Here’s the interview rockcritics.com published 12 years ago with Paul Williams. It was Pat Thomas, I’m pretty sure, who suggested the title, and I saw no reason to dispute it.
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The Godfather of Rock Criticism: Paul Williams
By Pat Thomas, with Christoph Gurk (August 2001)
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” 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. I strongly suggest you check out his revamped and reborn Crawdaddy!. No ads, no corporate sponsorship, just solid heartfelt writing. 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. He’s not some jaded hack on the staff of (fill-in-the-blank magazine) being forced to listen to crap he doesn’t wanna listen to, he only reviews what he really likes and what truly moves him. I think that’s rare these days.
One of Paul’s faves is Neil Young, who I personally have given up on (though I applaud his commitment to keep waving the flag). Nevertheless, it’s a Neil Young song title that sums up Paul Williams for me, and that’s “Mr. Soul.” What follows is a previously unpublished interview I did with Paul in a café in Germany a couple of years back. (Also joining us was Christoph Gurk, who at that time was editor of Germany’s most respected, if overly scholastic, music magazine, SPEX).
So what does Paul have to brag about, but doesn’t? The man started the first real rock music magazine, Crawdaddy!, while still a teenager–a year-and-a-half before Jann Wenner startedRolling Stone. 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 Tim 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 to see the video from that day, Paul’s clearly in it…I could go on all day. He’s the man. Long may he run.
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Something New: The Birth of Crawdaddy!
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 ofCrawdaddy! were either, like, Hit Parader reprinting something from Crawdaddy!, and then other magazines calling me up because Crawdaddy! was starting to get attention.
Christopher Gurk: That was ’66, right?
Paul Williams: 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 Swarthmore 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.”
Christoph Gurk: All in ’64, ’65.
Paul Williams: 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.
Christoph Gurk: You didn’t see that festival where Dylan…
Paul Williams: Newport? No, I didn’t, no. I was at Newport in ’66, but Dylan wasn’t there. I got turned on to Dylan in 1963 because a friend of mine went to Newport and came back and was telling me all about Bob Dylan and I had to listen to his record, which was Freewheelin’. And I saw him for the first time in ’63, but that was still an acoustic show, a solo show.
Pat Thomas: It seems like it was easy for you to–you mentioned once in one of your books I think about hanging out with the Beach Boys in their studio, another time you mentioned something to me about being involved with David Crosby writing some songs…it seems like it was easier for you to kind of “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.
Christoph Gurk: [The Doors] were fairly underground, they were the house band at the Whiskey or something.
Paul Williams: Yeah, that’s right. Really, anybody could meet them if they wanted to.
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.
Christoph Gurk: I guess the whole circuit of music writers, magazines, and publicists wasn’t such a big mechanism as it is nowadays.
Paul Williams: That’s right, it was tiny compared to how it is now.
Christoph Gurk: More or less people knew each other maybe better than they do today. I don’t know any publicists in Germany, and I don’t want to…
Paul Williams: No, you don’t want them calling you up, right. Same for me, I’d rather buy my records than have to get calls from publicists.
Christoph Gurk: Would you say it was more casual than what it is today?
Paul Williams: Yeah, unless you were dealing with–I mean, that’s why I didn’t meet the Rolling Stones, because then already there was a star thing going on where you had to fight your way in, and it just didn’t appeal to me to do that. When I met the Beatles it wasn’t because of Crawdaddy!–I mean, I didn’t meet the Beatles, I met John Lennon–but that was because I was with Tim Leary and we went to the Bed-in for Peace, it didn’t have to do with being a rock journalist as such.
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: Do you remember what record it was for?
Paul Williams: I think it was probably What’s Shakin’, a compilation–the famous compilation because it had the Butterfield Blues Band’s “Born In Chicago” on it–it was a hit single. [Paul later amended this to state that it was actually Butterfield’s East-West, which came out in ’66.–ed.]
Christoph Gurk: That was a hit single?
Paul Williams: Well, it was LIKE a hit single. It wasn’t a hit single in the normal sense because it wasn’t a 45, but Jac had the idea of putting out this sampler of things from Elektra and the first song on it was “Born in Chicago.” Records in those days cost about $3.50, but this album only cost $1, and people were buying it like crazy because of this one song, “Born In Chicago.”
