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16 May 2010

The Finish Line

You know what it feels like? It feels as if I'm almost finished running a marathon—the marathon in this case being the three years I spent researching and writing Everything Is an Afterthought, interviewing a hundred or so of Paul Nelson's friends, family, associates, and several of the artists about whose work he wrote (including Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Elliott Murphy, Rod Stewart, Suzanne Vega, Freedy Johnston, and Bruce Hornsby)—and just when that symbolic satin ribbon comes into sight, it suddenly moves farther away.

The finish line becomes a moving target.

No sooner had I announced the publication date of the book than I received word that the publisher has rescheduled its release to Spring 2011 in order to give us a few more months to solicit advance blurbs.

Sure, I'm disappointed; but if this strategy results in more people buying and/or reading the book, then I'm all for it. My goal for this project remains the same as when I began: to not only collect Paul Nelson's best writing into book form so that it can be rediscovered by his original audience, but to introduce his work to a new generation of readers and establish him as one of our finest writers.

In the meantime, I'll continue posting updates here, as well as material that didn't make its way into the book. And maybe some interview transcripts. And next spring will be here before we know it.

Copyright 2010 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

03 May 2010

David Lightbourne (1942-2010)

I just received an e-mail from Joe Carducci:

Musician, critic, polymath, holy smoker David Lightbourne passed in his sleep early last Friday. He wrote important pieces for TNV (Elvis' first concert up north, 1957; the birth of the rock press at Little Sandy Review, 1960), and he was a friend of mine since 1977. The boomer bohemia had become mass culture, and as the punk underground recharged itself I saw in Dave some kind of eternal bohemia that pre-dated the Summer of Love, the British Invasion, and Elvis, and would outlast them. I didn't follow everywhere David went but he shaped alot of my approach thereafter. He and we are lucky he lived to age 67.
I wrote about Dave Lightbourne last year ("The Little Sandy Review") when he contributed his article "The Little Sandy Review and the Birth of Rock Criticism" to Carducci's The New Vulgate. I had first interviewed Lightbourne, a Wyoming-based musician, in January of 2007. We spoke several times after that. Whenever he'd journey to New York for a gig, he always gave me a call.

In 1999, during one of those trips to NYC, Lightbourne had paid a visit to Evergreen Video and introduced himself to Paul Nelson. A long-time fan of The Little Sandy Review, he knew Paul not only through his work but through his heritage: "He reminded me of all my Norwegian and Swedish relatives in Minnesota who grew up in a town of 2,500 people. He was a very recognizable character to me." He fondly remembered rummaging through the movies that Evergreen had to offer: "We looked at some of these strange reissues on DVD that were in a dump bin on one of the tables in the middle of the store, and it was obscure popular culture of the Forties.... I said, 'Jesus, Paul, look what you guys've got in here.'"

The latest issue of The New Vulgate features a tribute to Dave Lightbourne. There you will find Lightbourne's take on Paul Nelson's appearance in the Dylan documentary No Direction Home

My immediate reaction was, “Well, that’s just the nicest little gift anybody could give anybody. Scorsese has now made it possible to feel like you are sitting across the room from Paul Nelson.” Because that was exactly what it was like being in the room with him. I could have been the camera in those scenes. That’s exactly what he looked like, that’s exactly how he talked, that’s exactly what he talked about.

Copyright 2010 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

10 April 2010

The Book Cover Revealed

Though the publication date of the book isn't until September 1st, the appearance this week on Amazon of Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson finally makes it possible for me to reveal illustrator Jeff Wong's magnificent cover.

Jeff, who was good friends with Paul in the late Eighties/early Nineties, has truly captured the essence of the man behind the shades and honored his old pal with this cover (to say nothing of all his hard work on the book's interior design).

