Paul Williams, Subjective Artist 

Wednesday, Jun 12 2002
Photo by Anne Fishbein

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

--William James,

The Varieties of Religious Experience

"TO BE A FAN IS SOMETHING LIKE THE very human quality of caring about the food you eat, or the clothes you own and wear, or the way that you look," says Paul Williams. At 54, he looks like an elder hippie -- a blond mop-top with white highlights, a big pair of glasses, blue jeans, and a faded yellow T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "Peace is every step." He's the man who "discovered" Richard Meltzer by debuting his work in Crawdaddy!

Williams' Crawdaddy! was the first serious American rock magazine, preceding both Rolling Stone and Creem. Music magazines existed before, but they were either trade publications or hype sheets for teenagers, featuring pinups, Top 10 lists, breathless prose and titles like Tiger Beat. Crawdaddy! was the first music magazine as we would define the term today. Issue No. 1 came out January 30, 1966, when Williams was a 17-year-old freshman at Swarthmore College.

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He had long been enthralled with pop culture. At age 14 and 15, Williams put out a mimeographed science-fiction fanzine called Within. This taught him the essentials of self-publishing and, more important, how to locate an audience that shared his passions. In the two years before he left suburban Boston for college, Williams spent endless hours hanging around Cambridge's famed Club 47, which, in its heyday, played host to folk artists such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. This raised his ambitions and allowed him to envision a pop movement that took place in the public sphere, rather than in the mailboxes of geeky teenagers. He immersed himself in the new scene and magazines such as Sing Out! and Broadside, which served as forums for folk-music culture.

"You are looking at the first issue of a magazine of rock & roll criticism," Williams wrote in his lead editorial. "Crawdaddy! will feature neither pinups nor news briefs; the specialty of this magazine is intelligent writing about pop music . . . This is not a service magazine." It was "printed" via mimeograph machine. For the most part, Williams hadn't yet plugged into a community far beyond his bedroom. He wrote the whole issue himself, and the 10 pages of issue No. 1 consisted entirely of record reviews -- Judy Collins, the Byrds, Tom Jones, the Righteous Brothers, Simon & Garfunkel -- in which a still chart-obsessed Williams theorized whether the records might or might not be "hits." Starting with 500 copies mailed to music-industry professionals, though, he had a prescient understanding of the critic's role in pop culture and a realistic view of the magazine's likely effects.

"I mean, record reviews don't sell records," he said in a 2001 interview with Rockcritics.com. "But what they do do, is they help in the long process of breaking an artist. So what's useful for the corporate business -- and I'm not putting it down, it's also useful for the indie business -- is if rock writers write about new artists, because that helps bring them to the attention of radio and helps them get more attention in the companies, and it's a whole process by which, then, you eventually break an artist."

Crawdaddy! writers (the first outside contributors appeared in the third issue) were not there to add heat to either subcultures or massive publicity campaigns. The magazine was concerned with neither staying "hip" nor "blowing up." Like Sing Out!, it was an incubator. People wrote for it because they wanted to be around the music they loved, and they wanted to help that music grow.

Early readers sensed what Williams was trying to accomplish. Paul Simon called him in his freshman dorm about the review he wrote of Simon & Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence LP. He said it was the first intelligent thing that had been written about the duo's music to date. Simon was an ambitious artist who'd spent too many years as a contract songwriter. He recognized that the attention of critics like Williams could help carve a niche for music that aspired to more than the Billboard charts.

Soon after the third issue of Crawdaddy!, Williams dropped out of Swarthmore to devote all his time to his new venture; at the end of the magazine's first year, he moved to New York. Within two years, its circulation had risen to 45,000 copies. He was on to something.

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