Despite, almost single-handedly bringing rock ’n’ roll to TV, having countless hit singles, heavily influencing country rock, being praised by the likes of Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney and being an early inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ricky Nelson’s importance seems to be lost upon a new generation of music fans. That’s about to change if his twin sons, Matthew and Gunnar, have any say in the matter. Chart-topping artists themselves with their band Nelson, on the 25th anniversary of their father’s tragic death in a plane crash, the musicians are hitting the road for an all-star tribute show to their father’s life and music. Matthew Nelson took time to speak candidly with the Reporter about his father’s life and legacy.
VCReporter: How do you think history has treated your dad? It seems younger people have no idea how important he was to early rock music or how popular he was.
Matthew Nelson: I think you’re completely correct there. I think anyone under the age of 30 would probably have a pretty rough time knowing who he, or even Ozzie and Harriet were, for that matter. I think it’s basically a television situation. In the UK and other parts of the world where they didn’t get Ozzie and Harriet, he’s revered as a rock and roll pioneer like an Elvis Presley or a Roy Orbison or a Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s almost like the success that television brought him in the States kind of also brought with it an albatross for his music, especially in the United States.
VCR: Your father came from a completely different era in terms of how society treats celebrities. There are a lot of stories floating around about him, both good and bad. How is it to hear some of those things?
What’s really interesting about it is, I know a lot of those stories. Some I talk about in the show, and some I don’t. Both good and bad. It’s funny ’cause you wouldn’t know that Ricky Nelson was the first person to throw a television set out of the hotel window in Hollywood. He had so much pressure with the TV show, he’d hang with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, and they did it to “see what it would look like.” The unfortunate thing was all the cops knew exactly where the Nelsons lived and were waiting for him by the time he got home. He was a closet rebel. He actually called himself a closet greaser.
VCR: If it’s not too hard, could you talk about how and when your father passed away? Everyone knows it was a plane crash but what was that like for you?
When he died . . . the thing was . . . I found out about my dad dying on the radio in my car. Gunnar found out watching TV. It was a real hard reality for a lot of reasons. Let’s talk about the media. I guess when you’re famous, certain things don’t apply, like withholding the names of the deceased till they notify the family. I was listening in my car to KLOS FM, which is a Los Angeles station, and they played three of my dad’s tunes and he sounded great. I was talking with my girlfriend at the time. Gunnar and I were supposed to be on the plane with him. I was telling her about how, when he got back, how he was going to work with us on what we were doing. The last note of “Garden Party” rung out and I said, “Boy it sounded like he had such a purpose when he sang that song.” The DJ came on and his voice was wavering and he said, “This has been a tribute to Rick Nelson who was killed in a plane crash today with his band in Dekalb, Texas.” All I can remember is my girlfriend grabbing my arm and saying, “It can’t be true.” I screamed, ran out of the car and passed out. That kind of shock you can’t get over. I still can’t get over it. The only way I can deal with it is to talk about it like it’s a football game. The media said horrible things about what caused the plane crash. When the truth came out eight months later, the damage was already done. Nobody cared, and I still have people talk about it and don’t know the facts.
VCR: How would you like your dad to be remembered?
Our dad spent his entire life playing for people. He was on his way to a gig on New Year’s when he died. He was the consummate performer. I never saw him say no to an autograph. He was about the nicest guy I ever met. The reality of it is, if I could do more for him I would. He was the type of guy who never waved his flag, but really it’s high time somebody does it for him. Even though he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And some people in the know credit him for founding country and smuggling rock ’n’ roll into American television sets when they were still calling it the devil’s music.
Ricky Nelson Remembered, featuring Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, takes place Friday, March 5, at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills, 28912 Roadside Drive. For more information visit www.canyonclub.net or www.officialnelson.com.