Copyright 2010 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

25 March 2010

Rod Stewart

Back in November, Minneapolis, Minnesota's own Bill Tuomala posted a review of Paul Nelson and Lester Bangs's 1981 book Rod Stewart (which I've written about previously here). Writing at Rocks Off: The Exiled on Main Street Weblog, Tuomala ranked Rod Stewart as number fourteen in "The Top 30 Rock Books I Own." 

And if you click on the little black-and-white image of Paul and Lester that Bill has provided, it will lead you to a larger (albeit blurry) version of the photo.

Copyright 2010 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.


14 March 2010

The Doors Redux

I've addressed Paul Nelson's writings about the Doors before, back in June of 2008 ("Perceiving the Doors"). In that same entry, I mentioned that award-winning director Tom DiCillo was at work on a Doors documentary. Now that DiCillo's movie, When You're Strange: A Film About the Doors, is preparing for its U.S. premiere (in select theaters on April 9) and the Internet is abuzz with anticipation, it seems like a good time to post this ad from July 1967, which incorporated part of Paul's Hullabaloo review about the band's first album. Just click on the image to enlarge it.

And, while we're on the subject, here's a link to the trailer to DiCillo's film, which is artfully composed entirely of period footage, much of it previously unreleased. Should you miss DiCillo's film in the theater, fear not: it's also scheduled to appear on PBS's American Masters series on May 26.

Copyright 2010 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

31 January 2010

"Mel Lyman's America"

Though I finished writing Everything Is an Afterthought over five months ago, hardly a week goes by when I don't receive an e-mail or a phone call that is in some way connected to Paul Nelson. (Thankfully, with publication imminent this fall, the Stewie Griffin-inspired "How you comin' on that book you're workin' on?" inquiries have pretty much subsided.) Recently, I heard from William MacAdams, author of Ben Hecht: The Man Behind the Legend. In addition to being a longtime friend of Paul's, in 1995 William coauthored a book with him: 701 Toughest Movie Trivia Questions of All Time.


You probably know that at one time (and perhaps to the end of his life?) one of Paul's favorite albums was Jim Kweskin's America. To Paul the creative force behind the music was Mel Lyman, thus he referred to the record as "Mel Lyman's America." He introduced me to it sometime in the early '70s, before I moved to Europe. I had a vinyl copy, which disappeared a long time ago. Just the other day, don't know why, I thought of Lyman and checked to see if someone on Facebook had a Mel Lyman page (there isn't one), which led me to search for a CD. There is a double Kweskin set including America. I bought it, wondering if it held up. Got it yesterday and couldn't stop playing it.

When Paul died I was saddened but didn't grieve (we had been out of contact for several years, as you know, Paul shutting me out, a deeply hurtful mystery that will never be explained). The music brought Paul back so vividly I broke down in tears, especially upon once again hearing "Amelia Earhart's Last Flight," "The Old Rugged Cross," and "Old Black Joe," Paul's favorites.

I thought you might be unaware of Paul's fondness for Lyman's music. If so, the whole saga of Lyman's remarkable life is worth reading about, the Rolling Stone hatchet job/exposé, et al.


I'd never heard of Jim Kweskin or Mel Lyman, let alone the album in question. Nor could I find where Paul had ever made mention of them in any of his writings. But, trusting William's judgment (he'd proved himself an invaluable resource regarding All Things Paul Nelson), I downloaded the album posthaste from iTunes. I wasn't disappointed. While I was familiar with many of the tunes by way of other artists' versions, there's something deeply felt and unique about Jim Kweskin's America. It reminds me of something Paul wrote about Jackson Browne's Running on Empty (and which was quoted in the program at Paul's memorial service):

It's simple enough to talk about lyrics, aims, structure, and all the critical etceteras, but it's very difficult to pinpoint what it is that's actually moved you. It has to do with essences, I think, and all those corny virtues like truth, courage, conviction, kindness, and the rest of them.
Jim Kweskin's America has all those corny virtues, I think, as did Paul.

