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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 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.

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.

25 August 2008

Danny Goldberg

Rock journalist. PR guy for Led Zeppelin. Nirvana's manager. Good friend to Kurt and Courtney. Record company executive. These are but a few of the descriptions you might apply to Danny Goldberg, whose latest book, Bumping into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business, hits the bookstores next month. In addition to the appellations I've already dropped, among the many behind-the-scenes tales Goldberg tells are how he covered Woodstock when nobody else wanted to, when he talked Kiss into taking it all off (makeup-wise), and how he launched Stevie Nicks' solo career. What emerges is the profile of someone savvy enough to know that doing business is all about relationships—and that you can't succeed at either one at the expense of the other.

For our purposes here, Goldberg also writes about such Paul Nelson favorites as Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Ian Hunter (whom Goldberg now manages), and Neil Young. Most importantly, he writes about Paul.

Touching on Paul's five years at Mercury Records, when Goldberg was writing for Circus magazine, he also acknowledges Paul's role in the Warren Zevon saga in a lengthy and loving chapter about the singer/songwriter's final years (Goldberg was head of Artemis Records and released not only Zevon's last three studio albums but also the fine tribute album, Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon). He also reflects on Paul's memorial service at St. Mark's Church on September 7, 2006.

What emerges is Goldberg's admiration for both Paul the man and Paul the writer. As he wrote for shortly after Paul's death:
Paul was hopelessly miscast as a PR guy. He was literally incapable of hyping an album or artist he did not believe in and was always apologetic when he called about a Mercury artist.... Paul was far more likely to go into a track by track analysis of the latest Leonard Cohen album on Columbia than even to mention a mediocrity on Mercury. I don't know how he got himself into a position where he was able to sign the Dolls (not normally the kind of thing a PR person could do at record companies) but I suspect he just wore out his superiors. But he did enjoy the expense account that allowed him to take a long list of writers to La Strada and other Midtown restaurants.

Towards the end of Bumping into Geniuses, Goldberg realizes that "People like me were only valuable to record companies to the extent we could identify and sign commercial talent. And the way that the business world judged your talent for picking and signing and working with artists was not how smart you were, how much you loved music, how hard you worked, what skills you had, or what critics thought of your taste. To be taken seriously by the grown-ups you had to be associated with big hits. That was the coin of the realm."

Which pretty much sums up why Paul Nelson's record company career ended in 1975.

Copyright 2008 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

22 July 2007

New York Dolls

Long story short, Paul Nelson, freshly promoted to A&R from publicity at Mercury Records, first witnesses the New York Dolls in 1972. "The Dolls were something special," he would write later. He spends the rest of the year trying to convince his higher-ups to sign the band to its first record deal, but isn't successful until March of the following year. In June of 1973, the Dolls record their first album. The rest is history.

"I knew they were going to have to be a big success or I would lose my job," Paul remembered to Steven Ward in 2000, "and I did." Whether or not the Dolls were indeed the reason for Paul's exit from Mercury Records is explored in Everything Is an Afterthought. One thing that's not debatable is his essential role in the group's career.

Last evening, 34 years after the classic debut album, the New York Dolls played the Siren Festival in Coney Island. As I stood there, right up front, hearing some of those same songs that Paul first heard and in which he perceived greatness, it felt as if perhaps he were there, too. Looking up at the stage, nodding his head and smiling as David Johansen, still full of the energy that ultimately abandoned Paul, sang about having a "Personality Crisis": "... you got it while it was hot/Now frustration and heartache is what you got."

Almost one year ago over at Mere Words, I wrote about the Dolls' third studio album, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, and the fine documentary about the band's original bassist, Arthur "Killer" Kane. That post, "Playing With Dolls," is reprinted here along with some photos I took last night. Enjoy.

In the early Seventies, the New York Dolls were the reigning rock & roll band in New York City, the darlings of David Bowie and the avant-garde intelligentsia, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith rolled into one, and America's principal purveyors of such newfound concepts as deliberate musical primitivism and the punk rock of futuristic, haute-couture street children. A cult band, they were passionately loved or hated, and more than a few critics (myself included) saw in them this country's best chance to develop a home-grown Rolling Stones. The Dolls were talented, and, more importantly, they had poisonality! Both of their albums made the charts, but a series of stormy misunderstandings among their record company, their management and themselves eventually extinguished the green light of hope, and the group disbanded... Like all good romantics, they had destroyed everything they touched. 
                                            Paul Nelson, Rolling Stone, May 18, 1978

The argument could be made that we have the Mormon Church to thank for One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, the first studio album in 32 years by the New York Dolls. It may not be a particularly good argument, but all the components are there for a not even half-baked conspiracy theory: 

As depicted in Greg Whiteley's fine documentary New York Doll, original Dolls bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane, who, following an act of self-defenestration, had converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was working in the church's Family History Center Library when he discovered that an almost 30-year dream, something he had prayed for again and again, was about to come true: the remaining Dolls (David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain) wanted to reunite. Not only are his Mormon coworkers and bishop supportive of their friend, whose life of drinking and drugs had gone out the window with him, they help fund the retrieval of his guitar from a local pawnshop so that he can start practicing for the reunion gig. Had they not and had Kane not rejoined the band, and had New York Doll never been made, you could argue that there would not have been the press and acclaim and subsequent momentum to get the Dolls back into the studio, back on the radio, back on TV, and back in the stores. 

