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.