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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.

09 December 2009


My appearance with Jonathan Lethem on WNYC's Soundcheck last week (which you can listen to here) was pure pleasure. I only have one regret. When host John Schaefer equated the mystery that was Paul Nelson's life to Rashomon, "where some people knew this part of Paul Nelson, some people knew that part of Paul Nelson," my response suggested that Paul's departure from society at large was due to his disillusionment with the state of rock & roll in the early Eighties and, in particular, with some of the artists whose work he'd championed. That was only part of Paul's (to employ Jonathan's well-chosen words) "slow fade." The reasons were many.

In the course of writing Everything Is an Afterthought, I several times discovered that some of the legendary tales of Paul's life (why he left his wife and child, why he resigned from Sing Out! in the Sixties and Rolling Stone in the Eighties, why he stopped writing, etc.) were ultimately much more complex than they initially seemed. "When the legend becomes fact," a character says in the 1962 John Ford film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, "print the legend"; but the facts are often much more interesting.

That is perhaps the greatest achievement of Jonathan's novel Chronic City (recently chosen as one of the ten best books of 2009 by The New York Times): the character of Perkus Tooth, Jonathan's Paul Nelson simulacrum, doesn't so much embody Paul as it accurately portrays his complexity and the intensity of his obsessions, and especially the different lives he led with his different friends.

Copyright 2009 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

29 November 2009


Tomorrow afternoon—Monday, November 30th, at 2 o'clock (EST)—I'll be joining Jonathan Lethem to discuss Paul Nelson, his life, and his career on WNYC Radio's Soundcheck. If you're in the New York area, you can hear the show, which is hosted by John Schaefer, on 93.9 FM. Or you can listen live regardless of where you are via the WNYC website. The program also repeats tomorrow night at 10 o'clock (EST).

Copyright 2009 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

15 November 2009

Michael Seidenberg

One of the bonuses that came from working on Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson—along with the immense aesthetic pleasure—was that, in addition to getting to meet and interview a boatload of people whose work I'd admired for years, I also formed some new friendships. On top of his sage wisdom when it came to movies and music and books, Paul Nelson also collected some pretty fascinating friends.

One of them is Michael Seidenberg, Paul's closest confidant in the last few chapters of his life. In the last year or so, Michael himself has been the subject of a profile in The New Yorker and, more recently, the mouthpiece for his three-legged dog Ava in an interview in The Faster Times. In between these two articles, Ava served as the inspiration for the title character in Jonathan Lethem's short story "Ava's Apartment," which also appeared in The New Yorker. Eva's apartment is really Michael's apartment, which Paul frequently visited. Bringing this all around full circle, an expanded version of "Ava's Apartment" appears in Lethem's new novel, Chronic City, whose character Perkus Tooth is heavily based on Paul.

It was Michael who, back in July of 2006, called to tell me that Paul Nelson had died and, without that call or his friendship, the book I wrote would have been decidedly different.

Copyright 2009 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.

May 2011


© 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 by Kevin Avery


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