanted the last section to be about family and mortality, and I felt I put so much heart and time into the Paul Nelson piece, it seems like a fitting epilogue for the book. And it rolled so nicely into the actual epilogue. I knew that each section was going to have a theme, and the last section was really going to look at mortality around different angles, in a parallex way. That got more appropriate there. It just sort of landed there.

I just received a copy of Strauss’s book, and may have more to say about it at some point. It’s not normally the sort of book I gravitate towards (hard to explain why, and I’m not being dismissive, just noting that I am very limited in my scope in some regards when it comes to music books), but I certainly look forward to the Nelson chapter, which Steven Ward and Kevin Avery both mentioned in our earlier podcast.

Rockcritics Podcast: Paul Nelson

I’ve mentioned a few times here already Kevin Avery’s wonderful book, Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson. Half a personal biography of Nelson, half a compilation of select Nelson reviews and essays, it’s one of the finest books I’ve ever read about a writer — and, needless to say, about rock criticism. Though Avery’s book is not actually in stores until October, you can pre-order it through Amazon and elsewhere. Be sure to visit Avery’s blog for further details about Everything is an Afterthought, as well as the book he is publishing almost simultaneously, Conversations With Clint: Paul Nelson’s Lost Interviews With Clint Eastwood, 1979-1983.

On June 22, I chatted on the phone with Kevin Avery and Steven Ward (whose “What ever happened to rock critic Paul Nelson?” was the first interview ever published in, back in 2000). The result is a two-part podcast, nearly 100 minutes in length, entirely devoted to Avery’s book and to Paul Nelson’s life. Hope you enjoy.



Downloadable MP3s (Part One / Part Two)

More Half-formed Thoughts About Willis, Nelson, Early Eighties, Shipwrecks, Things Dying, etc.

I’ve been harping on a fair bit lately about Ellen Willis and Paul Nelson, thanks to the terrific recent books (Kevin Avery‘s Nelson bio/compilation comes out in the fall) which have revitalized, in particular, my interest in the period of time in which I first discovered rock criticism — the late ’70s and early ’80s. (Well, sort of. My brother Paul subscribed to Creem from about ’73 onward, and I was more than a little aware of who Lester Bangs was, but the truth is, Bangs mostly reached me back then as a kind of rock star in his own right. It was his reputation and his public shenanigans the ten-year-old me clung to, not the writing itself. I’m not even sure I actually read entire articles by the guy, I just had this vague sense that he was interesting and funny and very, very rock and roll.) I could, and someday may, write an entire book about the years 1979-1982, the years in which entire musical worlds seemed to open before my eyes, and rock criticism was as integral to this self-education as the music itself. And though Willis and Nelson were not the writers I followed most voraciously — maybe, now that I think about it, because they were leaving rock criticism behind right about the time I was becoming a fan of the stuff — they were nevertheless part of a larger framework that intrigued the hell out of me, and that I simply couldn’t get enough of. By “larger framework” I mean something like, folks who waxed serious about rock’s meaning. And by “serious” I mean all sorts of things, not merely serious, dig?

But one of the questions I’m still left with after devouring both books is, what the hell happened in rock criticism as the seventies turned into the eighties? Why did so many of the great early critics decide to get off the boat at that particular juncture? I’m thinking about Marcus’s great Sgt. Pepper riff in his Stranded discography, wherein he calls that much-vaunted masterpiece “a Day-Glo tombstone for its time.” In retrospect, Stranded itself is something of a tombstone, in that more than half its contributors jumped ship at or around that time. Or maybe, to stretch this strained metaphor a bit further, the Janet Maslins and John Rockwells and Langdon Winners actually found their way back to civilization, leaving the Christgaus and Friths and Marcus’s “stranded”? (I don’t know the precise years that rock ceased to be a major public concern for Rockwell, et al.; I’m generalizing here just a tad.) Obviously, Willis and Nelson each had their own ways of dealing with what appears to be their disillusionment with the entire operation: Willis delved deeper into politics and feminism (things which, according to Willis herself, powered her rock writing in the first place), Nelson took a much wobblier course, with fits and starts of various projects (including an endlessly-worked-on and never-completed movie script) leading, ultimately, into near-total retreat from society itself. (Reading the last half of Avery’s bio, I couldn’t help but dredge up some rather uncomfortable visions of Charles Crumb.) But how each of them, and so many of their peers — it’s not an isolated thing I’m talking about here — chose to live out their post-rock critical lives isn’t what I’m thinking about this second. What I’m thinking about is, what made them leave in the first place? Was it simply a function of age? An after-effect of the corporatization of rock journalism? (Marsh has a terrific quote in the Nelson book. In response to Jann Wenner’s installing ratings to Rolling Stone reviews, he says “That’s the death of rock criticism right there.”) Nothing more than a public playing out of the “big chill” effect? (What is the big chill effect? Someone care to remind me?)

On the Futility of Caring Too Deeply

“I think that part of what caused greater and greater problems for Paul [Nelson] is that he started thinking about his writing more and more seriously. He ended up making the mistake that a lot of us make, which is that he wanted to write about the things he cared about most deeply — and it’s exactly those things that are most resistant to our ability to express ourselves as perfectly as we want to.”
– Debra Rae Cohen, quoted in Kevin Avery’s Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson, 2011

I love this quote a lot, even if the implications of it scare me somewhat.

[More Nelson and Nelson-related quotes here.]