Sunday, August 31, 2014

Is it worth it?

Kevin Avery's EVERYTHING IS AN AFTERTHOUGHT: THE LIFE AND WRITINGS OF PAUL NELSON (2011) is a sad, beautiful, heartbreaking book. If you're a fan of rock criticism or just plain great writing, you ought to check it out. But you might end up crying like a baby by the end of it.
Paul Nelson was among the first rock critics. He started writing about folk music in THE LITTLE SANDY REVIEW, a magazine he published back in 1963, during the early-'60s "folk boom." He started writing about pop music when Bob Dylan "went electric" at the Newport Folk Festival.
After that, Nelson wrote for CIRCUS, ROLLING STONE, THE VILLAGE VOICE, MUSICIAN and others, and was the record-review editor for ROLLING STONE in the early '80s -- a job he walked away from when RS Publisher Jann Wenner tried to impose more control on the magazine's music critics.
Nelson also worked in publicity and A&R for Mercury Records in the early '70s, where -- among other things -- he signed and helped handle the New York Dolls.
Avery follows Nelson through his rock-critic and record-company life, and into the confused period that followed. Nelson's bio -- which takes half the book -- is a case study in the fact that you can have a sharp mind, a creative outlook, and all the writing talent in the world ... and it still won't help you deal with Real Life.
Nelson had trouble dealing with The Real World, and it pretty-much ate him up.
The book is saddest in the confusing period after Nelson leaves RS and begins drifting. He writes a little, gets published in MUSICIAN, pulls together three books with help -- his bio on Rod Stewart was completed by fellow critic Lester Bangs, who wrote 88 pages in a weekend while Nelson managed five -- and withdraws farther and farther from people. He tries to write books on Clint Eastwood, Neil Young, Jackson Browne -- and he can't do it.
His last few years, he ends up working in a video store -- the great obsessions of his life were movies, music and books -- and is practically homeless. At the very end of his 70 years, Nelson starts drawing Social Security payments -- but even when he has money in the bank, he can't handle it. He's so used to being broke that after he dies, his friends find sticky-notes all around his apartment that read "I've got $2. I'm hungry. Thirsty. I need some meals."
At the end, Nelson's own reclusiveness, OCD, and something like Alzheimer's gang up to finish him. His body isn't found for a week. In New York City. In July.
This is tough to read. Though short, Avery's bio is solid and beautifully written. And there's much more in it -- about the marriage that went bad, the girlfriends who barely knew Paul, the son he barely knew. And there are quotes from dozens of Nelson's friends -- fellow rock critics as well as "normal people," folks who helped Nelson, and dozens who say they WOULD have helped, if only they'd known, if only Nelson had SAID SOMETHING. Instead, he withdrew.
The other half of the book is some of Nelson's best writing -- on Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and more. And there's a HILARIOUS 30-page look back at those five years Nelson spent at Mercury. It must have been hell to live through, but it's great to read. I remembered several of the interviews and reviews from when they first appeared in RS, MUSICIAN and elsewhere.
Here's what scares me: I see Nelson's tendencies clearly in myself and others I've known. The creativity, the obsessiveness, and the withdrawal when things get tough. I don't want to end up like this, and I wouldn't want my friends to, either.
This is the fourth book I've read recently by or about rock writers that clearly shows the job is anything but a dream. Bob Palmer's BLUES AND CHAOS gathered his best work -- and it was informative and well-written, but kind of dull except for the occasional obvious joke. Palmer was a heroin addict from what he called "the William Burroughs school of junkies," and he died of liver failure.
Richard Meltzer's A WHORE LIKE ALL THE REST and Nick Tosches' READER gather their best work -- in Tosches' case his writing covers a wide range. Meltzer's WHORE collects just his music writing. I think both of these "noise boys" kind of trashed their talent, though I'm sure they'd disagree, and both have cranked-out lots of books. They don't seem very happy, though. Meltzer is pretty bitter about his rock-crit days.
As someone says in the Nelson book, there's no 401k plan for rock writers. But there's got to be a better retirement plan than being sick and broke and alone.

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