Back in 2006, when I heard about the death of rock journalist Paul Nelson (born in 1936), two things quickly came to mind: He was a beautiful writer who put a heavy emphasis on interpreting lyrics, more so than most critics; and that he signed the New York Dolls to Mercury Records.
That's what I went with in my radio show obit for him, although it was not even scratching the surface of his trailblazing writing and tragic life. Well, education has come in the form of Kevin Avery's Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson (Fantagraphics Books, 2011), and it fills in many elements I never knew about Nelson, and many I'd already forgotten. That won't happen again.
Nat Sherman cigarettes and Coca-Cola were Paul Nelson's crutches. No drugs, no booze, he didn't eat vegetables, and he was a runner. His familiar look: cap, shades, mustache. The things he loved the most were movies first and music second; indeed, his writings had a sweeping, cinematic quality. The artists Nelson cared so deeply about--Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne and a few others--gave way to smaller scale passions near the end of his life, such as bluegrass and Chet Baker.
In his native Minnesota in the 1950s, Nelson and his pal Jon Pankake befriended Bob Dylan while starting the important folk publication, The Little Sandy Review. Pankake says that the two of them played Dylan his first Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott records--he's certain of the latter because Elliott's music had to be imported from the UK during that period. On the movie side, a few of Nelson's favorite films (from a list compiled in the '80s) were "The Searchers" (directed by John Ford, 1956), "Mean Streets" (Martin Scorsese, 1973) and "The Wild Bunch" (Sam Peckinpah, 1969).
It was both a long and ridiculously quick road for him after moving to New York around the time that Dylan did; Paul Nelson worked for Sing Out! and contributed to other publications, did album liner notes for Elektra (purely a folk label at the time) and by 1969, wrote for Rolling Stone. A defender of Dylan going electric at Newport in 1965 ("I choose Dylan, I choose art"), he astonished his contemporaries with the passion and detail he put in his pieces--and how meeting deadlines was not his strong suit. Nelson's battles with RS publisher Jann Wenner were legendary (because in the '70s, Nelson was a punk rock supporter, and the two of them waged a war over art and commerce--punk may have produced great art but flimsy commerce, in Wenner's estimation), especially after Nelson rejoined the magazine as record reviews editor following his Mercury Records publicity and Artists & Repertoire positions. "Five good years, five bad years," he said of his time at the label. "The same five years--1970 to 1975."
Among his more surprising reviews: Nelson was not a fan of Dylan's boisterous 1974 tour with the Band ("Did these songs--most of his great ones--no longer mean anything to him or had he simply been away from live performance for too many years? Perhaps he had something else on his mind"). And he panned Patti Smith's Horses ("A morbid, pretentious rehash of the artist's two major influences--Lou Reed and Jim Morrison from the late Sixties").
In many of his reviews, Paul Nelson applied his own life experiences to what the recording artist was saying--which meant that he connected with lyrics that suggested his estrangement from family members (years and years would go by before they'd contact each other), as well as other matters of the heart. In Nelson's well-chosen words, there was a reflective sense of what was going on in his own disappointing situation.
Thankfully, the second half Everything Is an Afterthought isn't a biography as much as it is a celebration of Nelson's best published and previously unpublished writings on everyone from Leonard Cohen and Elliott Murphy to Clint Eastwood, yet it also details the difficulties Nelson sometimes endured while trying to finish those pieces. His prose, criticism and interviews make up a truly uplifting body of work, a much needed balance after the tales of his long decline, where Nelson increasingly could not deal with even the most mundane personal issues.
I had barely remembered Paul Nelson's brutal putdown of a "narcissistic" J.D. Souther record from 1979 and Don Henley's enraged reaction to that review, bringing back one of my favorite funny moments in rock journalism. Souther, wrote Nelson, couldn't muster the appropriate emotion about a lost love on one particular track; instead, the singer was "sounding like he's mildly annoyed because his Perrier is getting warm."
In the big scheme of things, Kevin Avery's heartbreaking book reminds me that there were hardly enough laughs during Paul Nelson's time on earth--it was a life that started sinking too soon.
"As my friend Utah (Phillips) would say, freedom is something we are born with, like our eyes and our ears. Then we wait for someone to come along and try to take it away. The degree to which we resist is the degree to which we are free."
