A Beautiful Mind

Minnesota-born Paul Nelson was a '60s folk revival pioneer and a founding father of rock writing

This week, City Pages remembers pioneering rock critic Paul Nelson, a native of Warren, Minnesota, who was found dead in his Manhattan apartment last week. He was 69. One of the first journalists to write seriously about popular music, Nelson co-founded the influential folk zine Little Sandy Review with Jon Pankake in 1961, and later defended Bob Dylan in Sing Out! after the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, when Dylan "went electric." In last year's documentary No Direction Home, Dylan admitted he once stole a stack of Nelson's rare folk records, back when both were students at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. In 1963 Nelson moved to Greenwich Village, where he made his career. "I just wrote about what I felt and tried not to make it sound like an advertisement," Nelson told rockcritics.com in 2000. "I didn't want to sound sappy. It was not a master plan. The folk music just turned into rock music for me."

Writing for Circus, Musician, the Village Voice, and Rolling Stone, where he served as reviews editor in the 1970s, Nelson became known for his personal relationship to his subjects—he not only interviewed Warren Zevon about alcoholism, but participated in an intervention. Nelson helped produce Koerner Ray & Glover, and signed the New York Dolls as an A&R man for Mercury Records—thus helping point the way to punk rock. The man who emerges in the following obituaries by Tony Glover, Dave Marsh, and Greil Marcus is a hermetic perfectionist. He hadn't written for years—when eMusic editor Michael Azerrad tried to assign him something about bluegrass recently, Nelson demurred, saying he loved the music too much to do it justice. Nelson spent much of his later life working at Evergreen Video in Greenwich Village. Friends say he was suffering from memory problems. He apparently died of starvation.

In a 1971 Rolling Stone review of the band Wilderness Road, Nelson wrote: "Into the life of every critic there come rare times when both heart and head simultaneously signal blast-off! and he falls happily head-over-heels in love with a rock & roll band, just like when he was seventeen. While a decade may have weeded out much of the naiveté, that warm glow definitely remains, and the qualitative difference is that both sides supposedly know something this time around. A mature appreciation, some would call it, but I prefer good old-fashioned love." —Peter S. Scholtes

Paul Nelson in the Dylan doc 'No Direction Home'
Paramount PIctures
Paul Nelson in the Dylan doc 'No Direction Home'

By Dave Marsh

Paul Nelson served as my musical academy, best-loved neighbor, fellow Midwestern exile, film expert, companion in simple American gluttony (cheeseburgers, two Cokes), and brother in addiction to Nat Sherman's pencil-thin cigarillos, which gave the rail-thin Nelson a look somewhere between the young Eastwood and Nick Charles in bohemian dishabille.

Paul was a lot older than me, probably almost 40 when I met him in 1973. (I was 23.) Looking him up when I moved to New York was recommended by several writers and, most strongly, by Rod Stewart, to whose first solo albums Nelson, his Mercury A&R rep, contributed knowledge of rare Bob Dylan songs.

Nelson knew the Dylan songs not because he was a collector—although he was certainly a collector, of many things—but because he was a key character in the Dinkytown folk music scene of the late 1950s. He played his part in Bob's conversion from Zimmerman and in pointing the young folksinger toward Woody Guthrie, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and the American Folk Music anthology.

Paul shared that knowledge with me, too, and a number of other writers—Kit Rachlis, Jay Cocks, Jon Landau, a good many of the people around Rolling Stone in the late '70s and early '80s. When I edited RS's review section, he was my most cherished writer, all but unable to meet a deadline, but letter perfect when he finally came through. His review of Red Headed Stranger, for instance, opened the door to Willie Nelson's pop chart success, although his scathing pan of Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years couldn't keep it from being a hit.

Nelson had a fantastic collection of hard-boiled detective novels, and when he purchased first editions with dust jackets, he several times passed on to me his beautiful bare-boards copies, notably three of Dashiell Hammett's five novels. He came to film armed with auteurist theory and a passion for being moved to his soul in the dark. He was the greatest early champion of Dylan going electric (a brave move as editor of Sing Out, the bible of the folk police). Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Steve Forbert, and Suzanne Vega.

His love of rock 'n' roll was as much learned as instinctive: He told me he really got it when he did an interview in which Pete Townshend raved on and on about "I Got You Babe." But Paul Nelson got what was great about the New York Dolls right away, and won a bidding battle to sign them to Mercury—which cost him his job but led to some of the greatest trashy moments in pre-punk history.

When he succeeded me as reviews editor at RS, he stepped up his ability to meet deadlines, and wrote a series of memorable features (perhaps the most remarkable his account of Warren Zevon's alcohol and drug addiction and first recovery). Those stories were so good they convinced editors skeptical of writers coming in from the music department to let him tackle more general subjects. He developed an extraordinary relationship with novelist Ross Macdonald. He did probably the longest series of interviews Clint Eastwood's ever done with anyone.

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