While still a teenager - a year and a half before Jann Wenner started Rolling Stone - Paul Williams started the first real rock music magazine, Crawdaddy!. Via Crawdaddy!, he gave a lot of other ‘legends’ their first writing outlet: Sandy Pearlman, Peter Guralnick, Jon Landau, and Richard Meltzer, to name just a few. He also hung with Timothy Leary and sang with him on John and Yoko's “Give Peace A Chance” single, recorded in a Montreal hotel room in 1969. If you ever get a chance, check out the video from that day on YouTube. He's right in front singing and clapping along. I could go on all day. He's the man. Long may he run.
Growing up in the late 1970s, there was very little available to read by legendary rock scribe Paul Williams. His books were out of print, old issues of Crawdaddy! were long gone, and Paul himself was M.I.A. for the most part. It wasn't until Paul published his first major tome on Bob Dylan, "Bob Dylan: Performing Artist," that I was able to get into the meat of what made Paul great. Here was a book about Dylan that didn't worry about what color shirt he was wearing the day he recorded this song or that one. The book went past that bullshit and got into the essence of the music. How does it sound and more importantly how does it feel? Paul was able to explain feelings about Bob's music that I didn't know I had. And most importantly, although Paul's writing was very personal, he left his ego at the door. Later when I met Paul, there was no ego, no ‘I am a rock legend’ or ‘I know everything’ – none of the attitude that I have experienced time and time again from music journalists with far less to brag about than Paul Williams.
Paul, for many reasons, is not gonna be on MTV interviewing Pearl Jam. He's not gonna blow hot wind in front of a video camera doing a documentary on the history of rock n roll–he's just not that kind of guy.
Paul's writing has moved me to check out bands I never would have dreamed of checking out, because he brings the human element into it, gets inside of himself, seemingly getting inside of me. Now, I know this sounds all flowery and new agey, but Paul came out of the 1960s and he never lost his naiveté about listening to music – it still sounds fresh to his ears.
What follows below is an interview I did with Paul in a café in Germany many years back…
Pat Thomas: Why don't we just start at the beginning: How you first got into writing. Were you doing any fiction or non-fiction writing before you actually started writing about rock 'n' roll?
Paul Williams: Well, not really, I was writing high school term papers or something like that, but I usually say that I got started as a professional writer by publishing myself, because when I started Crawdaddy! I didn't have anyone else writing for me so I had to write all this stuff to fill up the pages. And it took a while, but after all I got a sense of what I wanted to do, you know? And I started sounding more like something that was really me. My first publications outside of Crawdaddy! were either, like, Hit Parader reprinting something from Crawdaddy!, and then other magazines calling me up because Crawdaddy! was starting to get attention.
Yeah, the first issue came out at the end of January in 1966.
Pat Thomas: And how old were you then, Paul?
Paul Williams: 17.
Pat Thomas: How did you get the idea? This was really the first rock magazine or fanzine.
Paul Williams: In the States, yeah.
Pat Thomas: So how did you dream this up?
Paul Williams: Well, there were two big influences on me. One was that I'd been a science fiction fan and was used to putting out magazines. When I was 14, I put out my first science fiction fanzine, and there was a whole community of people doing that, and I put that out for a couple years. You know, mimeograph stencils and writing your own magazine seemed normal to me coming out of that world. The other influence was, when I started Crawdaddy! I was at Swathmore College near Philadelphia, I'd grown up in Cambridge and the Boston suburbs, and there was a very active folk scene, and of course there were folk music magazines…
Pat Thomas: Like “Sing Out” and “Broadside”
Paul Williams: In Boston there was one called “Boston Broadside,” which was really great and it came out every week, and that was really a model for me, too. When I turned from being a folk music fan, cause I'd been a real Club 47, you know, blues/folk fan, and the Rolling Stones converted me to rock 'n' roll – cause it was kind of like a passageway from blues to rock. It's interesting, because after resisting the Beatles and kind of liking some of their songs, or even a couple Beach Boys songs, I was still not taking any of it seriously because I was a folk snob. Then I got really excited about “Rolling Stones Now!” and the single “The Last Time,” and the Kinks's “You Really Got Me” and the Beatles's “Ticket to Ride.”
Yeah, basically for me it was February, March 1965. I guess it was just before “Bringing It All Back Home” came out. As I was becoming a rock 'n' roll fan, “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds came on the radio, and that was really what gave Dylan (I mean, even though he'd already recorded “Subterranean Homesick Blues”) it gave him permission to go in the direction he wanted to go.
Pat Thomas: You mentioned, once in one of your books, hanging out with the Beach Boys in their studio. Another time you mentioned something to me about writing songs with David Crosby. It seems like it was easier for you to ‘mingle with the stars’ as it were, than it would be if someone wanted to do that now. Do you think that was maybe because you were kind of the first guy trying to get their attention?
