Just a couple of weeks ago, we looked back at the career of the late Robert Palmer, an important music critic and writer.
We've talked about the late Lester Bangs (above) and with the very-much-with-us Greil Marcus in the past as well. Today, it's another of the old-guard music critics of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. Paul Nelson was not as well-known as Palmer, Bangs or Marcus, but he was arguably just as influential. An early supporter (and college buddy) of Bobby Zimmerman, who would go on to fame as Bob Dylan, Nelson also resurrected the career of Lou Reed's band the Velvet Underground and signed the proto-punk, proto-glam band the New York Dolls, while working inside the record industry as an A&R man for Mercury Records. He wrote early and often about songwriters like Jackson Browne, Elliott Murphy and Bruce Springsteen.
But Nelson gradually stopped writing music criticism; by the time of his death in 2006, he was virtually forgotten. It wasn't a case of the internet and the blogosphere crowding him out -- Nelson got out the game by the early to mid '90s, and had spent the decade before that extricating himself from the world of Rolling Stone and the other publications he had written for.
Still, the music criticism landscape has dramatically changed, and it's hard to imagine, in a world where everyone's a critic (or at least, has the chance to be), how a couple of critics could stand out the way some of the leading writers of the LP era did. Maybe, you could argue, that's healthier: maybe having three or four critics wielding that much influence is a restrictive thing. You might also argue that this revisiting not only of old music but of old music reviews is just more Baby Boomer Nostalgia. But reading the Palmers and Bangs and Nelsons of the music world, you see something important happening -- namely, writers taking the music seriously enough to talk about it in the context of the lives of the artists, then-current events, and a broader musical and historical continuum. "It's got a good beat and I can dance to it" gives way to "the driving beat seems ironic given the lyrics' reference to governmental militarism."
Tell us: Do you think the age of the influential music critic is over? Or are we romanticizing their role in the past?
Soundcheck: Remembering Paul Nelson