Paul Williams, Subjective Artist

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.

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 "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.  

A staggering cast of characters began their careers at Crawdaddy! Paul McCartney's future wife, Linda Eastman, was the magazine's first staff photographer. Peter Guralnick, Elvis Presley's biographer and perhaps the best-known writer on 20th-century American popular music, published his first music criticism in Crawdaddy! No. 7. During a May 1967 visit to San Francisco, Williams met with a young journalist thinking of starting a biweekly rock paper. That was Jann Wenner, who soon founded Rolling Stone. Jon Landau began writing critical essays for Crawdaddy! at age 19, but Wenner quickly stole him away and made him one of the first editors at his magazine. Landau went on to even greater success as the manager and producer credited with making Bruce Springsteen a star. Williams' path, however, didn't resemble that of the bands he chronicled or the staff he assembled.

Be it a lack of interest or ability, he was not the type to manage a business. "I was a hippie in the 1960s," he says, "and fairly neurotic or nervous about becoming part of the establishment, or somehow having my values changed or compromised in that way." The dropout ethic began to exert its pull. Proximity to drugs and "hip" culture's other vices didn't help. Besides, Crawdaddy! was no longer a lone voice. Even The New York Times was covering rock. Williams saw little reason to continue.

"I'm getting a little bored, at times, pretending to tell you about music," he wrote in issue No. 18, "and I'd like very much to advance toward the stage where we all sort of tell each other." After the magazine's 19th issue, in October 1968, Williams left New York to join a commune in Northern California's Mendocino County. He was only 20 years old. Though Crawdaddy! continued to publish under various owners until 1979, the rest of its run was essentially a long goodbye.


If Paul Williams' dream in starting Crawdaddy! was merely to legitimize rock, it has come true beyond his wildest fantasies. Today our culture is defined by rock & roll and its antecedents, the range of cultural expression based on capturing the headrush of youth -- extreme sports, MTV, punk, pop music that is loud, lewd or fast. Then again, maybe that dream is dead. In recent years we've witnessed the restoration of a pre-Crawdaddy! universe. What was the explosion of teen pop but fodder for hypersexualized versions of Tiger Beat? Even Rolling Stone doesn't read like Rolling Stone anymore (if not quite like Teen People). Maybe Williams' dream of an ascendant pop culture has died. Or maybe that wasn't his dream in the first place . . .

Williams currently lives in Encinitas, a suburb north of San Diego. His place is just west of the Pacific Coast Highway, just east of the Pacific Ocean. It sits among a cluster of beachside motels and two-floor, SoCal-style apartment buildings. They are beige, peach and yellow, but under the white noon sunlight the colors all run together. In front of the apartment downstairs, a Frankenstein lawn jockey stands at attention.

I meet him in his small home office, filled with CD box sets and copies of his two dozen or so books, many published by his own Entwhistle Press. In his post-commune years he traveled, bounced between New York and California, worked as a volunteer firefighter, and indulged his interests in science fiction and the New Age movement. In 1973, Elektra Records published his Das Energi, a book of "practical philosophy" that sold several hundred thousand copies. (An excerpt: "Sooner or later a person begins to notice that everything that happens to her is perfect, relates directly to who she is, had to happen, plays its little role in fulfilling her destiny.") At the end of Philip K. Dick's life, Williams became friends with the author, and upon Dick's death in '82 became executor of his literary estate.

Williams returned to music in 1986 when he wrote The Map, Rediscovering Rock and Roll (A Journey). He revived Crawdaddy! as a photocopied, not-quite-quarterly fanzine in 1993. Williams has come full circle. Anthologies drawing from the magazine's two incarnations have just been published. The Crawdaddy Book: Words (And Images) From the Magazine of Rock compiles the best articles from its run in the '60s; Return to the Miracle Factory collects Williams' own essays from the contemporary edition.

Heading out for a walk, Williams tells me that we'll be tracing the steps he takes each morning with Alexander, his new son (with his third wife, singer-songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill). They go down to the beach, where he does a walking meditation routine and gets some aerobic exercise by climbing the local landmark, Stone Steps, two by two. "Before the baby came a month ago, I would also pick up trash," he says. "It's kind of a hobby of mine."  

