Book Review: Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man (1992)

The Complete Biography of Rick Nelson, by Philip Bashe
Reviewed by Brian R. Wright

For some reason around Christmas 2018, I know what it was, I was pondering whether I’d be receiving a card from my former boss, Cathy. We had worked together doing documentation of an EDI [electronic data interchange (paperless business transaction documents)] suite of documents for a company in Livonia, Michigan, back in the 1990s. I’d just recently heard a desultory comment from a current coworker that Rick Nelson’s plane had crashed because he was freebasing cocaine—IOW, the sort of rumor meanspirited people, guided by hearsay, not knowing and not caring, use to dismiss another’s achievement.

Well, Cathy, whom I really admired professionally and personally, had shared with me a book on Rick Nelson back in those days I worked for her. Turns out she was a major fan of Rick’s music and of Rick the individual. [“Elvis was too full of himself, and, like, a greaser.”] I read the book that she recommended back then and came away quite impressed with Mr. Teenage Idol, as well. In particular, whatever book I read dwelt on the distressing relationship between Nelson and his wife Kris, the drugs and affairs and whatnot—mostly on Kris’s end of the stick. It was a good book, putting Rick mainly in a favorable light. BUT it was NOT this book that I just read and am reviewing here.

Foundation

This book, Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man, is several cuts above the other one I remember reading in the early 1990s. Mr. Bashe has delivered a remarkable achievement that focuses first and foremost on Rick the musician and on Rick the person. With a full family history and background, especially of the remarkable Ozzie Nelson.

“Oswald George Nelson was born in Jersey city, March 20, 1906…. A voracious reader, Ozzie dog-eared copies of David Copperfield, Tommy Tiptop, the Rover Boys, and especially Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches boys’ stories. The latter’s recurring theme of infinite possibility had an immense impact on him, as it did on young men as Henry Ford, David Sarnoff, John D. Rockefeller, George Eastman, and Thomas Edison. That they and Ozzie all wound up millionaires might be coincidence. Then again, maybe not: for the honesty and virtue of Alger’s protagonists weren’t their own rewards, but were usually supplemented by cash.”

“Though the public would come to know Ozzie as the indolent, bumbling father he played on the air, in reality he displayed Algeresque drive and ambition his entire life. In addition to becoming the youngest American Eagle Scout on record at 13, Ozzie went on to excel in scholastics, debating, cartooning, and sports…. Ozzie followed his brother Alfred to all-male Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey,” where at 130# he played running back on the varsity football team. After graduating and enduring many hardships, including his father’s death from a rare bone cancer, superachiever Ozzie developed a thriving entertainment business—band, orchestra, singer, conductor, composer—on the east coast while even earning a law degree. — Pages 4-7

By comparison and contrast, Rick fit the following description:

“Strong-willed professionally, in his private life Rick was passive and reserved, the loyal son of a domineering, ambitious father. Ozzie Nelson, creator and star of an unprecedented radio and television dynasty, directed Rick not only on The Adventures [of Ozzie and Harriet] but off camera as well, and was the most influential person in his life. Rick felt forever torn between his devotion to Ozzie and his desperate need to establish an identity separate from father and family. He became an escape artist, always seeking his independence—from Ozzie;  from an unhappy marriage; from adulthood, which Rick resisted like Peter Pan by singing rock & roll; and most of all from the Boy Next Door image that plagued him through the years.” — Page xvii

Excellence and Uniqueness of the Book

What’s unique about Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man is the writing. Not only does Bashe give an intelligent, superbly-drawn, and reasonable picture of the motivations and personality of Rick and his surrounding entourage, Bashe focuses where he should… on the music. Indeed, in his prologue, Bashe has already discussed a turning point in Rick’s career with the famous ‘Garden Party’ story and back story.

I was always a bit unclear of the context of that event held at Madison Square Garden, October 1971. It was basically set up as a golden oldies format, where Rick and his Stone Canyon Band—after playing a couple of his 27 Top Twenty singles from the 50s and 60s—deviated from the what the producer and fans expected to hear. They played some recent tunes from “where they were at” musically at the time. IOW, Rick and the SCB were still growing and probing the creative envelope; it felt natural to share. They were brutally rebuffed.

“The catcalls? Rick could endure them, just as he had the cancellation of his family’s TV series in 1966 and the downward spiral his recording and acting careers had taken since then. What truly bewildered him was the audience’s implicit warning that they would accept him not as he was but only as he had been. But of course Rick wasn’t Ricky anymore; he was a 31-year-old husband and father with greater aspirations than peddling memories.” — Page xxii

Rick was born May 8, 1940, and came of age before us all—that is, white middle-class American Baby Boomers and their 30-something parents—in The Adventures first as a radio series (1944-1951, though Ricky and David didn’t join until 1949) then on television (1952-1966). I was born in 1949 and didn’t listen to radio series, which were quite popular in the 1940s. Rather I was absolutely first-generation TV and remember going through my teen years watching The Nelsons, particularly avidly when Ricky started singing (1957).

