Paul Nelson in No Direction Home
I make lists. Before I moved to New York at the end of last year, I crafted a personal and professional to-do list. One item appeared near the top of both lists: reach out to critic Paul Nelson and let him know how much his work had meant to me. His writings, mostly for Rolling Stone and mostly about music (though occasionally movies and books, about which he was equally qualified to write), helped form what still stand today as my tastes in music, literature, and film. He not only made me want to be a critic, which I did for ten years, he made me want to write about music in a bigger context than just something that plays in the background or fills up the space between commercials on radio.
Music mattered to Nelson and, if he thought an album worthy, he wanted it to matter to you, too.
Here was a man who was equally conversant writing about Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective fiction, the failed romanticism of F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, the great heart that beat at the center of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and the magnificence of the Sex Pistols — sometimes all within the same piece. He was instrumental in championing the early works of Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne, Rod Stewart, Elliott Murphy, and David Johansen, to name just a few of the artists who benefited from his critical eye.
During his stint as an A&R man, he got the New York Dolls their record deal. He also went to college with Bob Dylan, and ardently and elegantly defended the singer/songwriter when he went electric. Forty years later, Martin Scorsese included Nelson in his Dylan documentary No Direction Home.
I wrote to Paul Nelson in February, in care of the Greenwich Village video store where he worked, but never received a response. Last month, when my best friend Ellis was in town, we happened into that video store one rainy Wednesday afternoon. I asked the kid behind the desk if Paul Nelson was around. “He hasn’t worked here in about a year,” he said. “But he stops in now and then.” I left not knowing whether or not Nelson had ever received my letter.
Until yesterday afternoon, when I received a phone call from a gentleman who identified himself as Paul Nelson’s friend. “I don’t know if you know this or not, but Paul’s body was found in his apartment last week.” He told me that Nelson, who was 70 and whose obituary appeared in The New York Times on Monday, had indeed received my letter and that it had touched him.
Paul Nelson was a brilliant writer who did for music criticism what Pauline Kael did for film criticism: he blew it apart and demanded more not only from the works he critiqued but of the forum in which he critiqued them. While well more than a decade has passed since his writing last saw print, tonight I find myself missing him and his work more than ever.
To discover for yourself just how good a writer Nelson was, check out his reviews of the first Ramones album, Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty, and his masterpiece, the feature-length article “Warren Zevon: How He Saved Himself from a Coward’s Death.”
Photograph: Paramount Pictures