If New York Doll isn't the best piece of pro-LDS propaganda the Mormon Church has ever had at its behest, it's at least some damn funny and insightful off-the-cuff filmmaking. (Has ever a movie come into being so accidentally?) The movie's wacky elements and plot twists -- a faded, jealous rock star, his bitter wife, a quart of peppermint schnapps, a handy piece of cat furniture, an open kitchen window, and an unexpected demise -- tell a tale of decadence and redemption worthy of Raymond Chandler.

But in the midst of all this craziness there beats a heart, and it's a sweet one. Such as when Kane, "the only living statue in rock & roll" and, in Johansen's words, "the miracle of God's creation," leads the group in prayer before they take the stage for the first time in almost 30 years. Or earlier, back at the library, when Kane explains the responsibilities of being a rock & roll bassist to the two little old ladies with whom he works. Or when he confesses to his Mormon bishop his apprehensions about getting back together with Johansen (who, when he finally arrives in the studio, looks like a haggard Allison Janney). 


Which brings us to the Dolls' third album, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, which arrived in stores on Tuesday and which, like Bettie Page adorned in leather, is hard and soft at the same time. Lots of ricocheting guitar lines and anthemic pounding housed within four Phil Spectorish walls of sound; middle-aged men acting tough, vamping and posturing while sounding melodic as all hell. A reminder of how rock & roll ought to be. How it used to be. 

Combining clever wordplay ("Evolution is so obsolete/Stomp your hands and clap your feet," from the pro-simian/anti-creationist single, "Dance Like a Monkey") and wordy cleverness ("Ain't gonna anthropomorphize ya/Or perversely polymorphousize ya"), Johansen, whose vocalizing and songwriting have both aged magnificently, proves that, despite his Buster Poindexter detour, he remains one of rock's savviest practitioners. He leads the Dolls through a variety of subjects and styles while spewing his trash poetry lyrics ("All light shines in darkness/Where else could it shine?") with his heart on his sleeve and his tongue firmly in cheek -- often at the same time:

Yeah, I've been to the doctor
He said there ain't much he could do
"You've got the human condition
Boy, I feel sorry for you"

Funny is one thing, smart is another; but funny and smart at the same time, that's tough. Ask Woody Allen.

Listening to the new album, I couldn't help but think of critic Paul Nelson, whose words opened this piece and who, back in the early Seventies, was the A&R guy who put his job with Mercury Records on the line when he signed the Dolls to their first record deal ("I knew they were going to have to be a big success or I would lose my job, and I did"). What would Nelson, whose body was found alone in his New York apartment earlier this month, have made of the Dolls' new effort and return to the spotlight? And would he have seen anything of himself in the song "I Ain't Got Nothing"?

This is not how the end should have come
Who could imagine this when I was young?
Where is everybody?
It's not the way I wanted it to be

With One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, the New York Dolls pick up right where they left off over 30 years ago, as if no time at all has passed. Which begs the question (especially with all the dancing like a monkey going on): shouldn't there have been some kind of evolution musically? If the Dolls remain just as smart and funny as before, and rock just as hard -- if just plain surviving isn't enough -- what have they gained? 

Wisdom perhaps?

We all should be so lucky.

Copyright 2007 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

22 April 2007


This journal is dedicated to the life and writings of the critic Paul Nelson. Intended as a resource center, providing links to online material written both about Paul and by him, this site will also provide provide regular updates about my upcoming book, tentatively titled Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson

For years I'd carried around the idea of collecting Paul's writings under one cover. The book was still intended as an anthology when, over a year ago, I wrote to Paul and proposed that we work together to collect his best work. It had long been my belief that having his work relegated largely to back issues of sundry music magazines was a disservice not only to his fine writing but to his potential readers. Paul was touched by my proposal (as much an unabashed fan letter as it was a business proposition) and wanted to do the project -- when he got feeling better. 

Since his death last June, the book has taken on an added biographical dimension. Focusing on -- but not limited to -- those dozen or so artists whose work Paul returned to regularly during his career, Everything Is an Afterthought will also include little known background information about the pieces presented, including commentary by Paul's friends, family, and many of the artists about whom he wrote.

If you're not familiar with Paul Nelson or you want to learn more about this fascinating man's history, follow the links under the heading About Paul Nelson. There you'll find tales of his days both inside and outside the recording industry: including his Minnesota years, where he co-founded The Little Sandy Review and became friends with Bob Dylan; his five-year tenure at Mercury Records, where, among other things, he signed the New York Dolls to their first record contract, befriended Rod Stewart, promoted a young David Bowie, and wrangled Jerry Lee Lewis; and his five-year stint as record reviews editor at Rolling Stone

As well, I'll periodically add links under Paul Nelson's Writings, samples of the work for which he'll be most remembered.

But even that's debatable. Because, despite all the varying versions of incidents and timelines that I've encountered in interviewing over 70 of his friends, family, and colleagues, one thing remains constant: Paul Nelson the man. He's remembered almost universally as someone who, despite his idiosyncrasies, was kind and gentle and a loyal friend. That he spent the last twenty years of his life withdrawing from almost everyone is accepted by those who knew him best. There is understanding in their not understanding.

I'll regularly post here as the book progresses and alert you as new links are added. Comments and questions are encouraged. My hope is that, in addition to creating an ongoing dialogue about the man, his work, and his legacy, Paul Nelson's writing will finally receive the recognition and the wider audience it deserves.

Copyright 2007 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

May 2011


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


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