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'

GENIUS AND FRAILTY
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.

But he never finished writing either of those stories, and when he obtained a contract to write a book about Stewart, Lester Bangs had to come in as co-author to bail him out. I don't know what happened, but watching Paul succumb to writer's block was maybe the greatest creative tragedy of my professional career.

One of the great personal tragedies was my inability to sustain our friendship once we'd left our Manhattan neighborhood. I have missed Paul, in all his glorious complexity, genius, and frailty, for a very, very long time and never more than now. May his legacy include a blizzard of newly unearthed manuscripts.

BOOKSHELVES
By Greil Marcus

Sometime in the early 1970s, I visited Paul Nelson's apartment in New York—on Lexington Avenue, I think. I'd seen Paul often in the years before, but this was the first time I'd seen him without a cap, when I found out that underneath that cap, he was completely bald. In his own house, he could be himself.

Paul was a serious book collector: a maven, a fetishist. His shelves were filled with endless editions of 1940s and 1950s hard-boiled detective fiction. First editions in perfect condition; battered paperbacks with lurid covers. Placed here and there were books on stands, as artworks. They were there to be stared at, to fall into, to reflect back, like mirrors. He handed me Five Sinister Characters, a 1945 paperback collection of Raymond Chandler stories: "Trouble Is My Business," "Red Wind," "I'll Be Waiting." On the cover were pictures of a rich woman in a heavy necklace, a mean-looking cad in a pencil moustache, an officer from the time of the first world war, a Chinese thug, and a woman in a veiled hat—a woman who was clearly a man. The crude portraits were like a scrim over the writing inside, teasing you that, as you read, you'd be able to tell who was who, when the whole point was that you wouldn't.

Paul was a humble, generous man with the driest sense of humor imaginable, all in the way he dropped an eyebrow; you knew you weren't seeing a fraction of what was there. The apartment was an airy, pleasant place, but it was also a cave. "P.N. has a Phone-Mate automatic answering machine, which he leaves on twenty-four hours a day, to screen out all calls he does not want," Paul's close friend and collaborator Lester Bangs wrote about that time in a set of notes for a book he planned, All My Friends Are Hermits—in those days, you still had to explain what an answering machine was. "Sometimes, after I hear the beep and say who it is, he immediately picks up. Often he does not. Sometimes the latter option obtains for weeks." Paul hid from his own writing. In 1974, when Jim Miller and I were trying to get the chapters Paul had promised for The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll out of him—on Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart, people Paul loved, and who loved him—we left what we thought were funny, then what we hoped were threatening messages on his machine, pushed his buzzer, shouted up from the street, mailed ransom notes (I can't remember who the hostage was supposed to be). We had no idea if he was in the apartment or not. We fantasized—it's a commonplace, banal fantasy, everyone's had it—that he was in there dead, not to be found until the neighbors couldn't ignore the smell. We gave up, and began looking for other writers.

Finally the pieces came. The one on Dylan was a detective story. Paul was the Op; culture was his beat. His clients (from "the Manhattan Institute of Critical Enterprise" and "the Majorities Enter the War League") were looking for a hero to promote, and thought Dylan might still do the job.

"In the mid-sixties Dylan's talent evoked such an intense degree of personal participation from both his admirers and detractors that he could not be permitted so much as a random action," the detective explained. "Hungry for a sign, the world used to follow him around, just waiting for him to drop a cigarette butt. When he did they'd sift through the remains, looking for significance. The scary part is they'd find it—and it really would be significant."

"Mystical mumbo jumbo," one of the clients said; it was a whole career in seventy-five words. They took Paul weeks to write, and over the last thirty years they've bounced back again and again and again. A lot of writers live their lives without ever getting anything quite so right, in words that would come to no one else.

MEMORIES OF A FRIEND
By Tony Glover

Paul Nelson's love of American music, from the cool jazz of Monk and Chet Baker to the mountain keenings of Roscoe Holcomb and genius-grit of Woody Guthrie, put him on a path that wound through his life. With fellow U of M student Jon Pankake, he founded Little Sandy Review, a handmade magazine devoted to reviewing traditional folk music. They scorned the frat-boy striped-shirt trios and promoted the raw, real stuff with both ardor and wit. We assembled and stapled several of the 30-odd issues on the ping-pong table in my parents' basement, and I ran off a couple issues after hours at the print shop where I then had my only lasting day gig. I got my journalistic start at LSR, reviewing a Lightning Hopkins album. Paul hooked up Koerner Ray & Glover with a hobby record label, and drove us in his car through a fog-shrouded Wisconsin night to the all-day recording session. He sent a copy to Elektra Records and wound up co-producing and writing notes for most of our Elektra albums.

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....

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

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