Copyright 2010 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

18 January 2010

On Paul Nelson's Shelf

Not far into Jonathan Lethem’s novel Chronic City, Perkus Tooth mentions that he's procured a videotape of director Gillo Pontecorvo’s film Burn! Tooth is the walleyed rock critic who most resembles Paul Nelson, Lethem's real-life friend and mentor, in his obsessive dedication to the music, books, and movies he loves. And Burn! is an obscure movie that its star, Marlon Brando, purportedly liked more than any of his other films.

The mention of Burn! in Chronic City set off a small explosion in my head, and I immediately went to my computer to find a photo I'd taken in Paul's apartment three years ago next week, shortly after the medical examiner had finally unsealed the premises. There, on Paul’s shelf, amongst his hundreds if not thousands of videotapes, turned outward and on display as only certain tapes were, was Burn!, just as I'd remembered it.

Jonathan was truly amazed when he saw the photo. "I honestly had ZERO way of knowing Paul even knew of Burn!, let alone cared for it, when I placed it in that prominent place in Perkus Tooth's obsessions."

Copyright 2010 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

14 January 2010

Andy Zwerling

Andy Zwerling was probably the youngest of the many young musicians whom Paul Nelson backed and/or befriended during his A&R years. Zwerling was only eighteen or nineteen when he first met Paul in 1973. One half of a brother-and-sister act that included his younger sister Leslie (who was still in junior high), Zwerling cherishes his memories of his friendship with Paul, which lasted well beyond their first meeting.

"A lot of people told me that I should contact Paul Nelson at Mercury," Zwerling e-mailed me before we spoke. "I tried calling Paul for a few weeks, but couldn't reach him. When I got him on the phone, he told me that he'd heard that my songs were good, but that he wouldn't be able to do anything for us at Mercury. I asked if we could come play him some songs. He repeated that it wouldn't do any good, but graciously told us to come in anyway.

"I knew that he had signed the New York Dolls. I halfway expected to meet some wild man instead of the quiet, soft-spoken guy Paul was. He immediately told us that since the New York Dolls weren't selling well, it would be impossible for him to do anything for us." [As a point of clarification, by the end of 1973 New York Dolls sold 110,000 copies—not bad for a first album. The problem was that the band was spending money faster than it was coming in, and that financial fact, along with their now legendary antics, was poisoning their relationship with Mercury management. Paul was stuck in the middle with the Mercury blues again.]

"I asked if we could play a few songs, and he gave a bemused smile," Zwerling continued. "We jumped up and started playing. He kept smiling, and we kept playing. Every few songs he'd say that 'I can't do anything for you.' He kept smiling. After a while, he picked up the phone and called a recording studio. He set up a session for us in a beautiful sixteen-track studio. That was a huge deal for us. We recorded two songs ten days later. We all had a great time in the studio. Those two songs are on our retrospective, Somewhere Near Pop Heaven." [In 2003, the album became an unexpected hit in Croatia.] "Paul was always soft-spoken, but he was very animated, encouraging, and enthusiastic during the whole day.

"I don't know how much longer he stayed at Mercury, but he continued to try to sign us. When he left Mercury he sent us to someone he knew at CBS, and we recorded a demo there, which would not have happened without Paul's recommendation. We didn't play live in the city very often, but Paul not only saw us four or five times, but he went out of his way to bring other writers with him [including Dave Marsh]. In 1980 we recorded a demo. It was cheaper to press it as an LP than to make cassettes. Paul sent a copy to Ken Tucker, who gave us a great review in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. I'm sure he sent it to other people, including a writer named Leslie Berman. Paul was then then the review editor at Rolling Stone, and he ran her very favorable review of us.

"His support was always incredible. No matter how much Paul Nelson told us he couldn't do anything for us, he spent decades doing everything he could for us.

"I lost touch with Paul during the 1990s. I knew he'd gone through a very tough time after his mother's death, but I didn't know where he was. One of the last times I saw him was in the middle of the winter sometime in the Eighties. It was about twelve degrees and very windy. I had on a down jacket. Paul had on a very light jacket. I asked 'Aren't you cold?' 'Cold?' He literally laughed. 'I'm from Minnesota, this isn't cold. It gets cold in Minnesota.'