Christoph Gurk: And Rolling Stone magazine started when?
Paul Williams: The fall of ’67, about a year-and-a-half after Crawdaddy!
Christoph Gurk: Was there any communication between the people from Crawdaddy! and Rolling Stone? Did you feel competitive–or did they feel competitive toward what you were doing?
Paul Williams: They probably felt more competitive than what we did, just because Jann has got more of a business sense–that’s just more of his direction. I knew Jann a little bit before he started Rolling Stone; he was writing a music column for a paper called the Sunday Ramparts that Ramparts magazine was putting out for a little while on the west coast. And we talked, and he was interested in Crawdaddy!, and Ralph Gleason, who helped Jann start Rolling Stone, was an early supporter and fan of Crawdaddy!. And one of the first sort of ‘star’ writers that Jann got was Jon Landau, who’d been writing in every issue of Crawdaddy!Because Jann liked what he’d been writing in Crawdaddy!, he got him to write for Rolling Stone, which wasn’t too hard since we weren’t paying him.
Christoph Gurk: So Landau was writing for Crawdaddy!?
Paul Williams: Yeah, the first place he was published was in Crawdaddy!. He was working in a record store in Harvard Square, and I would come in, and we would talk about music, and he would say, “You know, you should let me write this stuff,” and I said, “Sure!” And he started writing reviews for Crawdaddy! in the summer of ’66.
Pat Thomas: Who else was writing for Crawdaddy! that people would know now?
Paul Williams: Well, the mainstay writers, the ones that would write every issue, were Jon Landau, Richard Meltzer…
Christoph Gurk: Richard Meltzer…
Paul Williams: 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 inCrawdaddy!; 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 forCrawdaddy!, 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.
Christoph Gurk: So more or less the people who made it later in Rolling Stone and who achieved some fame, most of them you still remember as Rolling Stonewriters…
Paul Williams: Yeah, some of them. I don’t know if Meltzer was ever a Rolling Stone writer, I don’t think so. He’d wrote a lot for all the New York press and so forth, but…yeah, Lester Bangs hadn’t shown up on the scene yet, he was writing for Creem, that was really where he got his exposure. Creem came along afterCrawdaddy! was already out. I did Crawdaddy! for about three years.
Crawdaddy! Lets It Bleed
Pat Thomas: That was gonna be my next question: how or why you dropped 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.
Christoph Gurk: 25,000?
Paul Williams: 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.
Christoph Gurk: As soon as rock ‘n’ roll became recognized as an art form, with records being reviewed in the New York Times, this was the same time when the commercial breakthrough happened. You could promote and turn this into a bigger market by declaring this as an art form…
Paul Williams: Well, the same thing is going on right now with the independent world and the success of indie rock following Nirvana and so forth, and Matador, which is really a great company, but [which] in fact, I think we can say now, has been swallowed by Atlantic. There’s been a lot of arguing about what’s true, and they’ll argue…but it’s a real issue for a lot of people. There was this independent scene that was really strong in a certain way, and you can’t blame a band for wanting to have a larger audience to make a living, but at the same time there’s a tremendous sense of something being lost. And there really is no answer to it. I mean, the Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll attitude is just as ridiculous as the major label attitude, really, so as an individual musician, or as an individual music fan, or whatever, you have to find your way through it.
I mean, one more footnote on the subject is that Kurt Cobain was somebody you could sympathize with, but he took it all much too seriously. Again, this religionof the indie scene. I like Nirvana’s music better than Pearl Jam’s, but I like Pearl Jam’s values a lot better, in terms of they’re standing up to Ticketron and refusing to do videos; Nirvana gave off much more confused messages [laughs] as far as their actual business decisions and that kind of thing. But it was the self-consciousness of, you know, “we are the indie movement.” That doesn’t work.
