Pioneering Rock Journalist Paul S. Williams Dies at 64
Paul S. Williams, writer, author, editor, philosopher and original architect of the pioneering music magazine Crawdaddy!, died Wednesday after a long battle with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. He was 64.
The godfather of modern rock journalism, Williams’ influence on the grand world of music writing is near-incalculable. He started the first American rock magazine Crawdaddy! in 1966 (months before Rolling Stone) as a teenager while attending Swarthmore College. Williams wrote all 10 pages of the magazine’s first issue -- printed on mimeographed paper -- and soon the young rock proselytizer gave a literary start to other ambitious writers including Richard Meltzer, Jon Landau, Sandy Pearlman and Peter Knobler.
With no role models to speak of, Williams invented the rock-journalist genre as he went along during the pre-publicist age of rock 'n' roll. As a budding novice with newfound and almost unlimited access to the stars, he found himself in the studio with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys during their Smile sessions. Williams also was a staunch defender of The Grateful Dead and Velvet Underground and was friendly with Timothy Leary and John Lennon. He was in attendance during Lennon and Yoko Ono’s notorious Montreal Bed-In and at the classic Plastic Ono Band recording of “Give Peace a Chance.”
Although he initially stepped away from the commercial world of magazine publishing in 1968, Williams was duly acknowledged as a world-class authority on such influential rock artists as Wilson, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. At a time when most journalists were concerned with surface issues and passing fads, Williams’ music writings often were lengthy think-pieces -- thorough, thoughtful, sociological and intellectual -- and he went on to write at least 25 books, including The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits, Das Energi, Outlaw Blues, Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles and a seminal Dylan trilogy, Bob Dylan: Performing Artist (Vols. I-III).
In the late ’60s, Williams became a friend and confidant of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick and wrote about the iconoclastic author in Rolling Stone in 1974. Williams eventually completed a biography on Dick and became his literary executor after the writer’s death in 1982. He also edited The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, Vol. I-XII.
The ever-prolific Williams revived the Crawdaddy! imprint -- self-publishing from 1993 through 2003 in typical DIY fashion -- before selling the prestigious name to Wolfgang’s Vault in 2006.
His early-onset dementia most often was attributed to a head injury he sustained in a 1995 bicycle accident. Survivors include his third wife, Cindy Lee Berryhill, and their son Alexander.
UPDATE: Rock writers Richard Meltzer, John Swenson, and Billy Altman all garnered their journalistic bona fides filing music stories under the Crawdaddy! banner at the beginnings of their respective (and respected) careers. Here are their brief remembrances of Paul S. Williams, the man responsible for making it possible:
Meltzer: "Paul was a wretched innocent and a dweeb, and barely likable. He lost the second long piece I wrote for him, 'The Beatles, the Stones, and Spyder Turner's Raunch Epistemology' (or some such), on the subway; I had to rewrite it from memory. He rejected a subsequent piece of mine, asserting it wasn't 'real.' And what did he mean by that? 'When I'm on acid and I'm hungry, I would never eat popcorn -- it isn't real. A burger, on the other hand -- that's real.' (Uhh.) He was, however, the first person to publish me at all (yippee), and the title of my first book, The Aesthetics of Rock, was his idea."
Swenson: "I always say I achieved my lifetime ambition at age 25 when I became an editor at Crawdaddy! All downhill from there (heh) but at least I'm enjoying the ride. Paul was an inspiration and a friend. Strange to outlive him -- he lived a much healthier lifestyle than I ever did."
Altman: "My only quibble: 'The godfather of modern rock journalism.' I'd say forget 'modern' rock journalism. There really wasn't any rock journalism before Crawdaddy! And, probably more importantly, no serious rock criticism before Crawdaddy!"
And finally, a heartfelt comment from longtime music scribe and Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye:
"Paul Williams was an insightful and heartful wordsmith who showed how to write about rock 'n' roll in a way that illuminated the music as art. He set me on a path to understanding music's potential as a vehicle for personal expression and transcendence. His intelligence and ever-curious and open mind allowed one to write about music as if it were music itself, a celebrant of the creative muse, and whenever I string words together or play a guitar solo, I think of him as my ideal listener."