Me and Paul; the Paul Williams I Knew
My dear friend, legendary writer about music and pop philosopher Paul Williams, passed away March 27.
Paul was the founder, writer and publisher of the first serious rock and roll magazine in the United States, called Crawdaddy!, which was named after the club in England where the Rolling Stones got their start.
While attending Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Paul made 500 copies of the first issue on a mimeograph machine. With that first issue in hand, he went to Boston (his hometown) and passed them out among friends, and then down to New York to drop off a copy at every record company in town. When he arrived back at his college dorm room, his roommate informed him that there was a phone message from Bob Dylan, who apparently had picked up a copy at Columbia Records. Dylan was in Philadelphia doing a show with The Band, and they invited Paul to come to their hotel, which he did, and ended up crashing on their couch.
In 1969, Rolling Stone Magazine gave him an assignment, to travel in a rental car from New York to Montreal, with Timothy Leary, to go interview John and Yoko. I was fortunate to read the manuscript of that interview, which never got published because it was way too psychedelic. The record of that trip, though, can be seen in the video of “Give Peace a Chance” from the famous “bed-in.” There, standing next to John and Yoko, are Paul Williams and Timothy Leary (and several other cultural celebrities) gleefully singing, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”
In 1970, while living on a commune 100 miles north of Vancouver, Paul wrote what I consider to be one of the most relentlessly positive and inspiring books I’ve ever read, called Das Energi. It was published by Elektra Records and sold more than a half-million copies. I’ve probably bought 50 of them myself over the years, and given them as gifts.
In 1998, I was putting out my own magazine, called IN/EX/US. The renowned rock photographer Henry Diltz, whose photos graced the pages of the magazine, called and said, “I know someone who would be perfect to write for your magazine,” and he recommended Paul Williams.
“THEE Paul Williams,” I asked; “The one who wrote Das Energi?”
“I don’t know about that,” said Henry. “He writes books about Bob Dylan, and Neil Young, and Brian Wilson.”
A few weeks later, my phone rings and it’s THEE Paul Williams. I don’t think I’ve ever been so giddy in my whole life.
I invited Paul to write anything he wanted for the magazine, and since it was the 25-Year Anniversary of the publication of Das Energi, he suggested telling the story of how his legendary book came to be. This account, broken into two parts, appeared in the second and third issues of IN/EX/US. As far as I know, it’s the only place such a description has ever appeared, something for which I am proud, grateful and humbled.
In 1999, while visiting me in the Santa Ynez Valley, Paul wrote the Foreword for my book Collectives. What a thrill to have the person whose words inspired me acknowledge my own writing.
Throughout the year that Paul wrote his book The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits; a Top 40 List, he would often call me up late at night and say, “Ron can I read you what I wrote,” and I would lay on my bed and listen, with eyes closed, while he read. Among the “great hits” he wrote about were Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You Mrs. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine by Kurt Vonnegut. Since he quoted extended sections, he had to get permission. Not only did Vonnegut give his permission, but he wrote Paul a series of hand-written letters, saying things like “It seems you are my best friend among the living.”
Paul took me to the BookExpo of America in Chicago (in 2000), and we manned a booth together in the hall for independent publishers. He shared his wisdom and experience, telling me, “Most people come here, and they get all stressed out because they’re spending a bunch of money to be here, and they feel pressured that they have to make something happen in order to justify the expense. Don’t stress and don’t worry,” he said, “for just by virtue of being here you have done your part and fulfilled your karma.” It may not sound like much, but it managed to put me at ease.
Paul shared so much about his life as a writer with me, including stories of his days and experiences with Frank Herbert (Dune), Phillip K. Dick (for whom Paul was the literary executor), and Theodore Sturgeon (Paul served as the editor of the Complete Stories of Sturgeon.) I brought Paul to David Crosby’s house one day, and Paul enlisted a more-than-willing Crosby to write the Introduction to the sixth volume of Sturgeon’s stories, which appeared under the title Baby is Three.
When I started Tales from the Tavern with my sister in 2003, Paul’s influence really made itself apparent, for unknowingly, he had helped shape my attitudes on the responsibility of the audience, and the relationship between artist and audience.
A bicycle accident in 1995 left him with a brain injury that brought on dementia. He became the “Beloved Stranger” to his wife, the singer-songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill.
Paul died, seven weeks shy of his 65th birthday.
It is one of the great privileges of my life to have had this friendship with someone whose works I read when I was young, and who had a big influence on my life and my work.
When I heard of his passing, I was both saddened and relieved, and I was reminded of the lyrics from the Michael On Fire song “Light of Love,” which goes: “When teachers die / and spirits fly / and legends fade away / with a heavy heart / but a wiser soul / I will send you / on your way.”
Ron Colone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org