Friday, August 22, 2014

Charles M. Young (1951 - 2014)

                                                                                                  Photo by Hilary Johnson

In 2007, when I interviewed Charles M. Young, who passed away this week from a brain tumor, one of the things we discussed was the imposition of the star rating system in the record-review section at Rolling Stone. It was one of the reasons that had caused his friend Paul Nelson to leave the magazine in 1982. Chuck remembered how he'd given one of his own reviews, of a George Winston album, a five-star rating, but when it was published it only had three stars. The reason? Because there were supposedly already too many five-star reviews in that issue.

"I'd never tell Christgau not to use grades, but I wouldn't tell anybody else who didn't want to use grades that they had to. I wouldn't even give grades in school. Grades are a disaster in education, grades are a disaster in rock & roll. You don't listen to music for a grade, you listen to music for its own sake. The point of a review, you describe what's there and then you convey your enthusiasm or distaste after in some way having an accurate description in there of what the album is, to be fair to the artist, and then you say 'it works' or 'it doesn't work,' you convey your enthusiasm or distaste, and that's what a review needs to do...

"When you're teaching kids to read and you give them a gold star for knowing some big word in the story or something, you're just sucking the joy out of learning from the kid. You're teaching them that what you do is work for the gold star, you work for the money. You don't do something because it's inherently worth doing. I mean, the only reason to read a book is because you love the book. The only reason to listen to music is because you love the music. This grade thing destroys that. It's one  manifestation of this horrible sickness in American society, which Paul would not participate in, to his great credit. Art was not about grades, it was not about money, it was something that you believed in, that you were committed to with an almost religious passion. And that was Paul."

And that was Chuck.

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Saturday, July 5, 2014

Back in Utah



I'll be signing my books, Everything Is an Afterthought and Conversations with Clint, at Dolly's Bookstore in Park City on Saturday, July 12, between 6 and 7:30 PM. For more about the event, click here. And here.

If you're in the area, please drop by and say hello. This is a signing, not a reading. We'll be discussing all things Paul Nelson, including the book I'm just finishing, It's All One Case, based on Paul's forty hours of interviews with detective novelist Ross Macdonald. It's All One Case is scheduled for publication by Fantagraphics in the summer of 2015.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Wilderness Road

In the April 13, 1972, issue of Rolling Stone, Paul Nelson reviewed the debut album by Wilderness Road. Now, almost forty-one years later, founding Wilderness Road band member Warren Leming returns the favor and reviews Everything Is an Afterthought for Logos, a Journal of Modern Society and Culture.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

John Cale

Today is John Cale's seventy-first birthday. I interviewed him almost nineteen years ago and wrote the following piece, which was published in The Event on August 16, 1994.

JOHN CALE'S LAST DAY ON EARTH

John Cale thinks Beck is hilarious. "In April, I was in Brussels, and I turned on Top of the Pops and there he was." When the slacker infidel Beck sang his now famous refrain, "I'm a loser, baby / So why don't you kill me?" Cale fell off his chair. "All of a sudden, from seeing that on television, I thought, Hey, this is the system working. This is the way rock & roll is meant to work."

He should know. At 52, much of Cale's life has been spent making rock music that matters. Since leaving the Velvet Underground (which he cofounded with Lou Reed) in 1968, his chameleonic career has changed back and forth between experimental pop and symphonies and, to borrow one of the singer/songwriter's own song titles, his own brand of "Dirtyass Rock 'N' Roll."

Born in Garnant, South Wales, John Cale came to the U.S. when he was awarded a Leonard Bernstein Scholarship. He has lived in New York since 1963. "I don't know if I'm more of a New Yorker or a Welshman," he confesses from his home. A musical prodigy who learned to speak English at school when he was seven, he performed on the BBC at the age of eight. He studied musicology under Aaron Copland, and his early career included performances with avant-garde composers La Monte Young and John Cage. 

Nevertheless, Cale's prevailing influences ("icons," he calls them) were deep-seated in rock & roll. "Very early on there were the Everly Brothers and Elvis. Jerry Lee." But his tastes are not limited to the classics. "When I see someone like Beck, a fresh face," he says, "a fresh sound is always very welcome."

Photo by Craig McDean

Cale's career is composed of one fresh sound after another. While it is true that, during the frenetic punk-rock world of England in the late Seventies, he once killed a chicken, voodoo-style, onstage (compelling the vegetarians in his band to seek gainful employment elsewhere), he also adapted the words of poet Dylan Thomas to accompany a symphony. He has collaborated with artists as diverse as Brian Eno, the late Lowell George, Garland Jeffreys, various members of Roxy Music, minimalist composer Terry Riley, and, in between spats, maximum ego Lou Reed. He also produced at least three debut albums that are universally recognized as classics: Patti Smith's Horses, Jonathan Richman's original Modern Lovers, and Iggy Pop's fledgling work with the Stooges. Cale regards each of them "as one of the rungs of the ladder" that forms his body of work. Asked what attracted him to these artists' first efforts, he replies, "They all seemed to have a little something about them that was special."

