Kevin Avery, Everything Is Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson. Fantagraphics, 512 pages, $29.99
Chuck Eddy, Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism. Duke University Press, 352 pages, $24.95
On November 17, charitybuzz.com, the self-described “world’s first charity auction web site,” began to offer, at an estimated $10,000 value (though the high bid at press time was only $3,001), a two-week internship at Rolling Stone magazine. While the idea of selling an internship is both laughable and, for student journalists, a little frightening, it also proves the resilience of a particular American myth: the rock critic, as depicted in films like Almost Famous, who morphs from teenage fanatic to arbiter of taste; who reports back from the depraved life on the road; who gets paid to listen to music.
Few writers lived this myth like Paul Nelson, the former Rolling Stone music editor and subject of Kevin Avery’s new Everything Is Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson, which packages a biography with a collection of Nelson’s work. Born in 1936 to small-town Minnesota Evangelicals so strict they burned his comic collection, Nelson claimed to have read every book in the town library. As soon as he got out of town, he wrote, “I just embraced culture like it was Marilyn Monroe.” At the University of Minnesota, Nelson’s folk music fanzine, the Little Sandy Review, attracted the attention of classmate Robert Zimmerman, who (having re-named himself Bob Dylan) would later confess to stealing Nelson’s Woody Guthrie records. Nelson got a job in New York with leading folk magazine Sing Out!, only to resign in print after watching Dylan go electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Watching Dylan create a new identity in spite of the folk establishment, Nelson found a real-life equivalent to his fictional heroes, people like Jay Gatsby and Ross MacDonald’s detective Lew Archer, struggling to remain honest in a world where (as Nelson was fond of quoting Jean Renoir) “everyone has his reasons.”
Yoking his fortunes to Dylan’s, Nelson freelanced for the new rock press. He worked for five years for Mercury Records: first in publicity, where he treated his fellow critics to lunches of veal piccata; and then in A&R, where he saw his pet project, the New York Dolls, succumb to amateurishness and heroin. At Rolling Stone, where Nelson worked from 1978 to 1982, quarrels with publisher Jann Wenner eventually led to Nelson’s resignation. Nelson pushed back against Wenner’s desire for shorter, more positive reviews, but he was plainly deluded in his demands–Avery re-prints the full memo–for a raise on top of complete editorial control.
Indeed, Nelson’s life was determined by a dangerous idealism. In his later years, he grew increasingly disengaged from reality, working at a SoHo video store and endlessly re-writing a screenplay that alternately depicted him as a World War II hero and Billy the Kid. Small wonder that Jonathan Lethem modeled Chronic City’s protagonist on Nelson: Nelson’s bohemian eccentricities—his daily outfit of newsboy cap, sunglasses, mustache, and Nat Sherman cigarettello; his daily meal of a burger and two Cokes (at the advent of “New Coke” Nelson stockpiled cans of the original formula)—make his biography a more gripping read than the criticism that makes up the book’s second half.
In Nelson’s writing, the constant comparisons of musical heroes to literary ones grow tiring, especially after you notice that they’re all white men. Nelson wasn’t just ignorant of black music: an early column downplayed the African-American influence on rock relative to “abstract painting and poetry, modern dance, comic books, genre movies, the works of John Barth” and others. The book’s most strident takedown, of Patti Smith, is also its only piece with a female subject. Yet Nelson’s identification with his subjects strengthens his profiles, especially one that follows Nelson to California to stage an intervention for his alcoholic friend Warren Zevon. Nelson’s particular bond with artists comes through in the admiring quotes Avery scores from Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart, as well as hours of interview transcripts where Nelson pours out his heart to Clint Eastwood and Leonard Cohen. (Ever the perfectionist, Nelson finished neither piece; Continuum recently published the Eastwood transcripts as Conversations with Clint [288 pages, $19.95].) In the end, Nelson’s best epitaph comes from a sprawling essay that portrays the writer as a hermeneutic gumshoe hired to suss out the meaning of Dylan’s oeuvre: “I know we need people like you because a world filled with romantics would be a disaster, but a world without them would be worse.”
