Review: Kevin Avery, Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson (Fantagraphics Books, 2011)
In 1960 Paul Nelson founded the Little Sandy Review with his partner Jon Pankake and made it one of the first Zines to garner a small but influential audience, which grew not by hype but solely by word of mouth. The Little Sandy had a circulation of perhaps a thousand (my guess) and all of us who were into “deep Folk” read it and loved it for its unyielding emphasis on integrity and authenticity. Nelson, based in Minneapolis, knew the young Dylan and became his first real champion. Nelson seems to have sensed instantly that this failed frat boy from Hibbing, Minnesota was going to rearrange the musical gene pool, as he watched the scruffy lad absorb all the hard-to-find LP’s that he and his partner harbored. Author Kevin Avery has done us a great service in bringing Paul Nelson’s woefully neglected story and life on the music culture scene into focus. This is a book for all those interested in what made 20th Century American music an anthem for the world. Avery traces the arc of Paul’s life from obscurity in Minneapolis to a position as an avatar (alongside the likes of Lester Bangs) in American music criticism and then, as the dumbing-down kicked into high gear, downward through a gradual decline that left Nelson dead in a third floor walk-up in New York, forgotten and penniless.
Ten years after the Little Sandy phase, and long after Paul had already gone to New York, and left his wife and child for somebody else (it didn’t work out), he spent some time working at Chicago’s Mercury Records where he formed a friendship with my friend Ron Oberman, who knew music like no other, and who ran the label’s Publicity department. They were a great and transformative combination. Mercury in those days was still one of those classic dinosaurs that, despite the ample revenue that Rock offered, kept stumbling slowly toward oblivion. The Chess Brothers, Mercury, and countless other record companies had come up on the techno side of the Rock bonanza and the Folk boom, and to suggest that they were absolutely clueless is to put it mildly. The Chess Brothers had helped create the modern Blues and R and B market from the trunks of their Cadillacs. Mercury, which was simply in the right place at the right time, stumbled from act to act never quite certain about anything beyond the bottom line. The music game kept changing rapidly, and never more so than in the years between 1960 and 1970.
Paul was in the process of selling Mercury on the New York Dolls who he had helped discover and publicize. He also brought aboard Mike Seeger, one of America’s eminent Folk revivalists. Seeger was a charter member of the New Lost City Ramblers, who re-introduced the country to its extraordinary Southern string band heritage embodied in groups like the Skillet Lickers, and performers like the legendary banjoist Doc Boggs, whose name remained scrawled on the toilet wall of the Fickle Pickle club on Chicago’s State Street: “Doc Boggs Lives.” As Avery notes, those early days of the Folk revival were a strange situation, as mystifying as the bumpy trajectory of Paul’s career.
Mercury Records was a world of hustling A and R people, of producers who hadn’t a clue (see Avery’s note on Robin McBride), of ageing PR people whose expense accounts were padded with the first Egyptian Pyramid, and, most of all, Irving Steinberg, Mercury’s CEO, whose anti-social skills and kack-handed beat downs made him a legend. One of the books more poignant moments is an A and R meeting at which Nelson plays the new Mike Seeger LP for the employees; a record containing obscure instrumentals and songs of the sort that qualified Seeger as an extraordinary folklorist as befits a son of America’s first folk music family.
Stan (Mercury employee): “Whereas the hit single?”
Nelson: “There is no hit single.”
Stan: “What are we doing with this shit if there is no hit single?”
You get the idea.
Steinberg, who occasionally would scream an underling into fawning submission and then cop to a well-honed amnesia, kept confusing the Velvet Underground – whose material Nelson helped the label purchase and release – with Deep Purple, a heavy metal ensemble as far from the Underground as Lou Reed was from a Pentecostal shouter. The New York Dolls, after signing, had a long and sordid record biz career, interlaced with the usual clichés; drug overdoses, failed tours, and record sales that slumped as the band botched its way down Rock Victim Boulevard.
Paul’s great failing was the terrible temptation to “do good,” coupled with a real passion for rockers who could write. While editing at Rolling Stone he gave significant boost to, and was a friend of, Warren Zevon, Jackson Brown, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, among many others. He nurtured a close relationship with Rod Stewart too, who after early years of interesting work Nelson eventually realized was headed for the Borscht Belt resorts where some of us had always envisioned him headlining just over Buddy Hackett or Jerry Seinfeld.
Nelson could tell that corporate Rock was on the way and that it would obliterate the community-based hardscrabble bands that preceded it. He loathed the Eagles, who embodied the California based know- nothing lyricism and profit-driven hot licks and chart-busting albums that formed the model for the Gold Rush that followed. Hotel California and the Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven are now the stuff of bankable nostalgia and were the soundtracks that signaled the end of hippy delusions, FM Progressive radio, and the anarchic visions of the Communards whose brief day was over almost as soon as it had gotten airplay.
At Rolling Stone Nelson came into head-on collision with Editor in Chief Jann Wenner’s rigid editorial policies that ultimately drove him from the magazine and its regular paycheck. It’s not all an immediate slide into oblivion, but the signs were there. What had started as a heady period of liberation and political engagement now does a ragged Tango into corporate temerity, record business fatuity, and niggling reaction. Jann Wenner’s tenure at Rolling Stone, from the early coverage of what had been a band-driven community revival in San Francisco, to the profit-driven poses of the 80’s are as good a flow chart as any for where things went.
There is a marvelous film in Avery’s book with the laser-like prescience of Nelson at its center: rising from Midwestern obscurity to New York prominence, from a heyday at Mercury and Rolling Stone down to drudging in a video store. All of these stations of the Rock cross were graced by the casual humiliations Nelson endured at every stage. Nelson’s last decade was spent working at a video store, penniless, his best work long behind him as he listened to the Bluegrass music of the Stanley Brothers, with his wonderfully lucid rock commentaries deep-sixed. Nelson’s idealism, undrugged clarity, and his teetotaler’s clear conscience are what help sink him in a world where Blow and Stretch Limos, trashed hotel rooms and six figure advances supplanted good energy and left a numbed post-Vietnam world fixated on wretched excess, coming down to us as media rewrite and promo for the sodden middle-brow, televised future once promoted as liberation and vision. “Yes Virginia, the Rolling Stones once learned all they would come to know—– from their audiences.”
Nelson never abandoned his belief in the power of music to transform and ennoble the efforts of those who, for a brief time, sought to get beyond the toxic media bubble that slimes the merchandise and bleeds the air of its promise. Avery’s book does not stint on Nelson’s failures; his guilt over a marriage and son abandoned; his later inability to fulfill assignments such as high profile pieces on people like Clint Eastwood, who had a genuine affection for him, but found that he simply could not deliver. His growing isolation and inability to confront even the simplest of life’s demands (he almost botches his Social Security application but for friends who intervened); and finally his withered Muse which, at the end, simply made it impossible for him to write. As Scott Fitzgerald, a fellow Minnesotan who was one of Paul Nelson’s Muses, said of Gatsby: “Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead.”
Warren Leming is a writer who divides his time between Chicago and Berlin. He also is co-director of the documentaries Velvet Prisons: Russell Jacoby on American Academia, now streaming at the ‘Humanity Explored Film Festival (http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/11537/Velvet-Prisons–Russell-Jacoby-on-American-Academia) and of American Road (www.americanroad.jigsy.com) premiering at the AMFM Festival in California in mid-June. (Editor’s Note: Readers can find Paul Nelson’s Rolling Stone review of the late 60s-early 70s rock band Wilderness Road, led by Leming and Nate Herman, here: www.wildernessroad.net/rsreview.php)