Paul Nelson in his Rolling Stone office, 1979. Photo by Lawrence White.
Fandom. Is there anything more honest and emotional and potentially blinding than one's true love for a band or a baseball team? And if you're on the receiving end of this unbridled energy and expectation, is there anything more rewarding or scary? But who wouldn't prefer to read a fanzine, typos and all, when the reporting of official culture almost always gets it wrong? By the time the mainstream has picked up on anything it's already been and gone. That, of course, is the fan's point-of-view. Who wouldn't rather have a few loyal fans than a horde of tourists who heard about you yesterday and forget about you tomorrow? I remember the first big show in New York with the White Stripes, playing for thousands outdoors instead of a hundred or less in a club, and the girl in front of me who chattered away on her cellphone through the first two numbers, so excited to be there that she wasn't. Still, die-hard fans are a problem. At their most persistent they have much in common with stalkers. You'll never get away from them until they latch onto someone else, or kill you, whichever comes first. Who does an artist belong to? Or a baseball team? The fans, the record company, Yankee Global Enterprises LLC? One thing is sure, if you don't play the hits, or get some, you may not be around for long. There's an old saying that fans are fickle. Like most tried and true wisdom, it's not true at all. Fans are actually very predictable. Once, when the Yankees were on a losing streak, Yogi Berra walked into the stadium, surveyed the mostly empty bleachers, and remarked: "If they don't want to come, you can't keep them away." Sometimes the hometown advantage is none at all, even in New York.
And where do you go as an artist when you can do no wrong? One answer is to throw a wrench into the spokes from time to time, take a wrong turn and see if your fans will follow, or just ignore them and do as you please. That's not easy for most artists to do. The immortal words of Mike Love, by way of TM, which probably meant Transcendental Manipulation, reverberate. Faced with the experimentalism of Brian Wilson's music for "Smile," which by 1967 had veered off course from the fun, fun, fun of the Beach Boys, he reportedly warned the band's main creative force: "Don't fuck with the formula, Brian."
What happens when the artist and the fan are one in the same? When that particular love/hate relationship courses through the flesh and blood of a single body and mind? Rock writers and sports writers have something in common in this respect, except sports writers don't have much of a chance to make it onto the field. Rock writers, for better or worse, can get on or near the stage. I recall Lester Bangs drunkenly falling off one in the late 70s, and Jon Landau famously went from reviews editor at Rolling Stone and the most hyped line about Bruce Springsteen to becoming his manager and co-producer. Coming up more or less concurrently with the Boss, and also hailing from the Garden State, was former rock writer Patti Smith, who turned her boy crazy, star-struck fandom into one of the longest running careers in so-called punk. Her very first album, Horses, was mostly acclaimed, and yet its only review of any literary or moral integrity back in 1975 was a negative one written by Paul Nelson, a name which probably isn't ringing many bells right around now. (In addition to his criticism, he will be forever remembered as the man who somehow managed to get the New York Dolls a record contract back in '73.) But to the victor, as they say, go the spoils, and in a match of Patti versus Paul, at least where fame and money are concerned, neither of which are free, she comes out on top. Nelson's review was titled "A Heroic Mistake," and all these years later it still seems of consequence. Of a record that he says "plods more than it prances," Nelson writes of Smith and her debut:
"She can talk all she wants about Mick, Keith, and Brian, but where it counts Horses sounds less like a Rolling Stones record than it does a poetry reading at the Museum of Modern Art. She may look, even think, rock & roll, but more often than not her precise recitations still lack the pandemonium and craziness of the real thing for which she is striving. ... Try as I might, I simply can't warm up to Horses at all. I respect it, but how much can you respect an LP you wouldn't dream of playing for pleasure? ... Poetry, I suppose, can be anything that isn't lost in the translation. Patti Smith is a good poet, but even the best of her work seems—I've been trying to think of the phrase for hours—pointlessly pregnant. As an album, Horses is too pregnant to be taken seriously, yet it is surely not funny. Pregnant past the point of diminishing returns. So heavy at times it cannot make the simplest movement with grace. A ponderous toddler, it should be protected, but when those huge coils of self-important surrealism unwind aggressively toward me, I find it natural to look for a way out of this place. I've been here before, and the town hasn't aged well."
And after listening to it over and over, smoking endless packs of cigarettes, pacing the floor at 4 AM, he concludes:
"In the early Sixties, I had a friend on Philosopher's Row who used to play all of his 'serious' records in a dark room lighted only by black and purple light bulbs and iridescent art. Incense burned. Nonsense reigned. How sad that he would have loved much of Horses."
Do reviewers even think like this anymore? You can't help but wonder, would anyone who published a rave of the first Patti Smith album be willing to stand up and read it in public today? And what of Smith's rock-crit prose poems from her interlude at Creem? How do they stand up to Nelson's writing, or to that of Lester Bangs, or to Ellen Willis from the same period? They don't, since they were never meant to probe the lives and souls of the performers, to make sense of the times from which the music emerged, and particularly with Willis, from a social/political/feminist point-of-view. For all their fandom, Smith's rock-crit was a launching pad, the beginnings of a jukebox being stacked for play. Nothing more. Nelson ultimately saw Smith as her own greatest fan. Alongside Out Of The Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music and a classic Bangs collection, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic, we now have Kevin Avery's Everything Is An Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson. With it, one of the most thoughtful, soulful, and articulate writers on music in the 60s and 70s has been revived. Alongside pieces on Dylan, Springsteen, the Dolls, Warren Zevon, et al, is, of course, Nelson's review of Horses. All these years later, what would he say if he had lived to see Smith in the corporate atrium of MoMA last December, for her performance to commemorate the 101st birthday of Jean Genet? Or at the Metropolitan Museum, when she similarly honored Alfred Stieglitz and, with her rendition of "Georgia On My Mind," Georgia O'Keeffe? Nelson wouldn't have been surprised in the least, and he wouldn't have bothered to go. But what of Smith's annual New Year's Eve shows, which she has announced were to be her last in New York? Patti, he might say, lighting yet another unfiltered cigarette, swigging from a bottle of Coke, has outlasted us all because she still believes in something called Patti's Myth, and she still plays all of her hits—"We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together," "Hey Joe," "Soul Kitchen," "Gloria," "My Generation," and, as always on Dec. 31st, "Time Is On My Side."
- Out Of The Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (Edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz, University of Minnesota Press, 2011)
- Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic (Edited by Greil Marcus, Anchor Press, 1988)
- Everything Is An Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson (Fantagraphics Books)