"A lot of people told me that I should contact Paul Nelson at Mercury," Zwerling e-mailed me before we spoke. "I tried calling Paul for a few weeks, but couldn't reach him. When I got him on the phone, he told me that he'd heard that my songs were good, but that he wouldn't be able to do anything for us at Mercury. I asked if we could come play him some songs. He repeated that it wouldn't do any good, but graciously told us to come in anyway.
"I knew that he had signed the New York Dolls. I halfway expected to meet some wild man instead of the quiet, soft-spoken guy Paul was. He immediately told us that since the New York Dolls weren't selling well, it would be impossible for him to do anything for us." [As a point of clarification, by the end of 1973 New York Dolls sold 110,000 copies—not bad for a first album. The problem was that the band was spending money faster than it was coming in, and that financial fact, along with their now legendary antics, was poisoning their relationship with Mercury management. Paul was stuck in the middle with the Mercury blues again.]
"I asked if we could play a few songs, and he gave a bemused smile," Zwerling continued. "We jumped up and started playing. He kept smiling, and we kept playing. Every few songs he'd say that 'I can't do anything for you.' He kept smiling. After a while, he picked up the phone and called a recording studio. He set up a session for us in a beautiful sixteen-track studio. That was a huge deal for us. We recorded two songs ten days later. We all had a great time in the studio. Those two songs are on our retrospective, Somewhere Near Pop Heaven." [In 2003, the album became an unexpected hit in Croatia.] "Paul was always soft-spoken, but he was very animated, encouraging, and enthusiastic during the whole day.
"I don't know how much longer he stayed at Mercury, but he continued to try to sign us. When he left Mercury he sent us to someone he knew at CBS, and we recorded a demo there, which would not have happened without Paul's recommendation. We didn't play live in the city very often, but Paul not only saw us four or five times, but he went out of his way to bring other writers with him [including Dave Marsh]. In 1980 we recorded a demo. It was cheaper to press it as an LP than to make cassettes. Paul sent a copy to Ken Tucker, who gave us a great review in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. I'm sure he sent it to other people, including a writer named Leslie Berman. Paul was then then the review editor at Rolling Stone, and he ran her very favorable review of us.
"His support was always incredible. No matter how much Paul Nelson told us he couldn't do anything for us, he spent decades doing everything he could for us.
"I lost touch with Paul during the 1990s. I knew he'd gone through a very tough time after his mother's death, but I didn't know where he was. One of the last times I saw him was in the middle of the winter sometime in the Eighties. It was about twelve degrees and very windy. I had on a down jacket. Paul had on a very light jacket. I asked 'Aren't you cold?' 'Cold?' He literally laughed. 'I'm from Minnesota, this isn't cold. It gets cold in Minnesota.'
In 2001, "Ed Ward wrote a New York Times story about us. He wanted to talk to Paul about us. I e-mailed a bunch of people, and I was directed to Evergreen Video. I got hold of Paul, and I spoke to him regularly until a year ago. His only regret about the Times story was that he wished more of the compliments he'd given us had made it to the final story. That made three decades of 100 percent support."
Paul would have no doubt been pleased, then, in 2008 when Zwerling—a one-time rock critic himself (with a handful of Rolling Stone reviews to his credit) and now a practicing attorney—released Hold Up the Sky, his first solo album in 37 years. The CD is a joy, and Ken Tucker, now editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, featured it on NPR's Fresh Air, where he named it one of the best albums of 2008.
It's not difficult to imagine that Paul Nelson would've agreed.
Copyright 2010 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.