But anyway, going back to what happened to Crawdaddy!, the best that I can say is that, you get a little period of freedom before the rest of the world discovers what’s happening, and you just have fun during that time and run with it. The same thing happened to the San Francisco ballroom scene, the Fillmore and the Avalon. It’s forgotten at this point, but a lot of people were tremendously disappointed when the Fillmore started getting a lot of publicity and all these people were coming in from the suburbs and the sense of community fell apart. And it just seems like it’s a natural sort of process that something really exciting starts happening, and, at least in this business, when it gets to a certain point then it attracts the attention of the world, and that doesn’t mean that it’s spoiled. It’s a ridiculous attitude to think that, say, R.E.M. only matters during their indie period. Obviously, a great band can just go on and continue to make great music, and it would’ve been ridiculous for R.E.M. to stay at an indie level. But, in a lot of cases, you just have to let it go when the world discovers you.
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.
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here
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 fuelled by Let It Bleed and Volunteers, the late 1969 albums that were driving the book musically.
Christoph Gurk: So it was kind of a political testament or something?
Paul Williams: In a way. Political, social, it was an explosion of energy, and it was written on the typewriter in such a way that the only way to publish it was to actually photograph each page, because the way the words were laid out on each page was part of the book. So it only ever came out in a limited edition. [Time Between was reprinted in paperback in 1999 and is now available from Amazon and from PaulWilliams.com.] But it was an interesting document of the times. But then I stopped writing about rock ‘n’ roll. I was in Canada for a year, I went to Japan, met my first wife there, came back to New York City and tried to start another magazine–the old fantasy of a general interest magazine for our generation, or something. It didn’t work–it’s a very hard thing to do. It was called Rallying Point, we never really got a full first issue out, we just kept getting things together, trying to raise money, and we got a sample issue out that we sold in a couple cities.
Anyway, after that I stayed in New York, and at one point I started writing record reviews for the Soho Weekly News, which was fun, but I was never completely satisfied with the writing I was doing in that period.
Pat Thomas: That was the mid-70s?
Paul Williams: Yeah, it was ’74 or ’75. It was a real exciting scene in New York, but unfortunately I had small babies and lived way uptown, and hanging out at the clubs wasn’t really a possibility for me if I wanted to stay married. So I didn’t see too much of…I saw Springsteen a lot in the early days and that was great. ’73, ’74–I was never crazy about the records but it really was one of the greatest live rock ‘n’ roll bands that I ever saw at that period. But Television, for example, who I absolutely love, and Patti Smith, I just saw them maybe once each before leaving town.
Pat Thomas: And there was a book called Outlaw Blues?
Paul Williams: Outlaw Blues was my first book, and it was basically essays from Crawdaddy!, some of them written with the book in mind. I worked on it for years. I got a contract for a book at the end of ’66 when I was just 18, because Crawdaddy! was getting all this attention: the Crawdaddy! Book of Rock. But I really couldn’t do whatever the publisher had in mind, they wanted something exploitative. I don’t mean that I refused to do it because of principles, it just wasn’t in me, I didn’t know how to do what they wanted, and eventually it changed publishers, went to E.P. Dutton, got a good editor, and I realized that the best way to do the book was to take pieces I’d already done for Crawdaddy! and write some new ones. Outlaw Blues came out after I left Crawdaddy!–in the beginning of ’69. It actually got good reviews; it was a success at the time, on a modest level. But I was very ornery. The publishers were all ready to have me do more rock ‘n’ roll books, and I’m like, no, I don’t want to be stuck as a rock ‘n’ roll writer, I’m gonna do something else.
Pat Thomas: You also had this incredibly successful book which I’ve never seen…Das Energi, is it called?
