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When Bad Things Happen To Great Writers

August 10, 2011  |  10:44am
When Bad Things Happen To Great Writers

“Very few people have the balls to talk about ‘rock and roll’ anymore.”
Paul Williams,
Crawdaddy!, May 1967

We’re all plagiarists these days—thieves in the night, stealing what we can off the fat of the land, then reducing it to a bite or a blurb or a blog post at best. The Twitterers, they tweet. And the Tumblrs, they text. And the world, it keeps spinning round at 160 characters per minute.


The days of free-form journalism are dead as the dog dirt, my friend. All the hip kids have packed up, moved on… sold their soul to tabloid journalism two graphs at a time.


And the old heads, well, they’re still grinding it out for pennies on the dollar. Only now they’re doing it because they have to… because they have a family, or a mortgage, or a divorce that costs more than both of those things combined.


They’re doing it because it’s too late in the game for them to start doing anything else.


The newsrooms are thinner; the page counts are smaller. And—in many cases—you’re only as good as the aggregate sites that link to you. It’s a post-print world where snark trumps substance and shock trumps style—a world where top-notch reporting is fed through a wood chipper, then spit back to the masses in half-inch splinters.


The nature of discourse is changing, and so is the criteria by which media outlets measure success. Most high-profile blogs operate under the same general assumption: “It ain’t about the news; it’s about the click-thrus.”


That type of thinking has turned the internet into a vast wasteland of blogs, where integrity is compromised in the name of schtick, and sensationalism is the foundation upon which reputations are built—a sentiment that might be best described like this:


“It’s difficult to be a critic; people expect you to explain things. That’s all right if you don’t know what’s going on… you can make up any clever-sounding explanation, and people will believe you. But if you do understand a poem, or a song, then chances are you also understand that you’re destroying it if you try to translate it into one or two prose sentences in order to tell the guy next door ‘what it means.’”

Paul Williams wrote that. And he didn’t write it last week, last month, or even last year. No sir. Paul Williams wrote that way back in July of 1966, when a personal teletype was still all the rage and an eight-track player could still get you laid.

I don’t really know Paul Williams. I’m not sure how he takes his coffee or what his favorite movie is. But what I do know is that Paul Williams—or, more to the point, the way Paul Williams wrote about rock music—inspired me more than any teacher ever has.


Paul Williams inspired me in a way that had nothing to do with college majors, curriculums, or commerce. He inspired me because he was a writer you could believe in; a writer who wasn’t beholden to advertisers or publicists, payola or press credentials; a writer whose only responsibility was to himself and his readers.


And what separated Paul from so many other writers out there was his ability to recognize music as a jumping-off point—a way of translating the world through a medium we could all relate to. He understood the importance of writing about rock ‘n’ roll like a fan for a fan instead of trying to one-up your audience with all of your rock ‘n’ roll know-it-all-ness.


Paul Williams is like the Percival of music writers—admired by both readers and rock stars for his ability to demonstrate such tremendous depth without the slightest hint of self-indulgence. Here is a guy who chilled with Bob Dylan, tripped with Tim Leary, wrote with David Crosby, hung with Brian Wilson, sat bedside with John and Yoko, and was named executor of Philip K. Dick’s literary estate.


Here is a guy who great artists gravitated to because he didn’t need to be their friend.


Here is a guy who made me want to write about rock music.


When I was a kid, I remember reading Paul Williams’ stuff and thinking, “God, I want to be able to do that. I want to be able to make words and ideas dance across the page like he does. I want to be able to wake people and shake people. I want to use rock ‘n’ roll as a way of relating to a world that never really related to me.”


Paul Williams’ pieces weren’t just about music. They were about faith and struggle, religion and redemption, life and death, love and loss. They were about all the major themes that great songwriting is about. But Paul had the space and the freedom to go even deeper; to explore what exactly was at stake in every song and how—on any given night—rock ‘n’ roll had the power to break down the walls that kept people boxed in; to show us the edge without pushing us over.


Paul Williams was indie before indie was indie; punk rock a full decade before anyone even knew what that meant. And he had the foresight and intelligence to recognize that Crawdaddy! would always be more respected and less successful than most of the other mainstream magazines out there… and that that was a good thing.


But you don’t hear Paul’s named mentioned with the same frequency as Lester Bangs or Jann Wenner or even Hunter Thompson. And you won’t find a statue or a stamp or even a park bench bearing his name. And that’s okay, because those things never seemed to matter much to Paul Williams. What does matter is that he created a brand that still stands for something—some 43 years later. He created a magazine that not only gave birth to rock criticism, but somehow managed to outlive it.


And if you’re the type of person who believes the true measure of a man’s greatness is what he’s left behind to grow, well then, by that standard Paul Williams is one of the most pivotal figures in rock ‘n’ roll history.


So why bring all this up now? What’s the significance?


The answer is this: About two weeks ago, I found out (along with several other people) that Paul Williams has been suffering from dementia—the result of a brain injury sustained during a bike accident almost 15 years ago. In recent months, Paul’s condition has deteriorated to the point where he requires around-the-clock care—the type that’s difficult to afford when you’ve spent your entire career working as a freelance writer.


And that’s where you, dear reader, can help.


Some of the people who grew up enjoying Crawdaddy! have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, and nurses. Some went on to become artists and musicians, actors and performers. Some even went on to become full-time music writers.


But the one thing we all share is a mutual appreciation for what Paul Williams built. This is an opportunity to repay that favor in kind. Maybe that means you write a check, or pass a hat, or play a benefit show at some bar downtown. Maybe it means you take to the airwaves or forward a link to some of your friends, asking them to lend their support. Maybe it means you write an editorial about it in the very magazine that inspired you so much as a kid.


Whatever the case, each of us has the ability to lighten the burden on Paul’s family in some small way. And in so doing, give something back to a guy who never stopped fighting the good fight, a guy who truly believed in the healing power of rock ‘n’ roll, a guy who translated the world through a medium we could all understand.


(For more on Paul Williams, including a bio, interviews, excerpts from his books, vintage Crawdaddy! pieces, and information on how and where you can send donations and/or pledge your support, please visit www.paulwilliams.com)

This was originally published at Crawdaddy on April 24, 2009.

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