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Monday, March 12, 2012

Paul Nelson: Rock Criticism Pioneer

Life, writings captured in 'Everything Is an Afterthought'

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Paul Nelson was one of the first critics to analyze popular music with the seriousness that had previously been reserved for classical and jazz. All of the notable, first-generation rock critics such as Lester Bangs, Ellen Willis, Richard Meltzer and Robert Christgau rose to prominence at least half a decade after Nelson debuted in 1960.

The existence of serious rock criticism became central to the transformation of rock into art in the '60s; Nelson's artful criticism permitted this music to assume a high-culture position with swift ease. As Kevin Avery notes in his biography-anthology Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson (Fantagraphics), Nelson wrote prodigiously about singer/songwriters. Bruce Springsteen is quoted as recording and performing because he was “working on a promise to keep, not to just yourself but to him. He put his ass on the line for you…” Nelson (“him”) committed his critical mind to Dylan, Springsteen, Leonard Cohen and others in the category he probably helped define of the singer who writes his own songs.

Nelson wrote more about lyrics than music because it was the new lyrical narrative, circa 1965, that brought about the changing nature of rock music as art. Suddenly, rock was no longer just a catchy tune. Nelson saw this coming out of new trends in folk music (Dylan) and hung onto the theme until it exploded.

He had no problem being heartfelt in his writing without getting mired in subjectivity. Nelson not only defined artists and their genre, but also defined an attribute of popular music criticism that, when handled with expert pen, doesn't spill sentimental ink yet is unafraid to be emotional. Like so many who came next, Nelson loved the music about which he wrote and, unlike literary critics, lavished emotive meaning upon a given work without compromising analytical appraisal. His pioneering criticism merged the literary critic's method with the music fan's fearlessness.

Nelson was a strong force until the mid-'80s, when he became less prolific and more reclusive. By the '90s he wrote nothing, working instead in a Greenwich Village video store. Surviving on cigarettes and Coca-Cola, he veered into emaciation, ill health and nearly complete poverty. He died alone in his apartment in 2006.

His personal story defies alignment with the brilliance of the writings presented in this gorgeously designed book. Nick Tosches writes in the foreword that Nelson “never wrote about anything he didn't know to the full of its depths…” This book clearly supports what Tosches says. Avery has captured the mysterious life Nelson wound up living without compromising the productive and innovative one he led while creating what we think of today as rock criticism. Without Nelson, I would not be writing this nor would you be reading it. It's that simple.