You Can’t Please Everyone (So You Got to Please Yourself): joni tevis interviews gunnar nelson (of nelson)

(In which we discuss trees, Alexander Graham Bell, tattoos, and The Hero’s Journey.)


February 15, 2018.

(Dig on the scene: it’s the day after Valentine’s and I’m sitting in my office at school, waiting for my ancient desk phone to ring. 4:30, tick, tick. It rings!!)

(I ask about “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection.”)

It almost didn’t make it to the record. We grew up in LA. We were immersed in that scene since we were babies. (His father, Ricky Nelson, was part of the Stone Canyon Band when the twins were young, and saw Joni Mitchell, The Hollies, and The Byrds as influences.)

What we grew up listening to wasn’t blues. It’s pretty easy to make a rock song sound tough when your DNA is the blues. But when your DNA is folk, it’s harder.

Guns N' Roses wanted to be the Stones. We wanted to be the heavy metal Hollies.

I love that song (“(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection),” even though it ended up on the cutting room floor. But the demo had more energy.

We had to put all our emphasis on the songwriting. [Our influences were] the “skinny tie” bands of the early 80s—the Bangles, the Go-Gos, the Knack—pop.

It was our debut song: everything we had learned, super melodic background, sing as a couple of brothers, have a little jangle-pop.

At the last minute, Matt and I said, we really believe in this song. We ended up hiring a pop mixer, David Holman, and re-recording about fifty percent of the master. It snapped, it popped, it floated from the radio for a reason.

Never give up on a good idea.


(I ask about the video, which is four minutes and fifty-five seconds of solid gold.)

This was when MTV was the biggest radio station in the world. We knew the video element would be huge. It was our first video ever.

The director (Jim Yukich) had a film background. [1] Visually it was stunning, but it was also very funny. Alice in Wonderland.

The other bands at the time were using black and white. We want Technicolor! Birds fly backward, snow falls up.


(I ask about some of the tricky moments, visually, in the video.) We had to learn that section of the music at double speed.

We had to learn that music backwards.

Love us or hate us, you’re gonna know who we are.

Every second something is happening. You have a second, a second and a half. That’s why (there were) so many costume changes. We wanted to be different from bands like GNR that were good but took themselves way too seriously.

Things started moving very fast. We were in the big time.


(I ask about the clothes in the video, specifically the DUSTERS.)

We went to Western Costume and pulled some things, old military uniforms. We’d been reading Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey. There was a theme to what we were pulling. We took it to Diane Estelle. We self-financed. Everyone had a look. We had a band meeting. What would you like to see in your stage costume? Symbols—like the bird flying through the cloud, signifies “After the Rain”—all the symbols are in white in the liner of the pale blue duster. If you freeze-frame the video, you can see them clearly. People have tattoos of these symbols all around the country.

The whole philosophy of the trip is that nothing is left to chance.

Either way it goes, it will have been our idea.

We didn’t want to be Bon Jovi. We didn’t want to be Skid Row. We didn’t want to be Warrant. We wanted to be us.


(I ask about “Garden Party.”)

We could talk about that for three hours.

If I weren’t my father’s son, I might not have the confidence to march to my own drum.


(On where to categorize their music, in terms of genre?)

You know you like it. You can’t put your finger on where to put it.

(Ricky Nelson) had always wanted to play at Madison Square Garden. But the promoter put on an oldies show. (Dad said) I’m not that (1950s thing) anymore. (Promoter said) Show up, and they’ll be happy.

He gets there, 22,000 poodle skirts and saddle shoes. He could feel the unease building. When you’re on TV it tends to burn you into people’s minds at a certain time. They gave you comfort. You could rely on that. But he’s doing his own thing.

(We repeat together the lines:)

I said hello to Mary Lou, she belongs to me
When I sang a song about a honky tonk, it was time to leave.

(Which refers to Ricky’s cover of the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman.”)

They booed him off the stage.

He finally had the balls to stand up and say this is me. I was able to come out of the box swinging. When I have done my best as an artist, it’s been living that philosophy—you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.

“Love and Affection” would not have existed if “Garden Party” had not come first.

That song ("Love and Affection") is philosophy in action. On my 22nd birthday it went #1. I thought, what next?

You never know when the tiniest crumb will impact the world.

I genuinely love music. It’s not about anything other than connecting. It’s as close to God as I’m gonna get. You’re the conduit and something is moving through you. It becomes addictive and it becomes your safe place. The euphoria of that.

(And at a concert, you meet people who) made (those songs) the soundtrack to their lives. They’re singing the words back to you.

No matter what, I knew that I was a writer.


(I tell him about the creative writing classes I’m teaching this term, in which we all took new names. Tree names. It’s a long story.)

(I ask about his tree name, a question that he takes in stride.)

Willow. And sequoia. A blend of both. Sequillow!

(Now the conversation turns to matters of pedagogy.)

Alexander Graham Bell wrote about the state all creatives get in. Most people only go there right before they fall asleep or wake up. We get good at getting to that state a lot. AGB had a cot in his office, a little side table, a note pad, metal ball bearing, metal plate—when he dropped the ball bearing on the floor, he wrote down (his ideas). So many inventions. (When we’re in that creative space, we get that) Glazed look. That thousand-yard stare.

Rule #1. Dare to be stupid. Dare to go there. Nothing is wrong, nothing is dumb, ever!

Creating something is not an immediate act, and it’s not pretty. There’s a time for improving, but first you get the idea out, go as far as you possibly can.

Dare to be stupid. It is fucking liberating.

Rule #2. One’s the creator and one’s the critic. They’re never allowed to meet, ever. There will be a time, much later, when he can come in, but even then, he’s not allowed to criticize you or make you feel bad.


(My thanks to Gunnar Nelson for giving generously of his time and rolling with all of my questions, no matter how screwball they were. –A week after this interview, the tech guys at my university replaced my decades-old desk phone with a new one. Coincidence? Or did the crackling joy and energy of this conversation effectively short out the connections of the staid technology we had limped along with before? Is my office forever changed, for now the Spirit of Rock dwells within? Reader! Baby! You and I both know the truth. —JT)


[1] If you’ve ever seen a Genesis or Phil Collins video, chances are you know Yukich’s work. “Land of Confusion,” the late-Cold-War mini-movie of atomic dread featuring puppets of Ronald and Nancy Reagan? Yukich. It chills me still!

Gunnar bio?

Joni Tevis is the author of two books of essays, most recently The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse. Her essays have appeared in Orion, Oxford American, Poets & Writers, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. She teaches at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

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