Paul Williams: Das Energi was written in 1970 when I was on this wilderness commune in Canada. It was the next book afterTime Between. And I’d been thinking about it for a while. It came out of these late night conversations, where you suddenly, you’re sitting around with your friends, you get all excited and you figure out what the world is all about, how everything works, and all these ideas that were in the air from taking psychedelic drugs, reading science fiction books, using the I-Ching, and all that kind of thing. I had some vague idea before I started writing it of, yeah, let’s get all that stuff down somehow. And then I was writing fanatically, turning out all kinds of stuff, and I break, which really turned out to be only for four or five months, and when I started writing again, I was in this community in the woods, writing with a pen, and it started coming out in this funny way, just like a few sentences on a page. Maybe an extension of what was happening with Time Between, where the way the words are on the page is part of the story. And, I wasn’t really thinking about it, but you start writing and one page leads to the next one, you say, well, let’s see, what other subjects haven’t been covered yet. I gotta talk about security, I gotta talk about whatever. It was a book of thoughts, though everything I write is really an essay of some kind, and this was just an essay stretched out, where there might just be a paragraph or a sentence on a page, but it’s still an essay going from one thought to the next. It doesn’t look like a book, it’s just…
Pat Thomas: Where was this book filed in a book store?
Paul Williams: We’d never been able to solve [that] problem. it didn’t come out until ’73–all the publishers turned it down, and it was again Jac Holzman of Elektra Records who published it. He was a friend and he’d fallen in love with the manuscript and he wanted to do it, so in the end Elektra published it–it was the first and only book that they published. And he had ideas about putting it out in record stores and stuff, but he was actually leaving the company, he sold it to Warner at the time…Anyway, to everyone’s surprise, it caught on kind of by word of mouth. I mean, it never got any reviews. If it did, they were negative, but it started to be something that people discovered–it had a great cover–and they’d buy copies for their friends, and that’s really how it’s gone through the years.
Pat Thomas: You told me once it sold quite a few copies?
Paul Williams: It sold, like, 350,000 copies. It was a real underground hit, no question about it. It’s just one of those weird things that you can’t duplicate, you can’t explain it, it just happens…
Pat Thomas: Is it still in print now?
Paul Williams: Oh yeah. Now this title, I have to explain…it was called Das Energi because of Das Kapital. The idea was that Marx’s book was called Capitalbecause he recognized that the source of power had shifted while nobody was looking, and people were still acting as though power was based on having land, but that it was really now much more based in capital, and people hadn’t realized that. And so, by extension the idea [of Das Energi] was that the power is shifting from capital to energy, meaning not oil, but human energy.
Bringing It All Back Home (The Rebirth of Crawdaddy!)
Christoph Gurk: Looking at the way you do Crawdaddy! now–Crawdaddy! used to be a magazine that ran along with the times. And now it’s more a magazine that does not represent the spirit of a generation, but represents more your own idealism–it stands on its own terms. It doesn’t seem to connect to the times–looking at them, but not feeling part of it, really, any longer. Is that correct? There’s not the feeling of wanting to change the world…it’s like thinking out loud.
Paul Williams: Yeah, thinking out loud, which is basically what I’ve always done. Yeah, I think that it happened…Crawdaddy! is historically significant and had sort of this exciting period that I was involved in because it happened to come along when there wasn’t such a thing as a rock ‘n’ roll magazine and the rock ‘n’ roll scene was expanding very rapidly in terms of the attention it was getting, so it was a moment where, yeah, the whole idea of writing about the music and taking it seriously and acknowledging this community of interest that we have was very powerful, and in a sense when I tried to start the magazine Rallying Point in 1972, ’73, I was trying to recreate history and I couldn’t do it, because that wasn’t the moment. And I’d say your description of Crawdaddy! now is quite accurate. I didn’t start it with any specific ambition, but it was almost only after the first issue was out that people started pointing out to me that it was really very similar to the way Crawdaddy! was in the beginning: that is, these long essays, the point of which is that the music that’s coming out is exciting, and hey, let’s talk about it, and using the records as a jumping-off place. And yeah, if there’s any idealism behind it, it is exactly in the sense of just being a model that, well, you may not get rich, but you can somehow find a way to say what you want; that working for the formats that exist in the corporate universe is not the only alternative. It doesn’t mean that everybody has to do that or anything, but at least it shows that you could do something else.