Coming to terms with Chuck Eddy’s 1991 Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe made me want to write criticism. I was peeved when my dad first brought the book home from a sidewalk vendor (Why did my dad think I liked metal?) and my irritation grew when I opened it: Why were the Ramones relegated to number 138, and then compared invidiously to Aerosmith, AC/DC, and the Euclid Beach Band? But Eddy’s singular opinions, and the singular voice with which he expressed them (on the Ramones: “Beach-baby falsettos and three chords chopping down skyscrapers as a way of life”) gave me the first hint that there were individuals behind the star ratings that had been pushed over Paul Nelson’s head at Rolling Stone.
Eddy’s new collection, Rock and Roll Always Forgets, surveys the interests Eddy has chased throughout his career. As an aspiring sportswriter on a ROTC scholarship to the University of Missouri, Eddy discovered the Village Voice’s annual Pazz ‘n’ Jop poll of music critics, which turned the statistics geek on to new wave rock. “It was in 1978 when I saw the list, and I had no idea what a lot of the music on it was,” Eddy told me over the phone from his home in Austin. “And so it became like a puzzle.” While performing his military service in Germany, Eddy attached a caustic letter to his Pazz ‘n’ Jop ballot, drawing the attention of Voice music editor Robert Christgau, who summoned him to New York. As a freelancer, Eddy initially specialized in post-punk/proto-grunge indie rock. But he quickly fell back on the music of his youth in ’70s Detroit, where noisy white rockers like Bob Seger and Alice Cooper shared airwaves with the black rhythm kings of Parliament and the Motown roster. The metal Eddy lauds in Stairway to Hell combines loud guitars with funky swagger: the book’s top ten includes two acts, Teena Marie and the Jimmy Castor Bunch, conventionally labeled R&B. (More recently, Eddy’s found his boogie in mainstream country acts like Montgomery Gentry.)
Eddy followed Stairway with 1997’s equally radical Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Misguided Tour through Popular Music, which invented genres like “Freud Rock” and “Fucking Sound Effect Records.” “I like the writing in Stairway to Hell better,” he says now, “although I like a lot of the ideas in Accidental. There’s definitely stuff in Rock and Roll Always Forgets that overlaps both of those books.” Two chapters in Accidental Evolution explain the aesthetic behind Eddy’s work. Everything Rock: “The trick, I guess, is to see how big a variety of junk you can pack into a small space without making it sound like you’re just trying to pack a ton of junk in a small space.” The Gladys Knight and the Pips Rule: “Rock ‘n’ roll works best for you when it seems both good for you and bad for you, nutritious and unnutritious at the same time.” True to his word, Eddy uncovered inventiveness and emotion in the unassuming forms of bubblegum, disco, and adult contemporary.
Rock & Roll Always Forgets begins with Eddy’s 1984 Pazz ‘n’ Jop Ballot and ends twenty-five years later with an essay deriding the poll’s indie focus. Asked why someone who’s pissed off so many other critics was so interested in a critics’ poll, Eddy replied, “If it seems like I was answering other critics, that’s because I paid attention to stuff like Pazz ‘n’ Jop so much. A lot of it was a catalyst for me having strong opinions.” These days, Eddy steers clear of the hype cycle, sampling new acts on streaming service Rhapsody (his main current employer) and snapping up cheap used vinyl—when we spoke, Eddy listed 18 records he’d picked up at the Austin Record Collectors’ Convention the day before. In the rare instance when he does focus on an artist’s life, it’s Eminem, who forces Eddy to confront his own feelings toward both fatherhood and Detroit. (Paul Nelson, whose heroes represented an escape to coastal bohemia, rarely mentioned the wife and son he left in Minnesota.) But Eddy’s in-depth pieces wouldn’t be as remarkable if they weren’t surrounded by the normal context of Eddy’s writing, a raucous party where records yell at each other across decades. Eddy’s wit requires brevity, as in the singles write-ups that form a chapter of the new collection.
Richard Beck recently wrote in n+1 about the music website Pitchfork, whose influence is unquantifiable, though Beck, like Eddy, makes much of the growing overlap between Pitchfork’s year-end list and Pazz ‘n’ Jop. Beck writes, “Pitchfork couldn’t develop intelligence on the individual level because the site’s success depended largely on its function as a kind of opinion barometer: a steady, reliable, unsurprising accretion of taste judgments.” Such a complaint might sound like small potatoes, but as long as people need heroes, young music lovers will need larger-than-life rock critics like Paul Nelson and Chuck Eddy.
A world filled with JONAH WOLF B ’12 would be a disaster, but a world without him would be worse.