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24 January 2011

Happy 75th, Paul

Last Friday, January 21, would have been Paul Nelson's 75th birthday. British author Michael Gray, who has written several books about Bob Dylan (including The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia), noted the date in his blog

Copyright 2010 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

15 September 2010

Irwin Silber (1925-2010)

Irwin Silber, Paul Nelson's editor and ofttimes nemesis at Sing Out! magazine, passed away one week ago today. He was eighty-four.

Irwin Silber in 1991

Before Paul resigned from the magazine, he wrote his now legendary defense of Bob Dylan going electric. In that same November 1965 issue of Sing Out!, Silber countered with his own piece, "An Open Letter to Bob Dylan," stating, in part: "I saw at Newport how you had somehow lost contact with people. It seemed to me that some of the paraphernalia of fame were getting in your way."

While Paul always claimed that his resignation from Sing Out! was fueled by the old folk guard's violent reaction to Dylan at Newport, his leaving, as with all of Paul's departures, was much more complicated than that. Still, Paul always maintained that he'd had to sneak his pro-electric Dylan into print. When Richie Unterberger asked Silber about this in a 2002 interview, Silber replied: "I don't recall exactly, but I was the editor. And I knew his opinion. And I think I asked him to write it. I wrote one piece, and he wrote another. And it wouldn't have gone in if I didn't say okay [chuckles]. I think Paul said he wanted to write an alternate opinion. I was always for controversy, and it didn't make any difference if it was directed against me or not. So I can't swear that that's exactly the way it happened, but he didn't have a problem getting it into Sing Out!"

William MacAdams, who co-wrote 701 Toughest Movie Trivia Questions with Paul, remembers going to a film screening with him one afternoon in the early Seventies, when Paul was working in A&R at Mercury Records. When they came out of the theater, Paul spotted Irwin Silber, who'd also been in attendance. "Mercury had sent two limos to pick up some talent that didn't show, so we were going to go off somewhere to eat in one of the limos. Paul, however, knowing Silber was standing behind us watching, told me to take one of the limos while he got in the other alone."

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.

09 October 2009

Meet Perkus Tooth

Yesterday in The Wall Street Journal, in Alexandra Alter's Q&A with writer Jonathan Lethem ("Just Asking... Jonathan Lethem"), the author confirms what many of us already knew: that the reclusive rock critic who inhabits Lethem's new novel, Chronic City, is partly based on his old friend Paul Nelson. Back in May, The New Yorker ran an excerpt from the novel as "Ava's Apartment," a short story about a washed-up rock critic named Perkus Tooth who is made temporarily homeless by a blizzard and winds up squatting in an apartment with a three-legged pit bull.

If the reference to Tooth's "Jackson Hole burger mecca" weren't enough, (Paul Nelson haunted Jackson Hole, a burger joint near his apartment on the Upper East Side), Lethem confirmed the connection in his interview with Alter, telling about when he came back to the city in the mid-Eighties: "I think of that period because I formed this very important friendship, that informs the book very strongly, with this kind of legendary semi-reclusive rock critic named Paul Nelson…"

Lethem was working at an early incarnation of Michael Seidenberg's Brazen Head Books when he first met Paul, who frequented the shop. When I visited with Lethem in 2006, he told me: "There was an unsentimental and disconnected part of Paul where I think he didn't feel that his earlier life was his present life anymore. And all those great stories that Michael and I would have to work so hard to get out him about being an A&R man and putting together that live Velvets record or signing the Dolls or his connection to Dylan—he wasn't feeling close to those experiences anymore. They were just stories that he would half-willingly tell."

Copyright 2009 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

04 October 2009

In Memoriam

Since I began working on Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson a little over three years ago, four people who played key roles in various stages of Paul Nelson's life have passed away. I've already written about two of them here: photographer Dave Gahr last year and, a couple of months ago, musician Mike Seeger.

Last night I learned about the passing of Bill "Cupid" Bartolin, lead guitarist and co-songwriter for Paul's beloved band from Youngstown, Ohio, Blue Ash. Paul signed the group to their first recording contract when he was in A&R at Mercury Records in the early Seventies. Bartolin had been diagnosed with cancer early last month and died yesterday morning due to complications.