--Ani DiFranco conversing with Sekou Sundiata, in the former's book of lyrics, Verses (published by Seven Stories, 2007)
Ani DiFranco--Which Side Are You On? (Righteous Babe): Which Side, DiFranco's first album in three years, finds the woman who re-invented punk-folk in the 1990s at peace with herself while never failing to ask the tough questions. Her records have been strained, somewhat hit and miss in recent years, but this one's a keeper. Topics range from the continued pollution of our souls (via living in the modern world) to getting older and enjoying our own growing wisdom--in "If Yr Not," the hook is, "If yr not getting happier as you get older/Then yr *%#^ing up." DiFranco's version of the title track, long associated with Pete Seeger, is a glorious transformation of a folk classic into a startling piece of music, complete with New Orleans-style horns and updated lyrics.
Though not a match the great run of records DiFranco made in the mid-'90s (Not a Pretty Girl, Dilate and the startling live set, Living In Clip), Which Side Are You On? is quite a return.
Eric Dahl--Live By Your Word (Yew Lane): His first record in ten years, Dahl's latest was tossed off rather carelessly in an Austin Chronicle review last August, which opined that his "raspy vocals aren't very musical," just one of several unfair little snips. It took me
until November to hear the album; I was struck by Dahl's varied styles, from rock to Americana, and an impressive vocal approach, as his singing vaguely recalls Chris Rea's. Dahl was based in Seattle for years and then recorded these tracks during a three-year period in Austin before he moved to Georgia. How could a journalist--no matter where they're based--take this excellent stuff for granted? I guess there's so much good music in Austin that some reviewers have lost their ability to appreciate it.
Sista Monica Parker--Living In the Danger Zone (Mo Muscle): Parker's always been a powerhouse blues and gospel vocalist, but with Danger Zone, she's picked up the tempo and tightened up her arrangements, echoing what Tracy Nelson did last year with Victim of the Blues. There are several self-determined songs that rank among Parker's best ("Fierce Force of Nature," "Unstoppable!") and her tough, concise approach makes
Living In the Danger Zone come alive.
Ringo Starr--Ringo 2012 (Hip-O): Our pal Ritchie makes fun, serviceable albums; I must admit that I usually file them away after a couple of listens--though I usually play a new album cut on the radio when it's his birthday. Ringo 2012 has its moments ("Samba," written with Van Dyke Parks, has a great feel), but there are also unnecessary remakes of his songs like "Step Lightly" and a repeat of "Think It Over" from one of last year's Buddy Holly tributes. Kinda skimpy in length--29 minutes (what is this, Beatles '65? No it's not, or even 1992's Time Takes Time). Perhaps the true test of whether Ringo 2012 is worthwhile or not has to do with the performance video that is included in the commercial copies. Haven't tracked that part down yet.
Glen Campbell--Ghost on the Canvas (The Record Company/Surfdog): Jennifer Hudson's powerful, intimate voice-and-piano tribute to the late Whitney Houston wasn't the only moving part of last week's Grammy Awards presentation. The celebration of Glen Campbell's life in music, which included the man himself, re-established his artistic virtues that have been all but ignored for years--don't forget that Ray Charles considered Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" one of the most soulful records of the late '60s. You probably know that the singer-guitarist's current tour and Ghost on the Canvas are GC's final two projects, as he battles severe health problems. It's such a beautiful, heartbreaking record, full of the stellar, orchestrated pop and even some wonderful uptempo stuff (Teddy Thompson's "In My Arms"--it's easy to pick out Dick Dale's playing on it). Other modern material comes from Guided By Voices' Robert Pollard, Jakob Dylan and ex-Replacements leader Paul Westerberg, and Campbell himself. "It's Your Amazing Grace," co-written with producer Julian Raymond, is as poignant as any doomed person's reflections could ever be. That Grammy audience sure threw back a lot of love Campbell's way; perhaps he will find the strength and luck to hang around some more.
Nils Lofgren's Old School (Vision Records) might be among the best albums he's ever done. The multi-instrumentalist, singer and writer, who played on Neil Young's After the Gold Rush as teenager, has uncorked a great set of new tunes, recalling a time when rock artists could sustain passion and substance for 40 minutes on a platter or disc without any lapse in quality. In Nils' case, classic rock is not a dinosaur term.
Old School uses Lofgren's upper rank guitar skills to its advantage; aggressive songs like "60 Is the New 18" are counterbalanced by the heartbreaking "Irish Angel," and there's a successful middle ground between them--wistful, energetic and flat out lovely. Many of the songs deal with the passage of time, but without tears, excess sentiment or trivial statements. It's the opposite of what I saw on a guy's T-shirt at the library yesterday: "Grandpa Gone Wild."
It's almost a shame that Old School has been released at this time, because when Lofgren starts a huge tour next month as a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, will the album simply be forgotten, as so many records are?