There was a time when Mike Nelson would do anything--even sleep on park benches or church pews--to keep his musical career alive. But after 20 years of bouncing from band to band and club to club, the desire to drum finally died.
"It just shut down on me," Nelson explained. "When I got out, I said, 'I'm not going to think about drums ever again.' I didn't even listen to music. That's what I had lived all the time: listening, playing, thinking about music."
So after Nelson sold his drum kit five years ago, he bought a used surfboard and got out of Hollywood, where he had been working as a session musician and playing in rock-jazz fusion bands, and moved to Newport Beach. And slowly he molded his latest career: sculpting.
"I don't even know how it happened," Nelson said about his new-found vocation. "I ended up with some clay, and I just said, 'I'm going to get into a gallery. I'm just going to make something, and I'm going to get into a gallery.' "
Studying books, Nelson taught himself the complicated art of bronze casting. And after creating several pieces depicting surfers and other figures, he succeeded in landing an exhibit, held recently at the Anita Neal Gallery in Laguna Beach. Nelson, in an interview at the gallery, said that shows are being planned at galleries in Newport Beach and Beverly Hills.
"I'm just not happy if I'm not into some kind of art," said Nelson, explaining his jump from music to sculpting. He thinks that part of the reason for his relatively quick success in the new medium has been his ability to recapture some of the desire of his days as a young drummer, playing the clubs and cafes of the fertile Greenwich Village music scene of the mid-'60s.
"I tried to knock down the wall of energy I had as a kid, to do the same thing with my art," said Nelson, 42. "When I was younger, I just said, 'I'm just going to do this, even if I have to sleep on a park bench. . . . No matter if there are a million better drummers, I'm just going to do it and that's that.' "
Nelson's checkered musical career was sparked while he was growing up in his native England. "I'll never forget it. I was at this church dance, and someone put on a Bill Haley record," the artist recalled. "And I thought, 'What is this? What is this stuff?' Then I had to have American jeans and everything else. I told my dad I wanted to move to the States."
His father and uncle were swing musicians, and the uncle introduced Nelson to the drums. At age 13, Nelson moved with his family to Canada, and five years later they moved to upstate New York. There, he played in various copy bands before moving to Greenwich Village at the height of the club scene there.
"The Village in that era was something else," Nelson recalled. "(Jimi) Hendrix would be playing one cafe and (Bob) Dylan would be across the street and the Lovin' Spoonful would be around the corner."
Nelson was in an original band called Silver Byke, which got what looked to be a big break when it was signed to Bang Records, the label that in those days boasted Van Morrison and Neil Diamond. But soon after the band's first record was released, company owner Bert Berns, who had been instrumental in Morrison's early career, managing his band Them and penning the hit "Here Comes the Night," died of a heart attack.
Berns had run the company almost single-handedly, and with his death the Silver Byke album was doomed. The band dissolved, and Nelson went on to stints in a number of bands. He also managed some playing time with some of the giants of the era.
"I really wanted to work with some of the guys like Dylan," Nelson said. He did some session work with the singer-songwriter in 1965, when Dylan had a falling out with the Band's Levon Helm. Later, Nelson jammed often with Morrison at the singer's home, with a chance at becoming a regular sideman.
"I never regret things, but I really didn't know how much I liked Van Morrison at that time. I knew 'Gloria' and 'Here Comes the Night,' but I didn't know where he was going, with 'Moondance' and stuff, or I would have stuck it out," Nelson said. "But I was working with a three-piece original band, and it was a choice between doing that and going over to Van's house and jamming. Because I'd just found that backing up people is really limiting, but if I'd known how much I'd really get to like Van's stuff, who knows?"
John Platania, Nelson's guitarist from his Silver Byke days, worked on several of Morrison's albums.
"From that point on it was all original bands: jazz fusion, the kind of stuff that Mahavishnu, Chick Corea, Jeff Beck, Miles Davis did," Nelson said. "I got totally hooked on rock-jazz fusion."
Nelson moved to Hollywood but eventually burned out on music when the interest in fusion died down. "It just seemed to happen about five years ago," the artist said. "That jazz fusion scene just sort of fizzled, and I couldn't fade back into rock, and I'm not a mainstream jazz musician."
These days the urge to drum is coming back, and Nelson believes that the art has had a lot to do with that. "It just sort of feels like it was part of what I'm supposed to be doing to get my music going again," Nelson said. "This really feels like it's working. I think I can get back to where it's a joy again."
Nelson said he would like to stay with sculpting but also get back into playing fusion, perhaps this time with a Christian bent (he is an active follower of television evangelist Gene Scott). But with music, Nelson said, it's always hard to predict: "You like to think you're doing the music, but the music sort of does you," he said, laughing. "I know I'm anxious to play."