The First (And Last) Rock Critic: Paul Williams Remembered
(Crawdaddy! magazine founder Paul Williams died March 27 at age 64. Williams has been credited with helping create rock music criticism.)
Before Rolling Stone and Creem battled for the hearts and minds of rock fans, predating the likes of Xeroxed and stapled punk 'zines such as New York Rocker and Trouser Press and setting the stage for the online self-importance of Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan, there was Crawdaddy! magazine. Started out of a dorm room in 1966 by a 17-year-old Swarthmore College student from Boston named Paul Williams, the fledgling publication dubbed itself "the Magazine of Rock and Roll," adorning its first cover with the recently "gone-electric" Bob Dylan.
Taking his cue from folk music pamphlets such as Paul Nelson's The Little Sandy Review, Sing Out! and Broadside — along with the DIY fan publications devoted to his passion for science fiction, several of which he contributed to — Williams launched Crawdaddy! as his own vehicle for discussing the emerging rock culture with the same analytic viewpoint applied to the likes of films, books and other highbrow works of art, except fueled by a fanboy's giddy highs.
Crawdaddy! contributors included future Bruce Springsteen manager/mentor Jon Landau, soon-to-be Blue Öyster Cult manager and the Clash producer Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer, the gonzo auteur who helped spawn Lester Bangs. There were a handful of journalists writing about rock back then — including 16 editor Gloria Stavers, Al Aronowitz, Mike Jahn, Ralph J. Gleason, and Richard Goldstein — but no one delved as deeply as Williams' staff of provocateurs. Less than a year after he started putting out the magazine, which had climbed in circulation from 5,000 to 20,000, a young would-be publisher named Jann Wenner came to him for advice.
Already sensing his mission was complete, Williams left his publication in 1968 to write a series of books and embark on a quixotic journey that included sitting with Brian Wilson in the studio during the Smile sessions, singing "Give Peace A Chance" with John Lennon and Yoko Ono at their Montreal Bed-In for Peace, riding in a helicopter with Jerry Garcia to Woodstock, and becoming the literary executor for science fiction pioneer Philip K. Dick, whose movie adaptations include Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau.
After that first golden age of rock critics such as Bangs, Meltzer, Landau Nelson, Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, Jonathan Cott, and Cameron Crowe — whose opinions could make or break records (at least the record labels thought so) — music journalists became increasingly more beholden to the star-maker machinery for access. Rolling Stone cover stories became increasingly stage-managed, and album reviews were cut down to 300 words or less, marked by a star system often at odds with the write-up itself. With one music publication after another folding or migrating online and embattled daily newspapers forced to cut back on arts and entertainment coverage, the Internet has become the latest refuge for fan-dominated coverage with aforementioned sites such as the influential alternative sites Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan now the place for the venters and the vented.
Still, in this atmosphere of devalued content and weakened media gatekeepers, Williams' original mission — to communicate the fans' passion with the expert's precision — seems just as vital as ever.
I grew up in an era when healthy critical discourse — the exhilarating back-and-forth of discussion — was carried on at the highest levels. Feuds like those between followers of film critics Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael — the auteurists vs. the Paulettes — were considered mainstream media fodder. The view that criticism was an art all its own — one's individual response to a work worthy of the object itself — was part and parcel of the enthusiast's approach. By opening up the process to everyone, Williams democratized the art of criticism, taking it away from the ivory tower of academia and returning it to the people who were hooked on the culture itself. I got my own start as a music journalist at two publications, the Soho Weekly News and the late Alan Betrock's New York Rocker, that set themselves up in opposition to the countercultural establishment journals of the time: The Village Voice and Rolling Stone.
Williams' publishing philosophy can be seen in its truest form in today's Internet, a vibrant call-and-response that features a haven for every possible niche cultural genre. Yes, it's a bit of a free-for-all out there on the World Wide Web, and for everyone who believes Brian Wilson is a genius, there's probably someone who thinks he pretty much went downhill after Pet Sounds.
After a slow descent into dementia over the past 18 years — since a 1995 bicycle accident caused irreversible brain damage — Williams passed away on March 27 in a San Diego hospice in the presence of his devoted wife, singer/songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill, and their son Alexander. And while it might seem, like one of his heroes, Brian Wilson, that Williams just wasn't made for these times, history has justified his fan-based approach to criticism: writing about the things that most excited him in a way that hopefully infused others with that enthusiasm. May he live on in cyberspace.
(Roy Trakin, a senior editor for HITS magazine, has written for every rock publication that ever mattered, some that didn't, and got paid by most of them.)