Left to right: Frank Secich, Jim Kendzor, Jeff Rozniata,
and Bill "Cupid" Bartolin in the mid-Seventies

And in June, Doris Hoper passed away. She was Paul Nelson's ex-wife and the mother of their son Mark. Paul and Doris had been high school sweethearts and married in 1959 in Minneapolis, where Paul was attending the University of Minnesota. They separated in 1968, though didn't divorce until four years later.
Doris Hoper

When we spoke a couple of months after Paul's passing in 2006, she told me that, though she always thought that he should've followed his dream and written novels, one of her favorite pieces of Paul's music criticism was his review of Bob Dylan and the Band's The Basement Tapes. (A greatly expanded version of the piece, considering Dylan's career as a whole, will appear in the book when it's published in the fall of next year.) It is indeed some of Paul's best and writing and, not coincidentally, provides evidence as to the fine fiction writer he might have become.

Copyright 2009 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

11 August 2009

Mike Seeger (1933-2009)

During Paul Nelson's five-year tenure at Mercury Records, when he wasn't busy trying to sign the New York Dolls, he was responsible for the release of two solo, traditional folk albums by Mike Seeger: Music from True Vine (1972) and The Second Annual Farewell Reunion (1973). Seeger, founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, passed away last Friday.

Paul and Seeger had known each since 1960 or so when the Ramblers, who were fans of The Little Sandy Review, had visited Paul and Jon Pankake in Minneapolis. When LSR was sold to Barry Hansen in 1964 and the focus of the journal shifted from folk to rock, it was Seeger who wrote a letter objecting to the change.

When I spoke with him in 2007, Seeger wanted to make sure that I understood that he wasn’t anti-rock & roll. "I want people to understand, for instance, when Bob Dylan went electric at Newport, that was the best music I thought I'd ever heard him play and I loved it. I can understand the connection." What he objected to "was the abandonment of everything that went on during the first three or four years for popular music."

Mike Seeger in 2003

Seeger was saddened to hear of Paul's death. "I've seen Jon down through the years, and I'd always ask, 'Well, how's Paul?' and there just didn't seem to be any Paul." He said, "He gave us a lot while he was here."

So did Seeger.

Copyright 2009 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

29 January 2009

Paul Nelson's White House Connection

In the latest issue of Rolling Stone, David Browne reports that in 1979 Paul Nelson was recruited as an advisor to a commission headed by legendary producer John Hammond to update the official White House Record Library. As a result of the commission's efforts, President Obama can enjoy vinyl versions of Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Springsteen's Born to Run, Randy Newman's Good Old Boys, Led Zeppelin IV, the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed, the Ramones' Rocket to Russia, the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, the Flying Burrito Brothers' The Gilded Palace of Sin, as well as records by Santana, Neil Young, Talking Heads, Isaac Hayes, Elton John, the Cars, and Barry Manilow.

It's not difficult to surmise which selections were high on Paul's list of suggestions.

The entire article, "Obama's Secret Record Collection," can be found here.

Copyright 2009 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved. 

12 January 2009

Paul Nelson Mentioned

Last week, William Zantzinger, the murderer made famous not by his heinous act but by Bob Dylan having written a song about him, passed away. Michael Yockel's excellent article, "Willian Zantzinger's Lonesome Death," examines not only the man who inspired Dylan's classic "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," but also the truth behind the song. In doing so, he wraps up his article by quoting Paul Nelson.

The trouble is, as fitting as the quote may be in the context of Yockel's article, the words—critical of Dylan's having played fast and loose with the truth—do not belong to Paul. To the contrary, Paul had called the tune "Dylan's best protest song." 

The quote actually belongs to another fine writer, Clinton Heylin, from his 2001 book Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited. Circa 1999, he interviewed Paul and, in the book, writes about Paul's Dylan connection.

