Editor Kevin Avery begins his superb collection of Paul Nelson’s writings with both a beautifully poignant introduction by Nick Tosches, and his own teenage letter to Rolling Stone (April 30, 1981 issue), in which he praises Nelson for being a really great writer and a really great friend. The friend to who he was in question would be Warren Zevon, and Avery was commenting on an article (“How He Saved Himself From A Coward’s Death”) that Nelson wrote examining the falling down and ascending from the ashes saga of Zevon’s recovery from alcoholism. I too bought that issue when it came out, and squirmed joyfully around in those quirky details about trying to write songs from playing with a deck of cards, et al, but I don’t think I wrote a letter to RS. I loved the story, and was known to write letters to glossy rock fanzines at the time (Circus, CREEM, and actually had my own fanzine reviewed by Trouser Press that same year) -- but Nelson wrote like Fitzgerald or O’Connor, his prose full of god and anxiety and experiences I wouldn’t live through for decades. (Yes, we’re talking about rock criticism.)
It was one thing to drop a note to a fellow believer who could put together a few sentences about whether or not Joe Jackson should have used the “N” word on his third album, or to admonish older men who didn’t quite grasp how powerful the first Pretenders LP really seemed; it was another to have the life taken out of you by seeing another pour it all over the page. About records, those things that are the only part of the department store you wanted to go to, fuck the clothes and games and everything else. About records with songs you wanted to sing to your friends to tell them what you’re really about, the part of you that will shine that right now they talk over and talk shit to without realizing you’re somebody (as Lou Reed said, “I thought I was someone”).
Paul Nelson knew you were that kid that needed a noir detective to crack the case for you, to demystify the rock god world while not for a second taking the romance and realness out of it. He signed on for a pittance and wrote elegantly and truthfully about an industry that was usually nothing but awkward boasts and queasy lies. And eventually he went broke caring for his mom while she died, after leaving Rolling Stone in a huff -- and when my own mother passed on in 2006, his essay in Stranded (the desert island disc anthology) was the first thing I went over to my bookshelves, pulled down, and read. And I have never owned the Jackson Browne album he was writing about.
But fuck all that. You don’t need this kind of burden. Life is Minutemen B-side short and you need a wopping big collection of great writing to dive right into, from the guy who brought the New York Dolls to Mercury when he did A&R there (also feeding Lester Bangs and Tosches with swag from his office closet), and I guess brought punk -- jail-queer, art fag, Stones-and-girl group loving, fucking PUNK -- to America. Oh yeah, he was also a superb essayist to go along with his insider status, and gave Jan Wenner at RS the most shit without getting shit-canned (he quit on principal, due to his boss’s douchiness). He was, as Dylan sang about Lenny Bruce, “the brother that you never had.” But that’s not why you need the Kevin Avery-edited anthology.
Everything Is An Afterthought: The Life And Writings of Paul Nelson (Fantagraphics) is a necessary purpose beyond the melancholy of the subject, due to his prose -- he never set up a dialectic with rock musicians, they trusted him because he didn’t need them to, he wrote as both insider and outsider at the same time. Browne claimed that Nelson “really got it,” and any fanzine record reviewer will tell you that that’s the best praise one can get from a band. Maybe artists say that to you the way that your high school boyfriend or girlfriend says, “If I were to date anyone right now, it would be you.” As in, “You’re a reviewer, but for one, you’re OK.” But I think Jackson meant it, the way that everyone from Rod Stewart to Cameron Crowe meant their praise.
Here’s the thing: There is a canon, a small pile of books you really should read to learn how to write this stuff. Nelson is probably going to make your style loftier than it needs to be, if you “get him,” as the hype-scribe is a million different screaming POVs out there now and there is no more room for pretension. So maybe this is bad advice, whole-heartedly recommending a book that delivers on the promise that a film like Almost Famous offers, which is the dialogue between music and musician and the architecture-dancer. Nelson got behind many musicians that I still play every week -- Elliott Murphy, Freedy Johnston near the end -- yet his criticisms of Dylan and Springsteen and others are just at a whole other level of otherwise saturated scribing.
You could use this book at ground level as a record guide to get into music you know passed the authenticity test of a guy who lived in the heart of NYC, kept guns around for the aesthetics, was constructing a Harry Dargeresque manuscript based on the relational shadows of his passionate existence, lived at the movies, loved a cold Coke and could chat with Clint Eastwood for hours (a guy whose bullshit detector probably tolerated no superfluous company). This is the kind of writer I want to read writing about my favorite albums and those I still need to buy. I’m not kidding when I say that you need to get on this ASAP if you do any music writing at all. It’s the Scribes Sounding Off book of the year, in a pretty great year of them (the Ellen Willis collection, and Will Hermes’ Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, which is coming up next).