He didn’t look much like a rock ’n’ roller. When he got started, as a student at Swarthmore, he dressed like Doug Kenney’s character in Animal House, all plaid shirts, high-tide jeans and work boots. Decades later, he kept to that style—and if it worked in 1968, why not in 2008?—occasionally donning a sports coat for matters of business. He was soft-spoken but, in my experience, never hesitant to talk.
Everything about him seemed intended to call attention elsewhere, but Paul Williams, who died at the end of March at the age of 64, was both fearless and inventive, and deserving of praise for both qualities: fearless in that he had no qualms about marching up to the likes of Bob Dylan and Keith Richards to demand an interview; inventive since he took a natural entrepreneurial spirit, wedded it to a gift for good writing and a passion for rock music, and produced a magazine that introduced serious writing about the form to the world.
That magazine was Crawdaddy, which, in its 23 years of existence, was the most influential vehicle for that serious writing on the market. Rolling Stone may have had Hunter Thompson and Joe Eszterhas, but Crawdaddy had Robert Christgau, Jon Landau, Richard Fariña and a host of other smart critics. One was Williams himself, who had a comprehensive knowledge of rock and its forebears, such that when he interviewed blues great Howlin’ Wolf in 1966 (a time so distant that it found the Rolling Stones just evolving from blues cover band to rock act), he was able to ask good questions that elicited unexpected answers—including the fact that the Wolf didn’t think too badly of one Elvis Presley, saying, “If he hadn’t went over and played the blues, he might not have been able to press the numbers he wanted to play.”
Born on a mimeograph machine in a dorm room, Crawdaddy could be a little teen-beatish, as when Williams broke the news that John Lennon was filming Richard Lester’s How I Won the War: “Yes, fans, he has had his hair cut for the part.” But for the most part, it was hard-edged
and right to the point, as when Samuel R. Delany, on his way to becoming a master of science-fiction writing, took on the phenomenon that was Janis Joplin: “A little common sense and any knowledge of the vocal machine…and you realize she’d be stone mute in six months if that sound were made full throat.”
Williams championed Delany but more so another legendary science-fiction writer who was on the edge of being forgotten—namely, Philip K. Dick, whose literary executor he became. He sang with Lennon, hung out with Leary, traveled with The Dead. He wandered, he gathered, and he
wrote things that hold up perfectly well nearly half a century later (“New York is New York, and it’s very good for some things”). He also wrote a couple of dozen books, including the now-obscure Das Energi, with its famous line “This is God talking.” Or maybe Jimi Hendrix. Travel well, Paul.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.