|11th August 2006 09:43 PM
|Ten Thousand Motels
Friday August 11, 2006
American critic Paul Nelson, who has died of heart disease aged 70, was an early champion of Bob Dylan who later signed the New York Dolls to a record contract during a period as a music industry executive. His meeting with Bobby Zimmerman - when the future Bob Dylan called at Nelson's apartment in Minneapolis to listen to his folk music collection - was recalled in Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home last year.
Dylan said that on one occasion when Nelson was away he "helped myself to a bunch more records". Many of the songs in Dylan's early repertoire were learned from Nelson's LP collection.
Nelson was born in Warren, Minnesota, where he wrote for the local paper while still at high school. In the late 1950s he attended the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and gravitated towards Dinkytown, the student quarter. He and roommate Jon Pankake founded the Little Sandy Review. Neither could afford to buy records, he recalled, "so we decided to start our own magazine just to get the records for nothing". The first issue had three subscribers and its pages were assembled on the basement table-tennis table of the parents of tyro blues harmonica player Tony Glover. Nelson was pivotal to getting Glover's trio - with Spider John Koerner and Dave Ray - a recording contract.
Little Sandy Review never sold more than 1,000 copies but had a salutary effect on the folk revival. Pankake and Nelson provided literate, scathing denunciations of the meretricious character of much of the scene. A typical editorial savaged the fashion for protest music by quoting Kenneth Tynan, Dwight Macdonald and William Faulkner. The Review became a fervent, albeit critical, Dylan supporter. Nelson described his debut album as "the perfect example of a free spirit punching holes in the limits of folk style with one hand while deliriously patching them up again with the other".
In 1963 Nelson became managing editor of New York's Sing Out!, a more mainstream publication, and was in the thick of the controversy over Dylan's appearance with an amplified band at the 1965 Newport folk festival. Nelson resigned and became editor of a pop music magazine, Circus. Dylan was the bridge from folk to rock, he said. "When I heard Like a Rolling Stone, it changed everything for me."
From 1970 until 1977 Nelson was publicity boss at Mercury Records. There he met Rod Stewart, for whom he found obscure Dylan songs to record; in 1988 he would co-write a Stewart biography with his friend, the critic Lester Bangs. He also persuaded Mercury to sign up those punk-glam rock pioneers the New York Dolls, and compiled an anthology of previously unreleased Velvet Underground recordings.
Then Nelson moved to San Francisco as reviews editor at Rolling Stone, encouraging younger writers while disagreeing with owner Jan Wenner by insisting the magazine should properly cover punk rock. "I just tended to write about what I really liked and what moved me," he recalled. "I didn't care if it was the Sex Pistols or Leonard Cohen." He wrote of Pistols' singer Johnny Rotten that he "seems to stroll right through the ego and into the id, and then kick the hell out of it".
Nelson's taste veered towards singer-songwriters. He wrote persuasively about Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Lucinda Williams and Suzanne Vega. He contributed a chapter on Browne's album The Pretender to Stranded (1979), edited by Greil Marcus.
Back in New York after 1983, Nelson wrote only occasional music reviews and articles, taking editing jobs with Jewish Week and other periodicals. He told friends he was working on a film script, but this was never completed. For the last six years he had worked in a Greenwich Village video store.
Outside music his interests were in cinema, Scott Fitzgerald and crime novelists, from Raymond Chandler to Ross Macdonald. He wrote a chapter on Dylan for the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock'n'Roll in the style of a hardboiled novel. But then Nelson, as the New York Times' Jon Pareles wrote, was "one of the writers who transformed rock criticism in its formative years, making it a discipline fit for adults". He is survived by a son.
· Paul Nelson, journalist and critic, born January 21 1936; died July 4 2006.
[Edited by Ten Thousand Motels]