Philip Bashe Interview
Rick Nelson Biography
In the late 50's, they didn't come much bigger than Rick Nelson. He was the Teenage Idol. He recorded 27 Top 20 hits including "Hello Mary Lou," "Travelin' Man," "Stood Up," and " Lonesome Town." The son of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Rick was seen weekly on his parents TV show.
Philip Bashe has written a book on Rick Nelson titled, "Teenage Idol, Travelin' Man. The Complete Biography of Rick Nelson" (Hyperion Books). It traces Rick's life from the very beginning — to his tragic death in a plane crash in 1985.
Q. Is there really that much interest in Rick Nelson in 1993? Would
a teenager of today find anything interesting or appealing about Rick
A. First of all, this book was not written, to be honest, with teenagers in mind. They might find him interesting, because of their interest in his sons (Nelsons) who are hugely popular, and also just because there's a teenager with an interest in rock 'n roll and television. The book really seems to appeal to more of the people for whom Rick had the most resonance, which was, the people who grew up watching him on TV, listening to him on the radio and buying his records, which tends to be the age group pretty much his age, people in their 40's and 50's. I've received hundreds of letters, from teenagers as young as 13 or 14.
Q. Why did you subtitle your book "The Complete Biography?" Joel
Selvin wrote a book on Rick Nelson a few years back that essentially relayed
the same information as yours. Why is your book any more complete than his?
A. I do not like to compare my work with other writer's works. But, I will say that if you just look at the acknowledgements, I did close to 200 interviews for this book. There's just numerous sources in here, that the other book did not contact. I spoke to just about every musician he ever played with. The other book really only spoke to a couple. There are many stories in this book that are not in the other book. I should also point out that this book was actually finished before the other book, but that's another story. Like I said, I really don't like to compare it to other writers work because naturally I'm gonna have an unfavorable opinion most likely of the other book, which I do.
Q. Was it your intention to portray Rick Nelson as a sympathetic character?
A. I did not attempt to portray him as a sympathetic character. If you're a good biographer I don't think you go into a biography with any sort of preconception. Doing this sort of book is like a mystery really. This subject is really a blank slate and gradually you fill it in, based on the many interviews and the months of research you do. In a business that's full of frauds, here was a man who had tremendous convictions when it came to his music. He was full of honesty and integrity when it came to his music.
Q. Rick Nelson, in your book, comes across as a guy who was in a fog, who
basically was lost.
A. Maybe in terms of aspects of his personal life, that is true, but certainly not in terms of his professional life, which I found an interesting dichotomy. Here was a guy, who in many aspects of his personal life was so passive, yet would become so fiercely passionate and so full of conviction when it came to music, which I think really shows just how important music really was to him and how it truly was his means of expression. Rick Nelson, ironically, could express himself more cogently in a song than he probably could in a conversation many times.
Q. If there's a central villain in this book, it would have to be Rick's
A. Possibly. I think villain is a little harsh. I think certainly this book is quite fair to Kris.
Q. How many women in Kris' position would have put up with Rick's antics?
No woman would have stood for his womanizing very long.
A. I say that very thing in this book. Obviously, it was a troubled marriage, but let's call it 50/50. Kris wanted an acting career and she figured Rick being in acting would give her entree into Hollywood. She was not a musician. She had no interest in music; therefore to her his love of music was irrelevant. She really did not understand. Rick did not just portray a musician on the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet all those years — that's who he was. That was his soul. His soul was that of a musician, not an actor.
Q. Can we say though that no one put a gun to Rick's
head and said "Marry
Kris." He did it voluntarily, therefore his marriage problems was
of his own making.
A. Well, I think you have to remember, this was 1962 and 1963. In a way, someone very much so did put a gun to Rick's head and said, "Marry Kris." Basically, he'd gotten his teenage girlfriend pregnant. This was 30 years ago, a very different era from today. Ozzie and Harriet were the equivalent, and even this doesn't do it justice, of The Cosby Show let's say, in the 80's and 90's. They were portrayed as the model moral American upstanding family. This would have been a major scandal had it gotten out that Rick had made Kris Harmon pregnant. To be honest, he really didn't have that much choice. However, you have to remember, at that time, early in their relationship, I spoke to enough friends of theirs, who said they still probably would've married anyway, despite what Rick claimed later in life, after their acrimonious divorce. They truly were in love. So, in a way, it may not have been that much of an issue anyway. Would they have married that early? Probably not. But, they probably would have married some time later, down the road.
