Paul Nelson was always at his best when he wrote about something he loved, when he was an appreciator, a champion. And while he could perceptively convey what was wrong with a work of art, sometimes, if that work or its artist got under his skin, Paul could be merciless. And very funny.
Witness the 285-word review (Rolling Stone, December 13, 1979) of J.D. Souther's You're Only Lonely, which not only refused to take any prisoners but inadvertently ended Paul's close friendships with Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon.
"I remember the Nelson review mostly through Jackson’s reaction to it and Warren’s puzzled expression (a rarity) and caustic remarks (less rare) as to what must have preceded the reviewer’s missing the point so profoundly and publicly. Linda [Ronstadt] guessed I must have done something to make him (the reviewer) mad sometime before that, which is possible, as I was sometimes unintentionally curt with people back then, but I honestly don’t remember such an incident or anything said in the review itself.
"Maybe he should have been a bit nicer to me, but you can never predict anyone’s reaction to any art of any kind. I remember in studying Picasso, being stunned to learn that when Guernica was shown in New York, despite its political and artistic importance, not to mention its 11’x26’ dimensions, it was dismissed by one well-known critic of the time as a lukewarm version of his earlier work.
"It seems to me that anyone may have an incomprehensible reaction to any stimuli at any given time. So, I guess, however informed, there is really only the eye of the beholder in play here, wouldn’t you say?"
Paul Nelson's review also generated an indignant letter to the editor from the Eagles' Don Henley, also a friend of Souther's, who called Paul "an obviously biased little prick." Such letters from Henley, to not only critics he disagreed with but also to friends he was at odds with, were not uncommon. Nor, apparently, were the occasional physical threats.
Last year, critic Robert Christgau, responding to comments some readers had made about Henley in response to Christgau's MSN review of Brad Paisley's The Lonely Island (are all of these guys lonely?), wrote: "I'm not sure he's threatened violence, but he's sure written some mean letters, and I think one of them may have been to me. Think I just read about one in the Paul Nelson book--perhaps in response to Nelson's J.D. Souther review that began, 'If narcissism paid two bucks an hour, J.D. Souther would be a billionaire.'"
Christgau added: "(BTW, for some insane reason I just did the math on a calculator. Unless I'm making a mistake, it would take 57 years to reach a million at that rate.)"