A Paul Nelson (1936–2006) acolyte delivers a labor-of-love exhumation of the pioneering rock critic’s legacy.
Even among rock fanatics of the 1960s and ’70s, Nelson never attained (nor seemed to strive for) the higher profile of Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau or Dave Marsh. Yet few were as beloved among his peers, his acolytes, even the artists he reviewed and perhaps too often befriended. This welcome volume spotlights the work of the critic who championed the young Bob Dylan’s transition from topical songs to electric rock, who provided early support for Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon and who served a stint at Mercury Records during which he signed and championed the New York Dolls and became buddies with Rod Stewart. Says Jay Cocks, who became a successful screenwriter and was the film and music critic for Time during Nelson’s most prolific years, “Paul was one who deserves the word critic; the rest of us were reviewers.” Says Jann Wenner, whose Rolling Stone hired Nelson as review editor and then accepted his resignation as the magazine moved toward shorter reviews in a section that was more aligned with popular taste: “He had that authority and that level of gravitas that these other guys, [Jon] Landau and Greil (Marcus) had had before him. He was the last of that tradition. I guess that era of the independent fiefdom came to an end with Paul.” Avery’s book also serves as a memorial to a man who saw his career succumb to paralyzing writer’s block as well as changing journalistic values, who clerked in a video store and became borderline destitute, who refused contact with former friends and colleagues and who died a week before his body was discovered.
Reading Bruce Springsteen description of Nelson’s “fan’s enthusiasm…tempered by the incredible intelligence” recalls an era when the rock critic, and rock criticism, really mattered.