In 2001, "Ed Ward wrote a New York Times story about us. He wanted to talk to Paul about us. I e-mailed a bunch of people, and I was directed to Evergreen Video. I got hold of Paul, and I spoke to him regularly until a year ago. His only regret about the Times story was that he wished more of the compliments he'd given us had made it to the final story. That made three decades of 100 percent support."

Paul would have no doubt been pleased, then, in 2008 when Zwerling—a one-time rock critic himself (with a handful of Rolling Stone reviews to his credit) and now a practicing attorney—released Hold Up the Sky, his first solo album in 37 years. The CD is a joy, and Ken Tucker, now editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, featured it on NPR's Fresh Air, where he named it one of the best albums of 2008.

It's not difficult to imagine that Paul Nelson would've agreed.

Copyright 2010 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

09 January 2010

Lou Reed

One of the more frustrating aspects of selecting which of Paul Nelson's writings to include in Everything Is an Afterthought was deciding which works not to include. For a guy who's famous for his struggles with getting the word onto the page, he wrote a hell of a lot. As much as I hated to, one of the last chapters I deleted from the manuscript was devoted to Lou Reed. Reed was a frequent touchstone and reference point for Paul, but he wrote about the singer-songwriter-founding Velvet Underground member surprisingly few times. Fortunately, two of his best pieces about Reed are available online.

When Paul was still in A&R at Mercury Records, he seized the opportunity to acquire some previously unreleased tapes of the Velvets performing live in Texas, less than a year before Reed departed the band. When the album (a double) was finally released in 1974 as 1969 Velvet Underground Live, Paul penned the liner notes that appeared on the back of the LP’s gatefold cover. (For the inside, he invited singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy, whom he was still trying to sign to Mercury, to compose some liner notes of his own. Murphy writes about the experience here and, although he misremembers the year—it was 1973, not 1972—offers a download of his original handwritten notes.) 

In 1975, a few months after Paul left Mercury Records and returned to criticism, he wrote about Reed again, reviewing Lou Reed Live, the artist's follow-up to his classic Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal. “Had he accomplished nothing else,” Paul wrote, “his work with the Velvet Underground in the late Sixties would assure him a place in anyone's rock & roll pantheon; those remarkable songs still serve as an articulate aural nightmare of men and women caught in the beauty and terror of sexual, street and drug paranoia, unwilling or unable to move. The message is that urban life is tough stuff—it will kill you; Reed, the poet of destruction, knows it but never looks away and somehow finds holiness as well as perversity in both his sinners and his quest.”

Paul ended his critique of Lou Reed Live on an optimistic note and, as his review the following year of Coney Island Baby attests, his faith in Reed was rewarded. The review contains some of Paul’s best writing, his usual well-chosen words expressing not only his aesthetic admiration for Reed’s new work but also the sheer pleasure he derived from listening to it. The review—one of the rare times that his writing reflected his love of sports—also boasts one of my favorite Paul Nelson last lines. 

Which makes me want to enjoy the entire piece over again.

Copyright 2010 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

26 December 2009

Deborah Frost

It recently came to my attention that, back in July of 2008, former rock critic Deborah Frost was a contestant on the roving NYC game show Cash Cab. Lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist for the heavy metal band the Brain Surgeons since 1994, she used to write for The Village Voice, Creem, The Boston Review, and Rolling Stone, where she wrote for Paul Nelson. "The first review he assigned me was Journey," Frost told me when I interviewed her for Everything Is an Afterthought. "It was no big deal or torturous editing session. When it appeared in Rolling Stone, I saw that he had changed just one word, like a magician who knows just how and when to deftly pass the wand. It was brilliant."

Shortly after Paul's death in 2006, Frost penned a remembrance of him, "Another World," for RockCritics.com.

Copyright 2009 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

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