Paul Williams, 1948-2013

celebrating the writing & life of one of the first rock critics.

In the spring of 1967, on the cusp of the Summer of Love, a young rock critic attended a concert at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and deemed it an “induction center.” It was a clever and sharp reference to the military draft, expanding rapidly that year with the escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

The sounds of rock at the Fillmore were as important, this observer believed, as the draft boards that were calling up young men by the tens of thousands in 1967. Something was happening in San Francisco, and to the young rock critic at the Fillmore, what it was was perfectly clear: rock offered passage—”induction”—to a vastly different vision of American life than the war did.

The rock critic at the Fillmore was Paul Williams, founding editor of Crawdaddy! magazine, arguably the first publication of fully-fledged rock criticism in the world. His evocative description of promoter Bill Graham’s psychedelic emporium, mentioned in an album review of San Francisco bands, opens my new book on rock music and citizenship in the sixties counterculture.

Williams died on March 27th, 2013 after a long struggle with dementia brought on by a head injury during a bicycling accident in 1995. (For some wonderful writing, see the blog of his wife, singer-songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill, who lovingly and bravely chronicled the last years of his life.)

Williams’s keen insights about San Francisco in the spring of 1967 were not utopian, but they were suffused with hope. This East Coast writer, visiting the Bay Area from New York City, looking as cool as Andy Warhol (see photograph above), thought that he glimpsed—and heard—a profound turn to a better civic existence in the streets and parks of San Francisco. For individuals and communities alike, the Fillmore had become the entry point, the processing center, for an emerging counterculture. If you were in search of an alternative to the Vietnam War and all that it symbolized, rock at the Fillmore offered access across the boundary to a different country, what would eventually be called Woodstock Nation.

Paul Williams, March 1967. Photograph: David Hartwell.

Williams is an important, and often overlooked, figure in the emergence of rock criticism during the 1960s. His style was confessional, but he postured much less than Bangs, Christgau, and other wonderful but more tough and gritty writers. The early Williams was tender, honest, and unafraid of being vulnerable in print. He was quite young, a drop out from Swarthmore College when he started Crawdaddy! His writing could be clunky at times, but it was also full of keen observations, deep thinking, and passionate feeling about pop music.

I think of Williams as the male counterpart to Ellen Willis. He was less political and more wordy, dreamy, and flowery in his prose, but like Willis, he wanted to register the small subtleties and huge implications alike of his experiences of rock music. And he wanted to do so to capture all the complexity, power, attractiveness, beauty, scariness, and fraught tension of the music as both a commercial and a civic phenomenon.

Williams’s writing was often addressed to a “you”—the reader as friend, comrade, confidant, equal member in a secret society whose messages were being broadcast in code right out in public. Inspired by science fiction fanzines and folk music from his childhood in the Boston/Cambridge area, amazed at the discovery that the latest songs on the radio seemed as resonant, as meaningful, as artful as any kind high art out there, Williams as writer and editor turned Crawdaddy! into a key text for all the rock criticism to follow.

His own effort in its pages to use rock music to make sense of the world still sings out from the 1960s. It is dated, but indelibly so, communicating from a lost time with a  young person’s courageously earnest and determined goal to make sense of musical sounds that seemed at once immensely significant and troublingly ineffable.

Rest in peace, Paul. And know, wherever you are, that the strange, fantastic dream of flying the sonic flag of the republic of rock lives on in the words you left on record.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *