Friday, January 6, 2012

Ricky Nelson

     "He was broke and badly in debt.  He kept vampire hours, rising as the sun set and going to bed at dawn. His children rarely saw him, although they lived in the same rambling mansion in the Hollywood Hills, originally built by the dissolute movie star Errol Flynn.  His startling good looks were fading, and even on a post-midnight grocery shopping trip, he would never leave his house without full makeup.

     Many people take charge of their destinies and make things happen.  Rick was the sort of person that things happened to.  He was the fortunate son who stood still while providence came to him.  When life smiled on him, he accepted its gifts gratefully.  When his luck ran dry, he never complained.

Ricky and James Burton

     He grew up the sunniest of California’s golden boys, a teenager whose wealth and fame exceeded that of powerful statesmen, lauded scholars and literary geniuses many years his age.  Raised as the celebrated son of an almost mythical American family, Rick Nelson never escaped a life of frustration and defeat despite a youth of unparalleled privilege and glory.

     Rick himself was a cipher.  His closest friends remembered him fondly but not well, invariably first and foremost recalling him as “nice.”   Other, more pointed details always proved vague or missing entirely.  It was as if he had been there in shape but not substance.  The shadowy figure bundled together contradictions:  warm and remote, witty and dull, fortunate and hapless, confident and shy, proud and docile.

     He learned to be cautious around strangers, shy to the point of paranoia, and he grew to read his life from a script.  Over the years, he would respond to the questions of interviewers with identical answers, almost word for word, like little speeches he had memorized."


I saw Ricky Nelson perform in person only once.  It was at the Bottom Line, a very nice club in Manhattan, and I think he was promoting the album he made for Epic Records.   

He had been playing for a long time as “Rick Nelson” by then; this was several years after “Garden Party" and the affecting Bob Dylan covers (“She Belongs To Me” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.”)

Ricky was magnificent, simply the most natural and unaffected performer I’d ever seen.  His band was quite good also and he played all of his many hits, making each and every one of them live and shine.

Of course it would have been nice to see him with his original band, including the great James Burton, but you can’t have everything.

I can recommend Joel Selvin’s biography, Ricky Nelson: Idol For A Generation (Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1990), for the information it conveys and the stories it tells more than I can for its prose and attempts at psychology.  While it might be nice, I suppose, to know what made Ricky tick, he left such an enduring body of work, and I really think the “message,” such as it is, and the meaning lies there – in the records, the television and movie acting, the live concerts, and in his single (I believe) Saturday Night Live appearance where he was so natural and deft it was scary.

In my experience, musicians are often naturally quiet people and basically all about music all the time.  Selvin’s observation about Ricky’s “pat” interview answers reminds me of something Caroline once told me about one of her label artists, who shared a love of rockabilly with Ricky (also enormous musical talent).   

At the height of this musician’s dizzying rise to fame, he told Caroline, his publicist, that he couldn’t do any more interviews because he had run out of things to say.  He was being utterly sincere and he'd been at the task many fewer years than Ricky.  Caroline coached him back into the game, but with a lot of sympathy and affection because of his honesty.

After Ricky died, I remember Roy Orbison saying with sardonic admiration that Ricky was the only person he knew who had learned how to sing on Number 1 records.  It didn’t take Ricky very long to do this, he admitted, and Roy’s candor about his own jealousy – of Rick’s looks, his easy, natural, disarming manner, his great records, and his astonishing lead guitarist - was  appealing.

Ricky Nelson: Teenage Idol (Link)

Ricky Nelson: It's Late (Link)

Ricky Nelson: Believe What You Say (Link)

Rick Nelson: Love Minus Zero/No Limit (Link)


  1. Seems like quite a conflicted guy. The first quoted paragraph is quite upsetting. Who might he have been if he hadn't been a Nelson? I remember Travelin' Man was a popular song at the "socials" during my first summer at Camp Scatico.

    Fiske Street Jane loved Garden Party. She and I used to play guitar and sing together, and I remember when she insisted that we collaborate on Rick's song.

    Thanks for reminding me of Ricky and his music.

  2. Garden Party is a terrific record and very touching in that characteristic Ricky Nelson way. I imagine that if Rick hadn't been a "Nelson," he would still have been a musician (assuming, of course, he had Ozzie and Harriet or other musicians as parents and had that gene). Rick's story, as told in the Selvin bio, is quite interesting, especially if you know Los Angeles and can picture some of the places and activities. For instance, during his "vampire" period (not a nice description, but possibly not unfair), Rick used to pay a restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City called Casa Vega to stay open all night so that he could dine in the witching hours. I know the place quite well and find that fascinating. Mostly, though, I've always loved the records, especially the early rockabilly hits. If you check out the clip of Believe What You Say, you'll see what I mean and it's fun to enjoy and share the pride and joy Rick clearly feels when he's listening to James Burton's guitar solo. The other band members, Joe Osborn (a foundation element of the Wrecking Crew -- a phenomenal bass player) and Richie Frost, were also superb. Curtis

  3. Curtis,

    Genius record that indeed was, but when I look at the videos now, it's hard not to see a sad foreshadowing of the unpleasant ending.

    I guess Ricky never quite grew up, but being the kid he was... who would want to?

    Most of my memories of him come from the fantasy white-picket fence days.

    The gang's all here.

  4. I agree. The Selvin book is quite enjoyable but, in spite of the author's efforts at armchair psychology, I was surprised and disappointed by its lack of depth. It reminded me of an interview I once read with Mose Allison where the journalist, inquiring about some supposedly dark passages of the artist's life, received the answer: "Is this the first time you've ever heard about a musician who drank too much?" The most revealing sections of the book are contained in David Nelson's interview excerpts, and in sum they recall the cliche that as you gain something, you lose something. I suspect you never saw Rick's Saturday Night Live appearance. What was eerie about it was how utterly natural and seemingly transparent he was, making everyone else seem more than typically forced and awkward. Regarding the unpleasant ending, the circumstances that led to Ricky purchasing Jerry Lee Lewis's faulty plane were completely in character with the man and largely aesthetic. Apparently, for all its mechanical shortcomings, it was the sort of beautiful WWII-vintage aircraft where you can imagine an armistice being signed. Curtis