Paul Williams: Um, yeah, sure, there weren't very many rock journalists, so it was easier to get access for the few people who were. It's kind of different in each case. I was a big fan of the Rolling Stones but I never met them – I don't remember trying to, but I would've loved to, you know what I mean? [As for] the American bands, I would get turned on to them early. I saw the Doors, the Buffalo Springfield, and Jefferson Airplane and so forth before they were nationally known. So, yeah, you always had access to bands at that level.
Pat Thomas: So you actually flew out to California and said, ‘Here I am’?
Paul Williams: Yeah, you know, I can't remember, for example, how I met the Springfield—it was the week they were recording “For What It's Worth,” and I was already a fan because I'd heard “Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing” on the radio, it was a single that came out before the album. So I wanted to meet them and I think there was a girl in the Youngbloods’ office in New York who was already a Springfield fan, so she told me how to get in touch with them or something. But it was that kind of thing. In the case of the Beach Boys, I remember that Michael Vosse, who was working for them, drove me up to Brian's house, but exactly how it was all set up… you couldn't get help from record companies, some of them were organized to do that and some of them weren't, but it was way before, you know, the whole publicist kind of world grew.
Pat Thomas: How was Crawdaddy! initially published and distributed?
Paul Williams: Well, it started out completely as a fanzine, and the first issue I mailed out to record companies and radio stations, and waited for something to happen. Same thing with the second issue. And I began selling it in newsstands in Boston and around Philadelphia and New York, and each issue kind of grew a little. We really didn't know anything was happening, it might've died between the third issue—there was a big gap, I think the third issue came out in March, I was still at Swarthmore. And then I had that problem which caused me to drop out of college, that you know about, Richard Farina's death. I went back to Boston, didn't know what I was going to do, and finally put together another issue of Crawdaddy! that was mimeographed and sold it at the Newport Folk Festival in July. And that, actually, was kind of a breakthrough. We put Bob Dylan on the cover, which was a good idea [laughs]; we sold a lot of copies at Newport. Simon & Garfunkel's office actually gave me $100 to write a little bio or something, but it was a way of giving me some money so I could print the next issue. But the response to that issue was very encouraging. And the other thing was I met Jac Holzman of Elektra at Newport, and he bought the first national ad for the next issue of the magazine, so it's like, all right, now we can do the next issue!
Pat Thomas: Who else was writing for Crawdaddy! that people would
Paul Williams: Well, the mainstay writers, the ones that would write every issue, were Jon Landau, Richard Meltzer…
Richard Meltzer was very controversial right from the beginning. People hated him—you loved him or hated him. He was writing brilliant stuff at the time. Sandy Pearlman, he went on to become known for his work [as a producer] with Blue Oyster Cult, formerly the Soft White Underbelly. And he did a Clash album, I guess [Give 'Em Enough Rope], so he was also a regular. Those three guys and myself. And then there were interesting people who contributed now and then: the science fiction writer, Samuel R. Delaney, did some pieces for us; David Henderson, who wrote that first book about Jimi Hendrix ['Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky], a black poet, he wrote for us occasionally; Peter Guralnick, probably his first music writing that was published, some pieces on blues singers, were in Crawdaddy!. Tony Glover wrote for us a few times. He'd actually been writing for Little Sandy Review, Paul Nelson’s zine. Paul Nelson wrote a little bit for Crawdaddy!, too. Little Sandy Review was a kind of forerunner of Crawdaddy! in a sense. It was strictly a folk magazine, but it had that fanzine kind of feeling to it.
Pat Thomas: That was gonna be my next question: How (or why) did you drop out after this initial push?
Paul Williams: Well, there's a couple of reasons. I left at the end of ‘68. Basically, I couldn't stand being in New York anymore, I couldn't stand running a business anymore. I mean, I started it myself and I always felt like I had to be in control of it—it wasn't gonna come out right, I couldn't let somebody else own it, or blah blah blah, and as a result, as it got bigger I just had all this responsibility and dealing with all these people and with what they expected, and that was how I grew from 17 years old to 20 years old, and, you know, it was exciting, but the stress of running a ‘business’ — we never made any money, but each issue we'd be doing better, so we'd just be able to grow. Whatever money you theoretically made went into the next issue being bigger. And so it grew from 500 copies to 25,000 copies.
Around the time I left I think we were up to something like that, yeah. So it really grew—it was a great success story in a way. There was no money in it, but because it was the first thing on the scene, and because the rock n’ roll scene was getting so much attention then, Crawdaddy! got a lot of attention. But when I left, I just didn't want to do it anymore. I didn't want to stay in New York and it had been a kind of crusade. I always identified with the underground press papers that were coming out around the same time, and I was a hippy, I was taking LSD and marching in peace demonstrations and everything that went along with that, and for me, I started the magazine because I thought that since people were so intense about this music that they were listening to, it was a great common denominator, where we can talk about everything we're interested in, using the fact that we're listening to the same records. So, if I talk about what I'm hearing in this new Stones record, it may not be the same as what you're hearing, but we have something in common that we'll make a connection. But I was always publishing basically a personal essay. Landau focused more tightly on the music than the other writers, but everybody was writing these long personal essays based around this new record that they were excited about. Certainly in not as commercial a form as what Rolling Stone did, and Rolling Stone was what people wanted. So I was feeling that pressure already – I knew what the readers of the magazine wanted, but it wasn't necessarily what I was interested in, you know, more news, more personality features, more photographs, whatever.
