Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Literary Notes From All Over (An Occasional Series)

In case I've given anybody the impression (over the last few months) that Keith Richard's vastly entertaining autobiography is the only good rock book that's crossed my desk of late, let me state now (simply and for the record) that Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson by Kevin Avery -- due out this November from Fantagraphic Books -- is an absolutely riveting and (I think) important read. And I say that not just because I knew the guy at the center of the bio a smidge better than casually (if not well) or because I'm quoted in the book itself (although both of those are true facts).

From the jacket copy:
What happened to Paul Nelson? In the '60s, he pioneered rock & roll criticism with a first-person style of writing that would later be popularized by the likes of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer as “New Journalism.” As co-founding editor of The Little Sandy Review and managing editor of Sing Out!, he’d already established himself, to use his friend Bob Dylan’s words, as “a folk-music scholar”; but when Dylan went electric in 1965, Nelson went with him.

During a five-year detour at Mercury Records in the early 1970s, Nelson signed the New York Dolls to their first recording contract, then settled back down to writing criticism at Rolling Stone as the last in a great tradition of record-review editors that included Jon Landau, Dave Marsh, and Greil Marcus. Famously championing the early careers of artists like Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Rod Stewart, Neil Young, and Warren Zevon, Nelson not only wrote about them but often befriended them. Never one to be pigeonholed, he was also one of punk rock’s first stateside mainstream proponents, embracing the Sex Pistols and the Ramones.

But in 1982, he walked away from it all — Rolling Stone, his friends, and rock & roll. By the time he died in his New York City apartment in 2006 at the age of seventy — a week passing before anybody discovered his body — almost everything he’d written had been relegated to back issues of old music magazines.

That sums up both the reach of the book and its central mystery pretty well, I think, although I should add that it omits Paul's particular relevance to the subject of the blog you're reading, which is that during his tenure at Mercury Records he also signed power pop legends Blue Ash to the label.

In any case, I'm only halfway through the book at the moment, but I can tell you that Avery has done an absolutely smashing job of research and that there's a lot to chew on here about all sorts of issues, the least of which (as it turns out) have to do with the cultural upheavals of the 60s/70s/80s, or the rise of sub-literacy in American journalism, rock and otherwise. I'll have more to say about it later in the year, when it's actually in print, but rest assured that this would be an important book if Avery had done nothing more than get some of Nelson's brilliant essays and reviews between hardcovers, where they clearly belong, at last.

Here are two little tastes for you. The first is, I think, the most deadpan funny footnote I've ever read about a writer's stylistic OCD.
26. Later in his career, Paul grew to despise the semicolon. Saying that he'd rewrite an entire paragraph to circumvent its use, he admitted to Suzanne Vega, "It's totally illogical. The semicolon is used by all the best writers. I just won't." He was, however, an ardent believer in the emdash.

And the second is a one sentence album review -- of the 1979 live turkey Bob Dylan at Budokan -- that I would have killed to have written:
"What, besides God, has happened to this man?"

Meanwhile, Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson is available for pre-order over at Amazon here.

Hie thee hence, is what I'm saying.