Christoph Gurk: It’s a pretty radical way to deal with this because it seems to refuse to even be tempted to go along with the business side. There doesn’t seem to be any idea to expand–just to keep it exactly on the level. There are no ads in the paper, and…
Paul Williams: And there are personal reasons for that. The one policy I started with is we won’t take ads of any kind. Now in terms of ideals, it’s not that I’m anti-advertising as such, but if I were going to change the world or change the United States, I would pass a law outlawing advertising. If I had to do it gradually, I’d start with political advertising, and then go on from there. But that to me is my idea–I mean, I’m just as radical as I ever was. And I’d just say, no advertising, no paid advertising, you just have to figure out another way to do it. To me, the fall of communism, quote-unquote, just made me think, well, if communism falls, capitalism can’t be far behind. And, I don’t know, I’m very unhappy with the United States at this point, but I’m not surprised at the direction it’s going in, just depressed about it.
But in any case, it gets down to a very personal thing. In writing Crawdaddy!, the thing that’s interesting about it for me, or that’s satisfying, is to try and find a way to tell the truth about what I’m listening to and what I’m hearing in it, and I recognize that there’s constant pressure from the world, and it’s not a conspiracy, it just is the way that it is. If I get free records–and I do get free records–when I’m given a choice, I try to discourage them, but I haven’t totally made up my mind, I haven’t yet got to the point where I just say, no, you can’t send me records. So I’m still kind of sitting on the fence. But the thing is that, just even writing about rock ‘n’ roll like I do in Crawdaddy!, I start to feel the same pressure that every music journalist feels, which is to discover something new. To be in touch with what’s happening, to be “hip.” I mean, Greil Marcus, perceptively, when he first saw a copy of Crawdaddy! which was a couple of issues ago, and it had the Counting Crows on the cover, he says, “Well, don’t you know that it’s not hip to like the Counting Crows?” And I think what he was saying…
Christoph Gurk: He said that?
Paul Williams: Yeah, but I think he said that in an approving way. He was saying in a subtle way that I appreciate that you have the balls not to be hip. But that’s always there. You’re always thinking about what people are thinking about you–what you’re writing, or what you’re saying about it. When I wrote about Sonya Hunter’s album in the first issue–because you [Pat] sent it to me–I liked the idea that there was a record in there that people didn’t know about, because I was mainly writing about established artists. And the thing is, my girlfriend’s a musician [Cindy Lee Berryhill], I’m totally sympathetic to how hard it is to get attention for deserving new music. But I also realized, again, that one of the things that makes all rock journalism end up the same is that we’re responding to the same pressures. And what the music business wants from rock journalism…I mean, record reviews don’t sell records. We know that. 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. And while that’s fine, the trouble is, in order for me to do Crawdaddy! that is to just be the voice of the listener, in a sense. I’m not claiming that I’m the same as any other listener, but I just want to be the voice of the listener I am. I somehow have to keep trying to compensate for, or avoid, the natural pressures that are there. It’s not just like someone’s handing me money and therefore I’m gonna do what they want me to do, it’s much more subtle than that, and it can be something as worthwhile and sincere as wanting to help new artists. But the problem is that it’s still not the same as, you know…What I’m writing about in the next issue is [Neil Young’s] Sleeps With Angels because it’s a great record. It’s just a great record. And that’s where I started from. I started Crawdaddy! this time to write about Automatic For the People, because a) I wanted to write about it, and b) I thought, this is like the old Crawdaddy!days–here’s an album that everybody’s gonna be listening to, and everybody’s gonna be interested in somebody’s opinion about it. It’s that kind of a record; Sleeps With Angels is that kind of a record.
Pat Thomas: The thing about your work for me that’s always been interesting is you have a way about writing that’s so personal, that you get me to read…like, you wrote about Arrested Development. If any other writer in the world had written an article about Arrested Development, I wouldn’t even have picked it up, because I’d think, this isn’t my kind of music or whatever, but your writing is interesting enough, where you sort of dragged me through that album [3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of…]–which I still haven’t even heard, by the way–but I felt after reading your thing that I knew something about this band, or something about their music that I didn’t know before. So I guess what I’m saying is your writing is compelling–it drags me in. The other thing that I like about it is because of the fact that you publish it yourself, you can write as long as you want. In other words, if David Fricke said I want the lead-off review in Rolling Stoneto be 20,000 words on the new R.E.M. record, they’d tell him to fuck off.
Paul Williams: Yeah, you can’t do it.
