Pioneering rock critic Paul Williams died last week at 64, of early-onset dementia stemming from injuries he received in 1995 bicycling accident. Williams was the creator—and for a time, the one-man writing staff—of Crawdaddy!, the first serious rock-music magazine.
Its beginnings were inauspicious but plucky. In 1966, when Williams was 17 and enrolled for his freshman (and, as it turned out, only) year at Swarthmore College, he began writing about rock music. Stapling the mimeographed pages together, and christening the results with a name taken from the London club that had hosted the Rolling Stones’ first gig, he began passing out copies of Crawdaddy! on campus. In those early, innocent days, he had the inspiration to track down mailing addresses for some of his favorite artists—like Bob Dylan—and send them sample copies. This, in turn, led to them volunteering to sit for interviews, which ultimately made it possible for Crawdaddy! to obtain national distribution and for Williams to turn pro in a field that he’d all but invented. Crawdaddy!, in fact, beat Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone to the newstands by a year and a half.
Crawdaddy! would go on to break other new writers who would similarly play a major role in the development of rock writing—and even rock music itself—in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Some these included the iconoclastic Richard Meltzer, Jon Landau (who went from profiling Bruce Springsteen, an artist that Crawdaddy! championed before anyone, to co-producing his records), and Sandy Pearlman, who went on to manage Blue Oyster Cult and produce the first U. S. release by The Clash.
After other rock magazines like Rolling Stone and Creem began to siphon away some of his audience, the restless Williams left Crawdaddy! to freelance and be on the scene for various counterculture benchmarks. He attended Woodstock (catching a ride “in a limo with the Grateful Dead,” according to his widow, singer Cindy Lee Berryhill). He was part of the backing chorus on John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” He managed Timothy Leary’s 1969 campaign for Governor of California, and similarly “dropped out” by going to live on a Canadian wilderness commune, an experience that supplied him with the spiritual insights he then recorded in his 1973 book Das Energi. Williams’ many other published works include several biographies and critical studies of Bob Dylan, and the 1997 Neil Young: Love To Burn and Brian Wilson & The Beach Boys—How Deep Is The Ocean?
Even before he launched Crawdaddy!, the teenage Williams had published a science-fiction fanzine, Within, and in 1975, he published perhaps his best-known and most-influential piece of non-music writing, “The True Stories Of Philip K. Dick,” in Rolling Stone. The article celebrating Dick’s work and laying out the details of his surreal personal life was important in bringing the author enough attention to lift his name out of the cult-oddball category, and Williams went on to serve as Dick’s literary executor in the years following the author’s death. In 1986, he published the biography Only Apparently Real: The World Of Philip K. Dick. He also served as editor on the 12-volume Complete Stories Of Theodore Sturgeon.
Crawdaddy! went out of business in 1979, but Williams revived it from 1993 until 2003, when his health had deteriorated to the point that he required full-time care. The name, and the Williams’ writing for it, is now the property of the music site Wolfgang’s Vault, which maintains an online archive of the Williams years.
[Image via Boo-Hooray]