Paul Nelson R.I.P.

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The page includes links to a handful of pieces.

Former Rolling Stone contributor and record reviews editor Paul Nelson was found dead in his New York City apartment last week. He was sixty-nine years old. The Warren, Minnesota native was a member of an influential generation of reviewers that included Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh, and he also briefly worked in A&R in the early Seventies, signing the New York Dolls.

Nelson founded the first magazine of the American folk revival, Little Sandy Review, in the early Sixties. He knew Bob Dylan at the University of Minnesota and first heard his music while the legendary singer-songwriter was still performing under the name Bobby Zimmerman. He was first published in Rolling Stone in 1969 -- the story was about the formation of the Band, published that February -- and he continued to be a regular contributor for the next decade and a half, in the Seventies going on to edit the review section.

Greil Marcus says Nelson asked a lot of each record he played: "Would it raise the possibility that you could think differently, respond differently, feel differently about the dilemmas of love or money, success and failure? Was the singer telling you something that perhaps you didn't know, or was he or she flattering you that you already knew all you or anyone needed to know? He had a phrase in the late Seventies: 'the rock wars.' Music had barely begun to talk about loneliness, suicide, the toughness needed to say everything you had to say in the turn of a line or the way a melody broke. Paul's role? A scout, behind enemy lines, reporting back." Longterm contributor David Fricke says of Nelson, his first editor at the magazine, "He was the perfect definition of 'mentor' -- someone who recognized talent, gave it a chance and made vital helpful criticism in terms of language and perspective. I learned a lot from Paul not just about expressing one's passions and opinions, but how to formulate them and make them live on the page."

In addition to his work for the magazine -- including seminal writings on Seventies recordings by Dylan and Neil Young -- Nelson collaborated with Lester Bangs on a 1988 biography of Rod Stewart.

In the early Seventies, Nelson worked as an A&R man at Mercury Records, where in addition to signing the Dolls, he compiled the important, two-CD Velvet Underground anthology, Velvet Underground 1969 -- a collection of previously unreleased live tapes made by Robert Quine at the Matrix in San Francisco. Nelson was also an unofficial scout of exceptional talent: He was an early supporter in print of Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, the singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy and the solo Dolls frontman David Johansen.

In the early Nineties, Nelson wrote for Musician magazine, contributing features on Freedy Johnston, Suzanne Vega and Chet Baker, and was a copy editor at Jewish Week. A film buff, he became friends with Martin Scorsese, and in recent years worked at an independent video store in New York and was completing a screenplay.

Rickey Wright (Rrrickey), Friday, 7 July 2006 08:47 (twelve years ago) Permalink

Nelson had a big impact on me as a kid -- his review of David Johansen's first solo LP is one of my favorites. Much heart, much soul.

Rickey Wright (Rrrickey), Friday, 7 July 2006 08:50 (twelve years ago) Permalink

he compiled the important, two-CD Velvet Underground anthology, Velvet Underground 1969

For this alone he deserves an extra special RIP!!!!!!!!!

¡Vamos a matar, Dadaismus! (Dada), Friday, 7 July 2006 08:51 (twelve years ago) Permalink

I grew up reading him, as did many others. The definitive writer on the singer/songwriter movement, though as the Dolls connection implies, he had catholic taste. I know a few writers who worked for him at RS in the late 70s, they spoke of him w/ great respect.

one hand-me-down story: after he left Rolling Stone amid the mountains of promo albums and rubble in his office the next occupant found the trophy for PN's ASCAP Deems Taylor Award just laying around. It was all about the music and writing for him, I guess. RIP

m coleman (lovebug starski), Friday, 7 July 2006 09:07 (twelve years ago) Permalink

Here's an interview with him from

The site's guestbook is long gone, but I remember seeing Bud Scoppa--amongst others--had entries in it pointing out this interview because he fallen out of touch with his old friends and they were glad to hear something--albeit indirectly--from him.

I just saw No Direction Home again the other day--Mr. Nelson gives a fantastic interview in it as well.

In addition to the live VU album, he also complied Rough Edges, the great Sir Douglas Quintet rarities comp.

He was one of the good guys. RIP

Chairman Doinel (Charles McCain), Friday, 7 July 2006 13:25 (twelve years ago) Permalink

Oh, my God. He will be missed.

Terrible Cold (Terrible Cold), Friday, 7 July 2006 14:10 (twelve years ago) Permalink

I heard about it yesterday, just awful, really sad. RIP. The pieces linked on that RS obit are totally worth reading, especially the Ramones one.

Matos-Webster Dictionary (M Matos), Friday, 7 July 2006 15:45 (twelve years ago) Permalink

He gave me my first break at Rolling Stone and was an editor up there with Xgau. The incarnation of a passionate observer and a graceful stylist. Music writing is much diminished because it couldn't make the room for him he deserved.