Q. You say that Rick used prostitutes on the road, rather
than the usual backstage "groupies" who hung around after the show. Why didn't a
publication such as "Confidential" get a hold of that story?
How was that hushed up? Couldn't that have brought down a teen idol like Rick?
A. Yeah, of course that could have brought down a teen idol like Rick. But you have to remember, this sort of thing went on in Hollywood all the time. Rick was written up in other magazines that wrote religiously about idols like himself and Frankie Avalon. I think there probably was an unspoken code, just like with sports journalism. Sports journalism writes about their activities on the field. It rarely delves into their activities back at the hotel with "groupies." I think Ozzie Nelson did go to some lengths to keep this quiet, but I really don't think he had to go that far. There's sort of an unwritten agreement that if the tabloids don't touch certain areas of the celebrities' lives, they will sort of feed them material. It becomes this sort of symbiotic relationship. Plus, it's not as if Rick was consorting with prostitutes every weekend. For one thing, he certainly didn't have to. He wasn't on the road all that much. It was more of an occasional thing.
Q. How much cocaine was Rick using towards the end of his life? Would that
have accounted for his money troubles?
A. Based on the people who were close to him, I would not call it a significant amount. He was a recreational user. I don't personally condone it. Any amount of use is abuse. Rick didn't buy enough cocaine for it to affect him economically. His troubles really didn't have anything to do with drugs. The money problems were rooted in his and Kris' extravagant life style, and of course, the divorce. His artistic problems at that point, was being dropped from his record contract at Capitol. I'm talking 1982, 1983. He was confused about what direction to go in musically.
Q. Was there a problem in getting good hit material
to Rick in the mid 60's? Rick Nelson could have done the songs made famous
by say Gary Lewis and the Playboys and been just as successful, if not more
so, with that material.
A. Well, Rick did Gary Lewis and The Playboys style bland, L.A. studio men material on those four albums that came out in 1964 and 1965. He hated those albums which were on Decca Records. While Gary Lewis and The Playboys were sort of at their peak in 1966, Rick Nelson made a very brave move. Rick made a very bold move by putting out those two country albums in 1966 and 1967. So, he totally ducked out of rock 'n roll, because he'd already done that sort of thing. It wasn't turning him on musically. I think what you're failing to see here is Rick wasn't that concerned with having hits. He'd already had dozens of hits. What he wanted to do was make music that meant a lot to him, that touched his soul. If it sold, that was fine, if it didn't, that was fine too. I think that's hard for people to believe but that really was the case. In the mid 60's, Rick's idea of good music was to go to country.
Q. After writing this book, what did you learn about Rick that you didn't
A. Through doing this book, I came upon the really great early records that you don't tend to hear on oldies radio — "Stood Up," "Waitin' In School," and "My Buckets Got a Hole in It." I was as surprised as the next person to hear what great rockabilly music this kid from Hollywood made and what an impact he had on his own generation of musicians, and of course the next generation — people like Chris Isaak, John Fogerty, Lindsay Buckingham, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and it goes on and on. Rick exposed Americans to more rock 'n roll than any performer except for Elvis Presley. Another thing I found fascinating was how this kid from an affluent Hollywood family and who had such an atypical childhood growing up as a childhood star on radio and TV felt this kinship, an immediate connection with rockabilly musicians like Carl Perkins, Elvis, and Johnny Cash, who all hailed from the poor rural South. Yet, this music spoke to Rick.
Q. So, how will Rick Nelson be remembered?
A. Rick Nelson held more steadfastly really to the original tenants of rock 'n roll and took his music more seriously than many early rock musicians who are generally regarded as somehow being more 'authentic'. When it came to his music, he became probably as principled as anyone who's ever picked up a guitar. You have that great line from Garden Party — 'You Can't Please Everyone, So You Got To Please Yourself." That really could stand as his epitaph.