Christoph Gurk: Everything is about formats in rock journalism.
Pat Thomas: So it’s kind of going back to what I call the old style of rock writing, because there was a time when Rolling Stone did write long reviews.
Paul Williams: Maybe. I’m not sure if they did. Maybe a little bit.
Pat Thomas: Yeah, a little longer. And sometimes they would even have two people review the same record.
Paul Williams: Occasionally, yeah.
Pat Thomas: And so to me you’re also sort of going back to that, which is, if the music is really worth it, then it’s worth writing more than 300 words.
Paul Williams: Right. Not that a long thing is necessarily better, but it’s just a kind of a freedom to do something different.
Pat Thomas: Because I think that rock magazines in general insult my intelligence. Because if it’s something that I REALLY want to know about, it’s never long enough for me. You take a magazine like Option, which is a fairly interesting, fairly intellectual [magazine], but they might put someone on the cover and still only write two or three full pages about it. At that point, I think…
Paul Williams: Where I’ve always been radical–’cause I’ve been talking to people about the Dylan book, and it’s been brought to my attention because you forget about these things–is that I pretty much insist on writing about the music. And when I say that I mean, writing about what I hear, because I have a point of view that the art exists in the experience of the listener. So someone was asking me yesterday, where’d you get this radical idea of writing about Bob Dylan from the point of view of the music instead of a biography? And it’s funny that that should be a radical idea. [laughs]
Pat Thomas: Your Dylan books [cf. Bob Dylan Performing Artist 1960-1973: The Early Years] are the only books that get into the heart of the music rather than argue what color of shirt Bob was wearing that day, and who was playing bass on which song.
Paul Williams: The other thing that happens is not just biographical details, you also get these people who write about Bob Dylan who try to explain what the 1960s meant. Then you get much more highfalutin stuff, but it’s still just a mush of ideas rather than saying, well, here’s this new Neil Young album and this is what I hear in the song “Driveby,” and this is what it means to me, and what do you think about the fact that there’s two different songs with the same backing track, and blah blah blah. [laughs]
I’m Free To Do What I Want
Pat Thomas: One thing that me and Christoph were discussing last night on the phone is your sort of lower profile compared to your contemporaries, people like Greil Marcus, or Dave Marsh, or Christgau. Or maybe you’ve kind of consciously not done things that would bring you more into the mainstream. Like your bookRock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles is a very eclectic book: rather than picking a bunch of obvious songs or writing something that would totally placate a yuppie audience that would want to have all their favorite…
Paul Williams: Well, I can’t do that, but it isn’t a matter of not selling out, it’s that I don’t have the ability to write something that isn’t what I feel. I’m no good at that. If someone tried to pay me a lot of money to do what they thought would sell–if I agreed to it, whatever I turned out would be terrible because I don’t know how to do that, really.
Pat Thomas: You haven’t done any coffee table books yet.
Paul Williams: Well, you know, I mean, I’ve had plenty of bad ideas over the years, but you run out of energy long before they turn into a book. I’ve had plenty of ideas that I’m glad I didn’t do. But what I’m saying is that it’s self-limiting. It isn’t really a matter of high moral principles, but I’m just not the guy for the job, you know?
Pat Thomas: Do you feel any affinity or any distaste for any of these so-called rock critic elite?
Paul Williams: Well, I don’t really like to comment, because I think we’re all naturally somewhat competitive. I mean, it’s very hard for my girlfriend to just respond completely openly to a female artist. I mean, she does, but there’s always this thought that she’s comparing herself, kind of thing…
Pat Thomas: I see that more often with female singer-songwriters than I do with men, for some reason.
Paul Williams: Well, it’s because men are, you know, the norm, and female is, like, an identity. That’s not the way it should be, but it is the way that it is. Whether it’s in female nature or whether it has something to do with the culture…but anyway, if I comment on other rock critics, I’ll just, you know, make a fool of myself.
Pat Thomas: Let me just say this. Rather than name names, do you ever feel like, how can I say this…you’ve obviously, for various reasons, enjoyed less financial or less public success than some of these other guys. Do you ever feel short-changed? Or like the Velvet Underground of rock critics?