Williams likens his approach to music to Henry David Thoreau's 19th-century nature writings or The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James' 1902 take on faith. "My concept was never to rate music in some kind of critical context," he explains as we walk along the beach. "Instead, I ask: Why is this so powerful? In what ways is it affecting us? What is the experience?" For Williams, pop music isn't a quick thrill but a means by which to make time for leisure in a harried world. A pop single is a three-minute interval in which to think or relax.

"There is a very famous old line: I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like," he adds. "The greatness of art ultimately has to do with subjectivity. Anything else is, to a large extent, an illusion that there are right answers to the question. Traditionally that's the French Academy approach to literature, the high school approach to literature. The correct answer is: 'Victor Hugo is the greatest French writer, because that is what the academy has agreed.'"

Strangely enough, Williams' most lasting achievement may be Performing Artist, a series of books he's been writing since the mid-'80s about the one rock musician the academy can agree on: Bob Dylan. The books chronicle the evolution of Dylan's live shows from his early club performances to the Neverending Tour he undertook in the late '80s. The series -- Williams has published two volumes thus far -- is predicated on the fact that many of Dylan's most ardent fans fall in love with him based on bootleg concert recordings. It is the work of an independent scholar, documenting the hidden art that Dylan's commercial recordings do not reveal. If he is right in his hunch that Dylan is The Great Artist of the 20th Century, Williams' books could be tied to the songwriter as strongly as critic Samuel Johnson's writings are to Shakespeare.

This analogy is not far-fetched. In 1979, soon after Dylan converted to Christianity, he performed a series of 14 sold-out concerts at San Francisco's Warfield Theater. Williams attended seven of them and wrote a 100-page "instant" book (the concerts were in November, the book was in stores by Christmas) titled Dylan -- What Happened? Most critics were simply baffled by this radical shift: In 1975-76, Dylan went out on the Rolling Thunder tour, a coke-fueled, barnstorming, bohemian spectacle; in '79, he was singing gospel songs about Jesus. Williams was one of the few commentators able to understand the transformation and engage the music.

I'm not a born-again Christian, or any kind of Christian, particularly. But I'm a stone Bob Dylan fan, now more than ever after hearing these latest concerts . . . It was hard for me to accept Mick Jagger saying, "stick my knife right down your throat, baby," even though he said it on my favorite Rolling Stones album ever. It is equally hard for me to come to terms with and identify with Bob Dylan singing, "I've been saved by the blood of the lamb."

Williams argued that the art of our pop icons shouldn't rely entirely on our ability to identify with it. In Dylan's case, he sympathized with the star's need for religion, chastised his hand-me-down conservative rhetoric, and clarified why fans didn't immediately "get it":

And (you ask, I ask) if I've identified with Dylan all this time, where have we diverged? Is he wrong, or are we different in some deep way, or does this mean one day I'm going to wake up in love with Jesus too? . . . The old thing of all of us being in the same psychic space at the same time listening to the same new records just doesn't work anymore. Not that I think Dylan expects it to -- but I think that's what a lot of us still expect of Dylan, that he'll bring us the news. And that's why we're so confused and upset about the news he brought us this time. We keep thinking his news is our news, you see.

Williams was explaining how to grow old and still like pop music: View it for what it is at its best -- artistic expression -- rather than a manual on how to live your life. He viewed Dylan as the best kind of half-breed: a poet in a famous guy's clothing, a writer with the life of an icon, a popular artist.  

He had the guy's number. Dylan's secretary ordered 114 copies of the book so he could give them to friends to explain his transformation. When the songwriter returned to the Warfield the following year, he invited Williams backstage to hang out for four nights in a row. What gave Williams the insights that his fellow critics lacked? He is a fan.

"To really care about the quality and originality of many aspects of your life in this way is human nature," Williams tells me in parting. "Sometimes this is a very attractive and ennobling part of human nature. You're saying, 'This is who I am.'"

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