Cale's most recent work is Last Day on Earth, a song cycle/performance piece created in collaboration with multimedia artist Bob Neuwirth, a self-professed "hillbilly from Ohio" who, not least among his accomplishments, wrote "Mercedes Benz" for Janis Joplin.

The idea for Last Day on Earth came about when the two men performed together at a New York City venue called the Kitchen. With the classicist Cale singing and playing piano, the countrified Neuwirth played guitar and started telling stories. Some time later, Cale happened to catch a PBS piece about Prairie Home Companion. "It struck me that there was a weird mixture there that Bob could cover, as well as some other angles that Garrison Keillor wasn't into."

They ended up doing to Lake Wobegon what David Lynch did to Norman Rockwell's small-town America in Blue Velvet. 

Last Day on Earth, while inviting many interpretations, is the conceptual tale of a Tourist who finds himself in the mythical Cafe Shabu, where, in the back room, bathed in red, a host of angels stands ready "to meet your every need." The ensuing post-apocalyptic travelogue focuses on the cafe's usual suspects and the further adventures of the Tourist.

Cale says, "One of the things that we wanted to do was make sure that every song that was there had its own character." Strung together by an ongoing dialogue between the Tourist and the regulars at the cafe, the songs paint a panoramic view that is sometimes Blade Runner, sometimes Brechtian, sometimes Bonanza. "There was a gangland feel about all of this, these characters and this landscape."

Cale and Neuwirth took the work to Arts at St. Ann's and requested support. A branch of Brooklyn's Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity, St. Ann's is known for sponsoring out-of-the-mainstream art projects (and had previously commissioned Songs for Drella, Cale and Lou Reed's song cycle about the life of Andy Warhol). St. Ann's garnered NEA support and provided Cale and Neuwirth with a loft at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for one month. Most of the music was written there.

Over the next year, the two men went about their lives, working together on the project whenever their paths crossed--more often than not over cappuccinos in London or on New York City sidewalks. "Usually when we'd meet," Cale says, "we'd end up throwing ideas around and writing stuff down on napkins."

They first worked together 16 years ago. "I had a little record label at one time called Spy Records," Cale recalls. "We went in and it was obvious from the sessions that we did one afternoon that Bob was an improviser. It was really a question of grabbing him at the right time. He's kind of a will-o'-the-wisp. He doesn't like to be pinned down."

Last Day on Earth was first performed in New York on a stark, nearly barren stage. Modeled so it could be replicated elsewhere, they had a lighting chart drawn for the entire piece. Subsequent performances have been staged at a Frankfurt art festival and in Hamburg.

Now Last Day on Earth is an album. MCA's senior VP of soundtracks, Kathy Nelson, saw in the work the potential to be "a soundtrack for a movie that doesn't exist," and approached the duo about recording it. Neuwirth, in a similar vein, has called the work "a mind movie."

"When we got into the studio," Cale recalls, "we decided to change the narrative part of it. We weren't going to do a transcription of the live show, so we had this certain leeway to be able to present it any other way. We put most of the monologue at the beginning of the piece and used some of it to introduce characters." 

The resultant album is one of the year's best thus far. A disparate combination of plush electronic keyboards, violin, viola, cello, Dobro, guitar, five-string banjo, harmonica, and assorted percussive hubbub, it sounds at once futureless and rural, neighborly and surreal.

Just as Last Day on Earth has made the transition from a theatre piece to a musical work, it might indeed find its way onto the big screen. According to Cale, "There have been some inquiries from an Irish film company. I never thought the piece was concerned with another country--not a specific country, anyway--but that's great that somebody sees that kind of potential."

Sadly, translating the work into a movie might be the only way that it reaches the greater general public. Cale, who allows that it is perhaps unfortunate that his career has been more creative- than commercially-driven, says, "Money is kind of an abstract idea in my book. I don't understand it, really. I know how it works and all that, I know what it can get me, but I don't have an overwhelming urge to fill my pockets with it."

His reunion tour of Europe last year with Sterling Morrison, Lou Reed, and Maureen Tucker--aka the Velvet Underground--and the ensuing Live MCMXCIII (Sire/Warner Bros.) double-CD most likely didn't damage his pocketbook. But, like all great romantics, the band, on the eve of a string of U.S. dates, disintegrated once more. Cale is politely reticent on the subject, except to call it "Very painful. It was clear from the start that it was the Lou Reed Band."

