Music journalism is an arduous task. I have gained a better insight into what it takes to acquire journalism success in researching this A-Z series. Let’s review the dramatic effects that can befall a writer by examining the life and legend of Paul Nelson.
In the ’60s, Paul Nelson pioneered rock & roll criticism with a first-person style of writing that would later be popularized by the likes of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer as “New Journalism.”
Paul Nelson and a college buddy, John Pankake started their own Minnesota-based folk-music criticism magazine in 1961–Little Sandy Review. While Nelson stood in the audience and watched fellow University of Minnesota student Bob Dylan turn his acoustic-strumming folk music into an electric guitar thunderstorm, others in the audiences booed and threw various objects at Dylan. Paul Nelson however was quite mesmerized and wrote about Dylan’s new music stating rock would never be the same. Damned if he wasn’t right about Dylan way before others figured him out.
Mr. Nelson moved to New York City in 1963 where he became the managing editor of the folk music revival’s most important magazine, Sing Out! Two years later, when Mr. Dylan played his first electric concerts and was being booed by folk die-hard fans, Mr. Nelson wrote in defense of that musical change, and then quit Sing Out!
He was a pathfinder on to something profound in his 20s during the early ’60s. Paul Nelson crystallized the assertive nature of the rapidly maturing rock scene producing an honest and direct criticism. The passionate yet literate pop-music writing he developed helped elevate the idiom to a respectable level.
In 1970, he took a job at the publicity department of Mercury Records and then became an A. & R. man there. He signed the New York Dolls, the anarchic glam-rock band later recognized as a major influence on punk. When the Dolls failed to sell, he was fired. He returned to Rolling Stone, where he wrote features and edited the record reviews section until 1983.
Reviewing Neil Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps” for Rolling Stone in 1979, he wrote: “For anyone still passionately in love with rock & roll, Neil Young has made a record that defines the territory. Defines it, expands it, explodes it. Burns it to the ground.”
Mr. Nelson left Rolling Stone when a new format drastically shortened the reviews. He later lost interest in writing about music. He took a job working in a video store in Greenwich Village. He was found dead in his apartment of malnutrition and a heart attack in 2006. A tragic end to an innovative writer for arts and entertainment.
A posthumous work, Everything Is An Afterthought, The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson was assembled by ardent admirer Kevin Avery. The book collects 29 criticism essays and long articles of various kinds that Nelson wrote for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and other publications, mostly during his prime years as a writer, from the mid-70s to 1990.