Just as cops go home and watch CSI and attorneys read John Grisham novels, so critics (at least this critic) tend to read up on other critics. Doesn't matter what they criticize, critics are critics, going all the way back to Cassandra, Diogenes and Jeremiah, a thankless bunch if there ever was one.
Thus, I give you Everything Is an Afterthought, Kevin Avery's new biography of the late cultural critic (music and film, mostly) Paul Nelson (1936-2006), which also includes a healthy sampling of Nelson's best work, such as a critique of Bob Dylan in the form of a noir novel. Nelson had a lot of famous friends and fans: Warren Zevon, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Jackson Browne and mystery novelist Ross McDonald, for starters, but this didn't prevent Paul from dying penniless in 2006, age 70, after years working in a video store on Carmine Street in the West Village. His body was undiscovered for a week until the smell gave it away.
Paul Nelson has always been one of my heroes and the eulogies from successful critics such as Jay Cocks, Ken Tucker, Nick Tosches and Anthony DeCurtis back me up. But I gotta say that reading the life of one of the more dysfunctional New York transplants ever, a guy who discovered the New York Dolls, for example, made me question my career path. Nelson didn't drink or do drugs: what he did do was eat a hamburger and veal picatta for dinner, always with two cokes, even for breakfast, while smoking Nat Sherman cigarettes, every day of his adult life.
This fuel begat Bob Dylan, who stole Nelson's record collection in 1962 Minnesota (a famous incident), the folk zine Little Sandy Review, which Nelson founded, editorial stints at Sing Out and Rolling Stone, at which Paul either mentored or discovered every major music scribe of the era, and a notorious 1970s stint as publicity director for Mercury Records, during which Nelson launched Rod Stewart's huge solo career.
So how does such a guy end up dead, broke and unclaimed? Asking all of the above for money, to begin with, missing a few deadlines, rejection by the babes, an apartment in which he organized and labeled his shirts, records, video and jeans meticulously and an office that was so messy it took Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner a week to have it cleaned out.
As for Paul Nelson's prose, the dirty big secret about critics, as exemplified by the reviews of new books, just out, about Pauline Kael, is that they write in and for the present and are mostly forgotten and definitely not read after they die. When was the last time you leafed through Harold Rosenberg or Gregory Battcock, for example? So, sadly, Nelson's work is a tad dated and too prolix. Kevin Avery treats Nelson like a prophet and seer, through the testimonies of his famous fans.
He was a bum and a nut, whose words were, in the end, all he had. I can identify.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).