Dock Miles (Dock Miles), Friday, 7 July 2006 18:46 (twelve years ago) Permalink

he was one of my fav. interviews in No Direction Home

M@tt He1geson, Rendolent Ding-Dong (Matt Helgeson), Friday, 7 July 2006 18:53 (twelve years ago) Permalink

Sad news indeed. His liner notes (meta-liner notes, actually) to the Butterfield Blues Band's East-West were refreshingly droll. (If I can find 'em online, I'll copy them.)

M. Agony Von Bontee (M. Agony Von Bontee), Friday, 7 July 2006 19:31 (twelve years ago) Permalink

Re Scoppa: Another obit suggests that Nelson had lost contact with everyone to the point that no one knew he was living in the apartment.

Rickey Wright (Rrrickey), Friday, 7 July 2006 22:15 (twelve years ago) Permalink

Got an email from Richard Riegel, who says that the night before he heard about Paul, had seen him in the re-run of No Direction Home. Which wasn't as spooky as Richard's getting a homemade Christmas card from Rick Johnson one March morning, thinking,"I need to write a letter to Rick!" firing up the computer, and finding several emails with the news of Rick's death. Notes that, re-reading the PN interview on (who also did a good interview with Richard), he was struck by how many of the complaints about conditions today (shrinking wordlimits, etc, etc.) that Paul cited six or seven years ago. Points out that Paul was older than most (if not the oldest?) of the first generation rock critics, and "had started in the brief folk-crit period which most of us missed or purposely skipped, but even though he may have been a Jackson Browne fan and bluegrass-loving folkie at heart, he did more to advance punk music than did some of its more prominent adherents. Truly a complex and worthwhile guy." (In his interview, Paul said he used to catch it from both sides, for proclaiming his love for Jackson Browne *and* the Ramones--that was dangerous, even before ILX!)

don (dow), Saturday, 8 July 2006 00:17 (twelve years ago) Permalink

Nelson's review of Rust Never Sleeps, linked actually in that obit, was hugely influential to me in developing my thinking as a critic/writer. I like how he makes the grand pronouncement right up front o draw you in to the power and sweep and value of the record and then how he methodically backs up the praise, though I never really agreed with him that only Neil could have come up with a song like Pocahantas ...

Had no idea he was almost 70, though, and that he seemed to have struggled in recent years. How could a guy that talented and in the seat he had during the punk revolution be left to drift in that way? I'm sure he enjoyed life to the fullest, but still -- he's one of those jewels all us young guys can only try to emulate.

O'Connor (OConnorScribe), Saturday, 8 July 2006 02:04 (twelve years ago) Permalink

Well I did a search for Paul Nelson in thread titles and got no results, and I was rudely told off and provided this link.

But I would like to say RIP, Paul.

James Slone (Freon Trotsky), Tuesday, 11 July 2006 23:00 (twelve years ago) Permalink

This is the first time (I think) I've heard the guy's name, but from the obit he was definitely worth knowing. Anyone who hung with lester Bangs is pretty cool to me. RIP.

musically (musically), Wednesday, 12 July 2006 01:16 (twelve years ago) Permalink

Tony Glover, Greil Marcus, and Dave Marsh remember Paul Nelson in City Pages

with more links/comments here

Pete Scholtes (Pete Scholtes), Wednesday, 12 July 2006 01:35 (twelve years ago) Permalink

four years pass...

An anthology/biography is forthcoming:

With Paul Nelson’s posthumous blessing, Kevin Avery spent four years researching and writing Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writing of Paul Nelson. This unique anthology-biography compiles Nelson’s best works (some of it previously unpublished) while also providing a vivid account of his private and public lives. Avery interviewed almost 100 of Paul Nelson’s friends, family, and colleagues, including several of the artists about whom he’d written.

Bruce Springsteen says, “He is somebody who played a very essential part in that creative moment when I was there trying to establish what I was doing and what I wanted our band to be about.”

This is a landmark work of cultural revival, a tribute to and collection by one of the unsung critical champions of popular art.

Ned Raggett, Friday, 1 April 2011 06:09 (seven years ago) Permalink

Quick bump for the morning.

Ned Raggett, Friday, 1 April 2011 12:39 (seven years ago) Permalink

Thanks, will look forward to reading that.

Pigmeat Arkham (James Redd and the Blecchs), Friday, 1 April 2011 13:57 (seven years ago) Permalink

eleven months pass...

Just put a copy on reserve.

Also, what's up with this?

Why Does Redd People Never Want To Blecch? (James Redd and the Blecchs), Thursday, 8 March 2012 02:31 (six years ago) Permalink

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