Here’s my Christmas book gift recommendation. To (re-)discover a first-rate critic, and read about a life that went wrong in a harrowing way, you must read Everything Is An Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson (Fantagraphics Press), by Kevin Avery. Nelson, who died in 2006 at age 69, was part of the first generation of rock critics, instrumental in bringing attention to musicians including Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, the New York Dolls, and Warren Zevon. He served as the record-review editor of Rolling Stone and was an A&R man for Mercury Records.
But this thumbnail sketch of Nelson’s career doesn’t begin to suggest his import as a writer and presence. Avery’s book is divided into two parts. The first is a biography titled “Invitation to a Closed Room: The Life of Paul Nelson.” The second is a collection of some of his most famous and/or influential pieces, titled “Good Critic Paul: The Writings of Paul Nelson.” The biography tells a story that might easily be transformed into the plot of one of the semi-obscure hard-boiled writers Nelson admired so much, a tale out of David Goodis, say, or Horace McCoy. It’s the story of a man who loved a certain kind of music, literature, and movie with a passion that eventually overtook his life. Nelson was a romantic, and prized tales of loners, misfits, and rebels. Whether it was Zevon’s song “Desperadoes Under the Eaves,” the Lew Archer detective novels about missing children and bad parents, or the sere Westerns of Howard Hawks, Nelson prized above all portraits of men who performed with grace under pressure, who pursued doomed love affairs, who held themselves apart from society as independent agents even when what they really were were high-functioning hermits.
So it was with Nelson. His greatest influence and activity occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s. In a 1976 Village Voice essay entitled “Yes, There Is a Rock Critic Establishment, But Is That Good for Rock?,” Robert Christgau named the Establishment’s core quintet: John Rockwell, Dave Marsh, Jon Landau, Nelson, and Christgau himself. All but Nelson continue to have active careers; Nelson, however, became, in a Graham Greene phrase Nelson himself used too frequently, a “burnt-out case”: His taste and standards of excellence became so circumscribed, his natural inclination to hole up in his small, rent-controlled, pack-rat Upper West Side apartment re-watching old movies and re-reading The Great Gatsby and thrillers so self-seductive, that he slowly slipped away from the world.
Eventually, Nelson took a job behind the counter of Greenwich Village’s Evergreen Video store to make a bit of money; he pretty much ceased writing, and abandoned keeping up with new music. When he died, he was indigent and malnourished.
Does this sound like not the sort of book you’d give as a cheery Christmas present? Perhaps, but you’d be wrong: This volume is exhilarating. Avery tells with great energy Nelson’s tale, with copious details about the active period of his subject’s life, and in so doing limns a portrait of a certain kind of pop-culture/bohemian existence in the late-70s. And Avery’s generous selection of Nelson’s writings are certainly among Paul’s best, particularly Nelson’s profile of Ross Macdonald, “It’s All One Case,” and the harrowing account of helping to pull Zevon back from an addict’s life in “Warren Zevon: How He Saved Himself from a Coward’s Death.”
I knew Paul somewhat – he assigned me reviews at Rolling Stone; I visited his apartment a number of times to watch movies and admire his carefully maintained collection of first-edition mysteries. A picture of Paul among other friends taken at my wedding appears in this book. But my acquaintance with Paul Nelson doesn’t color my judgment of “Everything Is An Afterthought” as a first-rate book: It’s right there in the pages, in the opportunity to hear Nelson’s soft but authoritative voice. One of the subtexts of Avery’s book is that a critic can be as much of an artist as any artist he or she writes about. This is a portrait of an artist who declined to be an artist anymore.