I have a distinct recollection of watching the episode where Rick sings his 1961 #1 hit, “Travelin’ Man,” with all the world imagery and gorgeous babes passing by in the background… I sooo wanted to be that guy, free from all this dreary government school routine, independently going about my exotic business endeavors with adoring girls in every port. [As a thought experiment, contrast this young longing of mine with what teenage boys are presented as having to look forward to, today.]

By the way, I love the author’s observation of the early experience of television:

“Early programmers exploited this fascination [being flown like on a magic carpet to all corners of the globe] by way of shows that transported audiences to the theater (Philco TV Playhouse), to sporting events (Boxing from St. Nicholas Arena), sightseeing (America in View), even back in time (You Are There). The irony of course is that while TV ostensibly broadened viewers’ horizons by beaming the world into their homes, their lives became more insular and their homes their worlds.” — Page 33

The Music

Ricky was drawn to rock & roll initially because it was just there. People forget how hostile the establishment was to the budding musical form, which spilled over into antirock crusades of one form or another. Such irrational, over-the-top antagonism, say, to Elvis, only served to rally the faithful to the cause.

“Rick felt a kinship with Elvis and other singers from the poor rural South whose records he heard on the radio: Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy Riley. All initially recorded for Sun Records [of Memphis, Tennessee], the laboratory for the musical hybrid known as rockabilly.” — Page 63

He also loved Fats Domino and the black soul sound. Ricky had a natural affinity and ability for music. He was drawn to perform rock & roll for the same reason that has inspired thousands of careers: to impress a girl. This one a bronze beauty named Arlene who was the fantasy of every male at Hollywood High. His first recording on TV, “I’m Walkin’,” generated sales of half a million. Ultimately music, his own way, became his life’s calling.

As for this calling, author Bashe is all over it, you’ll find the book a suitable compendium and well presented. He points out that unlike most recording artists, Rick Nelson produced genuine chart hits in four decades: the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. He recommends two albums in his post-idol period: Rick Nelson in Concert (1970) and Memphis Sessions, the original. Unfortunately, the original MS tapes were not incorporated as is into the album that later was published by CBS posthumously in 1986.  Still, both these albums that were produced I intend to acquire.

Who He Was and Why We Should Care

Another indication of Rick’s character is that into the final years of his life and his career, when money problems—IMHO Bashe bends way too far over backwards to be nice to whack-job wife Kris, who basically buried him financially and legally—abounded and he had to tour practically year round in order to make ends meet, Rick turned down a number of offers for TV specials or to be a headliner in Vegas with other acts. Rick referred to such ‘rhinestone cowboy’ displays as “balloons and feathers shows.” He could have made millions basically by just standing on stage, holding a guitar, and smiling.

About the Crash, December 31, 1985, that Ended RicK Nelson’s Life

Rick and his touring group flew in a classic Douglas Aircraft DC3 which was neat and clean, but not always well-maintained. They were headed to Dallas  for a New Year’s Eve performance, December 31, 1985. About 5:10 in the afternoon, near Texarkana, Texas, the plane started smoking and could not remain aloft. It made an emergency landing into a wooded area after severing two power lines and colliding with a tree that removed the left wing. Of the nine persons aboard the plane, only the pilot and copilot survived, the copilot very badly burned.

The Washington Post, 1/15/86 broke a travesty headline, “Drug-related fire suspected in Rick Nelson plane crash,” and fact-free story that became the sensationalized ‘Jerry Springer Show’-fan perception of what happened. The plane was near totally destroyed, yielding virtually no evidence of anything.

After nearly a year and a half, 5/21/87, the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) issued a report attributing the cause of the smoke, fire, and crash to a malfunctioning or faultily repaired Janitrol gasoline heater, located aft of the lavatory on the right side, which sustained most of the damage. Deaths occurred before the crash, and were not from impact rather from smoke inhalation and thermal burns, remains of the victims were discovered huddled against the bulkhead.

Epitaphs

The legendary background vocals’ group, Jordanaires, doing a show with Rick in 1982, expressed how they were so impressed how little Rick had changed in the 20 years since they’d last worked together: “Most music stars change tremendously and become completely different people…. Rick was still the same sweet, genuine person he was when he was a kid.”

John Fogerty—lead vocalist, lead guitarist, primary songwriter, and cofounder of Creedence Clearwater Revival—for whom Rick stood not only as a musical inspiration but as a personal role model, insisted on being Rick Nelson’s inductor into the R&R Hall of Fame in its second year, 1987; John’s sentiments:

“Rick was a guy who seemed to have handled success. He didn’t become a jerk, a drunk, a bum, a mean person. He didn’t end up wild and crazy like Jerry Lee Lewis. He was a classy guy throughout and handled himself with grace. I think sometimes in this business that thrives on uniqueness, we tend to forget that people who remain classy and very human are setting an example, that you can make good rock & roll and not have to be crazy. That became a very basic tenet of what I aspired to be. I wanted to be a guy like that.”

Eric Hilliard Nelson, gentle soul, creative giant, VIP, RIP, I miss you plenty. The world is far too harsh without your voice and demeanor. I’ll be steadily revisiting your wonderful creative output, and refreshing my family nostalgia, from time to time, on YouTube with The Adventures.

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