But the other thing was that Crawdaddy! was a crusade. When I started it people said, ‘how could you possibly write about rock 'n' roll?’ You know, there's nothing to write about – ridiculous! And so we were into having people take the music seriously. Not that we were just serious—that was kind of an image we had. there was a tremendous amount of humor, for example in Meltzer and Pearlman, that some people couldn't see. But the whole idea was that, yeah, this is our music and it's just as good as any other art form from any other era. We'll just talk about it like we think the stuff is great, and it was thrilling to see the Doors album and the second Jefferson Airplane album going up the charts because suddenly our music was getting popular. And it was an exciting time. By the time I left Crawdaddy! in late '68, that battle had been won. Now the New York Times was reviewing rock music, you know? Plenty of people were writing about it and taking it seriously, and it was growing into a big business, and there wasn't any sense anymore of trying to prove something or rallying a community or something like that. And that was what had been fun for me. It was like, all right, we did that, it's over.
Pat Thomas: I guess you effectively ‘sold’ Crawdaddy! to someone else?
Paul Williams: Well, in theory. I knew that if I didn't stay in New York that I wouldn't get paid. If I wanted to get paid I'd have to stay in New York another year, and money wasn't even an issue to me. I needed to go on with my life. I was very young and it was time to go. So, I sold it, but I never got paid. And I brought in my friend Chester Anderson to take over as editor, and he did another four or five issues after I left, and then the people who were bank-rolling it gave up or ran out of money. What was strange was that it didn't die – it died and came back. I wasn't around so I don't know exactly how it happened. But Peter Stafford then became the editor and it came back as a newspaper format like Rolling Stone, and it was that way through 1970, I think, and it kept going. After Stafford it was edited by Raenne Rubenstein and then Peter Knobler. And Peter Knobler's father actually bought it – again – not from me – nobody owned it. At some point they paid me a little money for the trademark, which I still theoretically owned. This is 1973 by this point. The magazine kept going, it kept coming out every month, until 1979. They wanted to broaden the base or something. They changed the name to Feature, and they expanded and it didn't work, and it went out of business a couple issues later. So I always figured that the name was magic, somehow [laughs]—it kept it afloat, and once they lost the name, that was it.
Pat Thomas: So at this point you kind of jumped in the woods, right?
You moved to Mendocino?
Paul Williams: Yeah, I moved from New York City to a cabin in the woods in Mendocino at the end of 1968.
Pat Thomas: And at this point you totally removed yourself from the rock n’ roll world?
Paul Williams: Umm, not immediately. During 1969 I was freelancing. I wrote pieces for Crawdaddy!, though I don't know if I did any music pieces for them. And I was travelling a fair amount, too. I was at the first Crosby, Stills & Nash sessions, and that's where I was songwriting with Crosby, although nothing actually got used. And I traveled with Timothy Leary for a while and I ended up at John and Yoko's Bed-In for Peace in Montreal. Later that summer I went to Woodstock, ostensibly as a reporter for Playboy, though ultimately they didn't use it, it was too radical. And I wrote a couple, just maybe two, reviews for Rolling Stone in that period. Actually, the reason I met Tim Leary is that Jann asked me to interview him for Rolling Stone, but again, the interview didn't get used, probably because somewhere in the conversation Tim and I talked about Jann Wenner. It wasn't unflattering, we were just kind of — Tim was teasing him, you know, ‘Be a little more revolutionary.’ And Jann could never decide whether to cut it or keep it in, so ultimately the piece just didn't run at all.
But what happened to me is that my writing was so individualistic, or maybe I was just being ornery, that more than half the time stuff wouldn't get published. So I got tired of doing that. I left Mendocino in the spring of 1970 and moved to a wilderness — the idea was to completely get away from civilization, to go off the end of the road, and that was to an island in Canada, and at that point I really lost track of the rock scene. In fact, I think the last writing I did that had to do with music was, indirectly, a strange book called Time Between, which was almost a journal of intense communal living, travelling, LSD taking, and so forth. I was writing it as it was happening, and people who were in the story were reading it as it was happening. But it started out partly being fueled by The Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed and Jefferson Airplanes' Volunteers, the late 1969 albums that were driving the book musically.
In 1995, Paul Williams suffered a traumatic brain injury in a bicycle accident, leading to early onset of dementia, and a steady decline to the point where he now requires full-time care. The burden on his immediate family has been immense. For more on Paul Williams, including a bio, interviews, excerpts from his books, vintage Crawdaddy! pieces, and information on how and where you can send donations and/or pledge your support, please visit www.paulwilliams.com)