Copyright 2009 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

27 October 2008

No More, No Less

In 1972, Paul Nelson was promoted from publicity to East Coast head of A&R at Mercury Records. His first real signing was Blue Ash, a band from Youngstown, Ohio. The group's 1973 debut album, No More, No Less, earned a place on several critics' best-of-the-year lists but, as these things often go, didn't make a connection in the marketplace. Blue Ash's MySpace page remembers it this way:

In July of 1972, the group signed a contract with Peppermint Productions of Youngstown and began recording and sending out demos. In October, legendary A&R man and rock writer Paul Nelson from Mercury Records flew to Youngstown to see Blue Ash "live" and immediately began signing procedures. They started recording their first album No More, No Less in February 1973 with Peppermint's John Grazier producing and with Gary Rhamy engineering. Executive producer Paul Nelson introduced them to a never-before-published, never-before-recorded Bob Dylan song called "Dusty Old Fairgrounds" and suggested they record their version of the Beatles' "Anytime At All" both of which appear on the lp...

On May 15, Mercury released the first Blue Ash 45 "Abracadabra (Have You Seen Her?)" b/w "Dusty Old Fairgrounds" On May 25, No More, No Less was released. Rave reviews and feature articles followed in Rolling Stone, Creem, Crawdaddy, Zoo World, Circus, Phonograph Record, New Times, Record World, Billboard, Rock Scene, Fusion and many others. That summer they began touring and opening for acts like Bob Seger, Iggy and the Stooges, Ted Nugent, Nazareth, Aerosmith and more. Blue Ash along with Raspberries, Big Star and Badfinger became "critical darlings" of a new sound later to be called power pop. Despite the good press Blue Ash was not getting much national radio airplay or sales... 
Thirty-four years later, No More, No Less has finally been released on CD. As Blue Ash's bassist and vocalist, Frank Secich (now of the Deadbeat Poets), recalls in the CD's liner notes, "In June of 1974, Blue Ash was dropped by Mercury Records (under heated protest from Paul Nelson) for lack of sales. Paul was subsequently sacked from the label, too, in large part for signing Blue Ash and the New York Dolls."

While that has indeed been the legend of Paul's departure from Mercury, it's not quite that simple. Reasons for leaving seldom are.

Blue Ash and friend in 1973 (left to right): Frank Secich, Jim Kendzor,
Bill Bartolin, Paul Nelson, and David Evans. Photo by Geoff Jones.

Copyright 2008 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved. 

14 August 2008

Bob Dylan

Paul Nelson wrote: "It is hard to claim too much for the man who in every sense revolutionized modern poetry, American folk music, popular music, and the whole of modern-day thought; even the strongest praise seems finally inadequate. Not many contemporary artists have the power to actually change our lives, but surely Dylan does—and has."

Paul wrote this in 1966, the year after Dylan "went electric" at the Newport Folk Festival and left behind a heretofore devoted audience of dyed-in-the-wool folk-music enthusiasts (an event that also contributed to Paul resigning his post as managing editor of Sing Out! magazine—but that's another story). 

Performing Tuesday night at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Dylan remained just as artistically unyielding. 
The last time I saw Dylan live was 20 years ago and also outdoors, near Park City, Utah. His face was puffy and he was slightly hunched forward, as if he were being crushed by the weight of his own reputation. One of his surlier periods, he would just blast through song after song, each one almost indiscernible from the next. This wasn't Dylan gone electric—it was Dylan gone electrically bombastic.

But I was not surprised. I knew from recordings that Dylan performing live was a chameleonic chimera. There was the bellowing Dylan (with the Band) from 1974's Before the Flood; and two years later there was the punk-rock Dylan spewing fiery deliveries on Hard Rain. What we got at Prospect Park this week was a defiantly elegant Dylan, his voice at once ravaged and ravishing, as thin as a whip and just as dangerous. His band was sharp and exact—like a surgeon's knife, or Jack the Ripper's blade. He played his music the way he wanted to play it, everybody else be damned.

So it was with some amusement that, on our way out of the park after the concert, we heard grumblings to the effect that Dylan "didn't even know the words to his own songs," which "didn't sound the same," and (my favorite) "He didn't even play 'Mr. Tambourine Man'!" 

Forty-three years after Newport, he's still got it. And 42 years after Paul's words, even the strongest praise still seems inadequate.

Copyright 2008 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved. 

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