Paul Williams: No, not really. I mean, no one’s really getting rich in this business anyway. It’s nothing compared to the rock ‘n’ roll stars. Naturally, I think, I would love to find it easier to sell books–I mean, to sell books to publishers in the first place and then sell more copies when they come out. That would make me happy, and naturally I feel frustrated at times when I can’t find a publisher and the books don’t get reviewed or blah, blah, blah. I mean, it even frustrates me a little bit that Crawdaddy! isn’t growing faster. The people who read it, love it, but it doesn’t go in stores at all. I haven’t tried very much to put it in stores, but it’s clear that it just doesn’t fit people’s picture of what a fanzine is these days–it doesn’t have the right kind of cover or photos or whatever, and people don’t want to read all those words. That’s fine, obviously it’s what I’m doing and it isn’t necessarily what any kind of large audience is gonna want. Yeah, I mean, it’s frustrating knowing that the people who like my stuff really like it; I figure there are more of them out there, but how can I reach them?
But, you know, I couldn’t do the books that Dave Marsh does, and I will say that I probably wouldn’t want to, in most cases. In one case we did a similar thing–he did 1,001 best singles [The Heart of Rock and Soul] and I did 100, but they’re very different kinds of books. On the other hand, even though I haven’t read a lot of what Greil Marcus has done, I completely respect…without reading it, I still can certainly see what he’s trying to do, and I admire that. It’s different than what I do, but it’s not unrelated. But as far as my success or failure or low profile or whatever, it’s because of the things that I choose to do, and that’s certainly something I create for myself.
Pat Thomas: Yeah, well obviously you’re coming from–as we’ve been talking about on and off–such a personal approach…
Paul Williams: It’s not what sells. At the point that Rolling Stone was coming out at the end of ’67, it was already clear to me that–it wasn’t a sense of competition on MY part, because I knew that they were doing what the public wanted–I couldn’t compete. I never had Jann Wenner’s business sense or ambition in that particular way, and it wasn’t what particularly interested me, to go in that direction. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t think it was worth doing, it just wasn’t something for me to do. And…I’ll say this. Naturally, when I’ve got money problems or whatever, and I feel frustrated and think blah, blah, blah–like anybody–but there’s a flipside to the coin, which is my freedom. And when I have my head on straight, I realize that it balances out very well. I actually feel guilty sometimes, talking to my friends who are rock critics, because they say–you know, this guy’s working for the San Francisco Chronicle or whatever, he says, “God, I wish I could write as much as I wanted to about the new Elvis Costello album, but I have to get it down into 300 words.” And I’m getting to do what I want.
Christoph Gurk: You can get from being powerless or whatever…
Paul Williams: Right–exactly! And look, if I could really make or break a new act, my phone would be ringing all the time, my life would be hell! The publicists don’t give a shit about me, and that’s just fine.
Christoph Gurk: I respect that you don’t want to comment on other people’s work, but do you find among newer writers in rock publications anything substantial?
Paul Williams: I don’t read it enough. I read Rolling Stone, which is actually surprisingly informative, and I read Ice–a newsletter that’s also quite informative. But I really don’t keep up at all, I never have. So I don’t read the other writers that much. So there could be brilliant young writers and I don’t know about them, and I would be interested. I’m looking for other people to write for Crawdaddy!, but I’m not looking very hard…But when I say that I don’t know of any it’s because I’m not reading the stuff. Even with records, it always amazes me that many of the people I meet, many fans, can keep up with so many new acts and so forth. I’m a slow listener. I’m a slow reader and a slow listener. It has its good sides and its bad sides. Its good side is that when I decide to listen to a record, I don’t make my mind up in two or three listens; I really spend a lot of time with it. But the bad side is that an awful lot of stuff is coming out that’s interesting, and I don’t hear it, or if I’ve heard it once it still doesn’t mean anything to me. And I also find that unlike some of my friends I don’t play music all day. I sort of wish that I could, I could process more, but I actually always think that I’ll listen to these records while I’m doing this busy work, but then I forget to do it. [laughs] It’s like I need a certain amount of silence, too.