A Beautiful Mind

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

When he moved to NYC to edit the leftist folk journal Sing Out!, he kept in touch and let me write a feature piece on South Side Chicago blues. When the old-guard radical staff wrote a scathing put-down of Dylan's going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Fest, Paul raised their hackles by writing an ardent defense of Dylan's new surrealistic sound. He went on to edit rock mags like Hullabaloo (later Circus) and included me there as well. When Paul went to work for Mercury Records as a publicist, he became a musician's advocate at the staunchly old-school label, championing the early solo work of Rod Stewart and David Bowie. He got the label to sign the rag-tag but powerful New York Dolls, which pretty much ended his career there—though he did manage to produce the only major-label album of traditional old-time music man Mike Seeger before he left.

When I went to NYC, I often stayed at Paul's book-crowded apartment; he had shelves from floor to ceiling, with the overflow stacked on top of the refrigerator. A fan of hardboiled mysteries, especially Ross Macdonald, Paul kept a .357 Magnum by his bedside. I don't think he ever shot it, but he said its presence helped his state of mind while working on the mystery screenplay he seemed to always be writing. He invited me to the sessions for the Dolls' first album, I became a fan, and wrote a review for Rolling Stone, where Paul became a writer and editor, as well as mentor to many other writers who took rock music as worthy of serious thought as he did.

He sometimes became part of the story, but in a meaningful rather than egotistic way—check out his piece on Warren Zevon's battles with alcohol. Paul was a soft-spoken man, but his words had weight. With his case-a-day Pepsi habit and trademark shades, cap, and Nat Sherman cigarillos, he was a subtly striking figure, and when he offered an opinion, you listened. He spoke from a place of both passion and knowledge—usually with a sense of sardonic whimsy. Paul was a rare man of quiet integrity. He will be missed. Another good man done gone....

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

Read more about Paul Nelson and share your own memories at cpculture.com.

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