In March and December of 1967, Cale and the Velvet Underground released, respectively, The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat (both on Verve/ Polygram). Two of rock music's most seminal albums, Cale today regards them with a circumspect pride. "It's something I'm very cautious about," he says, acknowledging the works' lasting influence. "I think all of us are, in a way. We shy away from power. I think that's probably one of the things that separated Lou from the other three of us in the band." 

Although the Last Day on Earth album was just released in April, last month Rhino Records issued Seducing Down the Door, a 20-year retrospective of Cale's work. The handsome two-CD package draws from his 16 solo and collaborative albums and includes a detailed 50-page booklet containing rare photographs and track-by-track commentary by Cale himself.

As if all this were not enough, later this year Cale, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, and two of the Last Day musicians will provide live music when the Warhol Museum presents a reconditioned version of Warhol's film The Kiss. This soundtrack, too, will likely end up as an album.

"This is a good job," Cale acknowledges before saying good-bye. He sounds pleased not so much with himself as with having ascended one more rung on the ladder.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Shadow Morton (1941-2013)

According to The New York Times obituary, Shadow Morton died--somewhat fittingly, given some of the songs he produced--on Valentine's Day.


This is what Paul Nelson had to say about Morton, who produced the New York Dolls' second LP, Too Much Too Soon, and the debut album by David Barretto:

"Shadow was a man who’d seen too many Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean movies. He was an excellent producer—he taught the Dolls a lot—and an absolute spellbinder with a personal life so secretive and mysterious that it only added to his aura."

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Monday, February 18, 2013

E Street Shuffle

You might not agree with some of my friend Clinton Heylin's reassessments of the first fifteen or so years of songs and LPs by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band (I certainly didn't), but you have to give him his due when it comes to documenting Bruce's musical evolution up through the mid- to late Eighties: album by album, song by song, sometimes line by line. The amount of research that must have gone into E Street Shuffle: The Glory Days of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band boggles the mind. The chapters dealing with The River and Nebraska and the mysterious gravity that kept pulling Bruce and his subject matter further into the dark are absolutely compelling. And throughout, Clinton respectfully references the writings of "the late, great Paul Nelson," to whom Springsteen owes so much of his early critical credibility and identity.


Caveat emptor: the US version of the book is missing 100 or so pages of song-by-song commentary, as well as a color photo section, that appears in the UK version. More importantly, last week it came to my attention that the website www.backstreets.com is offering the UK version with an exclusive limited edition bonus interview CD: a previously unreleased early interview with Springsteen by Paul Nelson. The interview, just shy of an hour, was conducted in December 1972, making it presumably Bruce's first interview with a national rock critic. The CD is being made available thanks to a deal struck by Clinton with Paul Nelson's son Mark. I've heard the interview and it's well worth adding to your collection.


The above photo of Elliott Murphy and Bruce Springsteen was taken in early 1973, shortly after Paul Nelson introduced the two men to one another. 

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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Phil Ashworth

Last night I happened across illustrator Phil Ashworth's website (who am I kidding? I Googled myself), where he wrote:

I recently read Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson by Kevin Avery and instantly became enamored with Paul Nelson. His writing on the importance of certain musicians and pushing music criticism to an art form is inspirational. Growing up with Rolling Stone magazine and numerous other music mags, I'm used to seeing albums quickly reviewed, so it's pretty intense to read about the break with him and RS magazine when they moved to the way we're now used to seeing the music review section, compared to how he had worked on it, and believed the way it should be. In one way you could tell the magazine knew what it took to survive but you also felt that what Paul Nelson was fighting for was the more admirable route. Paul Nelson is basically a reminder that we should take time to appreciate and think about what we are experiencing.

Some tight and loose sketches of Paul.






Phil also posted some sketches of one of Paul's heroes, Chet Baker. Be sure to check them out.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What Ever Happened...

Scott Woods at rockcritics.com has reprinted Steven Ward's classic March 2000 classic interview that answered the question, "What Ever Happened to Rock Critic Paul Nelson?"

And while you're there, there's much  more Paul Nelson-related content to be found.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Mountain Views

Last April when I returned to Utah, all-around good guy Terry Burden invited me on his nightly Park City TV show Mountain Views to talk about Paul Nelson.

 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Number 77

On this day, which would have been Paul Nelson's 77th birthday, celebrate by reading his January 6, 1972, review of his old friend Bob Dylan's "Greatest Hits, Vol. 2." It's Paul interviewing himself, much as he did in his memoirs of working at Mercury Records, invoking "some form of sympathetic critical schizophrenia" to get to the heart of the matter.