A Second Act for the Critic who Championed Dylan and Springsteen

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By Cullen Gallagher

Chances are you haven't heard of Paul Nelson before-but if you're a fan of rock music, you owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Nelson pioneered the field of rock criticism with his first-person style as an editor at Rolling Stone in the 1970s, where he was among the earliest supporters of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Warren Zevon. But by the early 1980s, Nelson's personal struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression-as well as professional clashes at Rolling Stone-brought his career to a crashing halt. Dropping out of the scene, Nelson languished in obscurity in New York City, writing only a handful of pieces before his death in 2006.

Five years later, Kevin Avery is giving Nelson's legacy the boost it so badly deserves. Conversations with Clint: Paul Nelson's Lost Interviews with Clint Eastwood, 1979-1983 (Continuum), which Avery edited, was published last month. Now comes Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson (Fantagraphics Books), a deeply moving biography that captures not only Nelson's tragedy, but also celebrates the ardor and artistry of his life and work.

How did you first encounter Nelson's writing?
When I was a teenager growing up in Salt Lake City, I subscribed to Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. I was reading all their critics-Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Jon Landau-but out of all of them, Paul Nelson was the one who really struck a chord with me.

What stood out to you about his style?
In the mid-to-late '70s, rock music was still being discovered. There were no hard and fast rules, so in a way criticism was an act of discovery for these writers and they were just expressing what they liked. Paul was able to do that in a way that was not only personal, but also he would draw from film, books and his knowledge of folk music. You also got the feeling that he was a mysterious character. There would be hints dropped that there was an unhappy guy behind all these reviews. His writing was beautiful. This was music criticism that could be read as literature.

What was the interview process like for Everything Is an Afterthought?
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.

Was there anyone you couldn't reach?
I really wanted to talk to Clint Eastwood. I found it such a compelling story that here's a guy who, in 1979, says, "OK, yeah, you can interview me for Rolling Stone," and the process goes on for four years. I wanted to ask, "What was it about Paul that made you want to let him keep coming back?" On the other hand, the fact that this wasn't answered allowed me to write Conversations with Clint.

How did you select which of Nelson's pieces to include?
Early on, I had it in my mind that I'd publish everything that he had written, but it soon became clear that this wasn't going to be possible. Ultimately, the determining factor was: Does this contribute to Paul's story?
Paul's story is in his writing. When I gained access to his belongings, I was able to read his original manuscripts. Very often some of the most personal stuff had been taken out either by him or by editors.

Which writers today carry on in Nelson's footsteps?
The two writers who leap immediately to mind are Jonathan Lethem and Mikal Gilmore. Their work not only reflects Paul's influence but also demonstrates a respect for his tradition.

Are there plans to print more of Nelson's work, such as his unpublished interviews with legendary mystery novelist Ross Macdonald?
That's possibly my next book. It's a little more daunting because with the Clint Eastwood tapes, I was working with 17 hours of material, but with Macdonald it is about 45 hours. Paul reached out to Macdonald as much as a fan as out of the need to connect with somebody who understood where he was in his life at that time. Paul clearly knew those books inside and out and goes through them systematically. I think it would make for a fascinating book.

Kevin Avery will be reading at the Strand Bookstore, 828 Broadway (at 12th Street) on Wed., Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. Joining him will be renowned music critic Dave Marsh, Nelson's friend and colleague.

Headshot of author Kevin Avery. Photo courtesy of Kevin Avery

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