Saturday, March 30, 2013


Listening to Paul Williams

by Wayne Robins
Last Sunday, March 24, there was a tribute to Paul Williams at the Boo-Hooray Gallery on Canal Street in Manhattan. The three hour event was a hello-goodbye to Williams, long-suffering from the brain damage incurred in a bicycle accident in 1995. His time on this planet appeared to be ebbing, and he died Thursday, March 28.
People kept shifting from past to present in speaking about Paul, but I didn't detect any discomfort about this. The event was organized by Paul's wife, the singer-songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill, whose courage in the face of the imponderable inevitable kept our anxieties at bay. Editions of Paul's multitude of writing—pamphlets, books he wrote and edited, and of course, Crawdaddy! the magazine he founded in 1966 that created a new form of narrative journalism, now known as rock criticism, filled display cases and lined the walls.
The guitarist Lenny Kaye, a distinguished rock critic even before he became a co-founding member of the Patti Smith Group, performed two songs with Berryhill, both reflective of Paul's passions. "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" was from "Pet Sounds," the album that placed the Beach Boys at a pinnacle of critical acclaim, and Williams was one of its most outspoken advocates. (I suspected Paul had less use for the Beatles than many of us, confirmed subsequently when he acknowledged as much in some later writings.) Paul and Cindy Lee's 11 year old son Alexander sang lovely harmonies. The other song was "Like a Rolling Stone," which needs no introduction, except to say that the question it asks—"How does it feel?"—was the essence of Williams' esthetic. The big question that must be answered by any song, Williams believed, was not does it mean, but how does it feel?
Michael Lydon, another of the earliest rock scribes turned musician, sang one of his uptempo, humane and corny affirmations of fun and friendship. Ellen Sander, another first generation rock critic, performed a poem she had written for Paul, full of pain and passion. I was honored to be asked to read some of Paul's writing, so I read selections from some essential Crawdaddy articles that were collected in what was probably his first book, "Outlaw Blues." In the title essay, Paul makes the essential connection that some members of the rock cognescenti were less quick to make: That "Beach Boys Party," from 1965, deserved to be loved on its own merits, because it was so much fun.
It's not too much of a stretch to say that Paul Williams invented rock criticism. Yes, there were others in the U.S., including Mike Jahn at the New York Times and Al Aronowitz at the the New York Post, Lillian Roxon as the New York correspondent for various Australian newspapers, and Gloria Stavers at 16 magazine who covered the emerging rock culture in the 1960s. But it was the critical vocabulary Wiliams developed, his highly intelligent but instinctive approach to music and the intellectually rigorous, emotionally transparent, spontaneous style of writing that influenced so many of us.
Then a 17-year-old student at Swarthmore College, Paul started publishing a mimeographed magazine called Crawdaddy! in early 1966. Later that year, when he could afford staples, the magazine, in black and white with few graphics, grew quickly in circulation.
 It could be bought on the newsstand at Gem Spa on Second Avenue, next to St. Marks Books when that august institution was still on St. Mark's Place and a hub of the late beatnik era's intellectual activity. The Fillmore East would soon open a block away.
Based in New York, Paul was positioned to catch the winds of change as they came. The Doors, Byrds and Love in L.A.; Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Country Joe and the Fish, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company in the Bay Area. New York had the Velvet Underground, the Blues Project, and Bob Dylan. At the same time, the British bands—Beatles, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Who—astonished skeptics by having staying power beyond the 45 rpm singles. Everybody was making albums that were artistic statements, and Paul Williams realized that some explanation was required.
The explanation was not to the earthlings and adults who were running the country and its illegal war in Vietnam, to mention Cambodia and Laos. For with the advent of the album as art, Paul sussed out a community, or a potential community. He grasped that this new rock music, electric music for the mind and body, as Country Joe's debut album was called, codified the values, principles and entertainment values that would unite the tribe.
I was still in high school when I found Crawdaddy in the fall of 1966. The phrase "hippie" had not been coined or placed in widespread use. Rolling Stone didn't exist. I doubt that Williams had any ambitions beyond what he and the writers he published —who ranged from the studious Jon Landau to the brash R. Meltzer, set out to do: explain what was happening to rock and roll, to US, the tribe coalescing around the Stones "Between the Buttons," "Kinda Kinks," "Jefferson Airplane Takes Off," the Doors first album, Love's first album with "My Little Red Book," Bob Dylan "Blonde on Blonde." There were clues in this music, and the drugs we took, the streets we marched, the love we made—that had something to do with putting our collective energy into getting busy being born lest we find ourselves being busy dying. We were on a journey for which no roadmap existed. Paul Williams was our mapmaker.
The idea of Crawdaddy! was a bit of a cross between the serious magazines that covered the early 1960s folk-scene in Boston-Cambridge (Sing Out!, Broadside) and the sci-fi fanzines Williams started reading—and publishing—in his early teens. Sci-fi and rock were the foundations of Williams' creative life. He was ever the connoisseur/player in this scene: the driving force and co-editor of the multivolume collection of short stories by Theodore Sturgeon; executor of the Philip K. Dick estate; and admirer of, and admired back, by Kurt Vonnegut.
But his thoughts about what rock meant, how to listen to it, how to write about the experience of listening to it, will always remain his lasting monument. A rock song could contain a universe of ideas, or feelings, or thoughts, or sensory elements. He didn't break down and analyze lyrics. He sought the meaning behind the lyrics, the intentional or accidental chemical reaction between words, melody, rhythm, instrumentation, vocals. He describes some of it in an essay about R.E.M.'s "Automatic for the People" in Back to the Miracle Factory, a collection of essays dealing with 90s rock.
 "This is important information about how we hear songs, particularly rock songs," he wrote. "Strong impressions left by snatches of phrase, rather than by the narrative as a whole." R.E.M., with its oft-inscrutable lyrics, its multitude of moods created in layers by four strong musicians, was an ideal laboratory for Dr. Williams' experiments. (No wonder "Fables of the Reconstruction" was his favorite R.E.M. album. Mine too.)
In the introduction, Williams writes, that the book is "about music from the point of view of the listener. It is a series of critical essays by a writer who has spent his life attempting to close the gap between people who listen to and observe art professionally...and those who listen solely because they want to, because they want to get something from the experience." His purpose, Williams writes, is to get at what that something is.
Paul Williams was rock criticism's most important figure because as a writer, he was rock's most important listener. That is also why, nearly 50 years after Crawdaddy was born, some of us still get something from listening to music and telling others our answers to the question: How does it feel?
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