The Curmudgeon: Paul Williams and the Birth of Rock Criticism

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Paul Williams, who died March 27, was the first music critic who ever made me think, “I want to do that.” In some ways, Williams was the first to do “that” when it came to rock ’n’ roll. On February 7, 1966, a year and a half before Jann Wenner founded Rolling Stone, Williams began Crawdaddy, the first vehicle for serious writing about rock ’n’ roll. “Crawdaddy will feature neither pin-ups nor news-briefs,” the 17-year-old Swarthmore College student announced; “the specialty of this magazine is intelligent writing.”

He was true to his word. In this era of media overload, it’s hard to believe how hard it was to get any information about pop music in the ’60s. Billboard and Cash Box covered the business side of things; teen magazines trumpeted pop celebrities but ignored the actual music, and if daily papers paid any attention it was condescending. Suddenly, here was a magazine—actually a stapled clump of mimeographed sheets—that wanted to verbalize how the music itself created a connection between the musicians’ intentions and the audience’s response.

Somehow, as a nerdy high school freshman in suburban Connecticut, I found out about Crawdaddy and became an early subscriber. It’s no exaggeration to say it changed my life. Williams and the stable of writers he assembled—most notably Sandy Pearlman, Peter Guralnick, Jon Landau, Samuel R. Delaney, David Henderson, Tony Glover, Paul Nelson and Richard Meltzer—wrote at length, often great length, not about personalities and career ladder-climbing, but about the music itself, how it was made and how it worked upon the listener.

They articulated the inchoate feelings I already had. And I made the astonishing discovery that putting those emotions into words didn’t diminish the pleasure I felt but actually increased it. The more conscious I was of what was going on in the music, the more intense the experience became. Analysis was not the enemy of art but rather its greatest ally. I wanted to do for others what those critics had done for me.

Williams, who had gotten the idea for Crawdaddy from the science-fiction and folk-music fanzines that he devoured and sometimes published himself, brought a contagious enthusiasm to his essays. When he fell in love with a musician or a piece of music, he fell head over heels, penning valentines that described in illuminating prose every detail that sparked his affection. He was completely free of youth culture’s most dreaded disease in every generation: cool, that icy glaze that stifles emotions in an attempt to prove that one is older, hipper and harder to impress than one’s rivals. What’s the best way to ratchet up your cool factor? Adopt the cynical view that any music that appeals to the wrong sort of people isn’t good enough for you.

Williams had no use for that. If he responded to the Beach Boys in 1967, he didn’t care that they were totally unhip at that time. He would celebrate their music by poring over each song and the response it produced in himself; he would track down those who worked with the Beach Boys to discover how those songs were assembled. Likewise, he would make the provocative argument that Smokey Robinson was as important a songwriter as Bob Dylan and John Lennon—a very sensible view in retrospect.

I started writing about music for my high school and college newspapers, then for local alternative weeklies and eventually for national music magazines, including the mid-’70s Crawdaddy, long after Williams himself had left in 1969. The magazine had died then, been resurrected in 1970, was renamed Feature in 1979 and died again that same year. Williams reclaimed the title in 1993 and resurrected it once more as a stapled fanzine full of ambitious writing. I started writing for this new reincarnation just for the satisfaction of having an email friendship with Williams. I finally met him in person at the 1999 South by Southwest, spending a long and memorable evening with him standing in line and eventually attending a Tom Waits concert.

By that time, however, our writing philosophies had diverged. As much as I admired and tried to emulate his lack of cynicism, I could not accept his lack of skepticism. Once he fell in love with an artist, Williams seemed reluctant to acknowledge any flaws or shortcomings. Just as hip cynicism can stifle valid emotions such as childish enthusiasm, uncritical romanticism can stifle equally valid emotions such as doubt and disappointment. Just as cynicism can blind us to reality by prejudging a piece of music, so can romanticism. To experience any piece of art as it really is and not as what we assume it will be, we have to approach it open to the idea that this new work might be brilliant, terrible or anywhere in between—whether it’s by Neil Young or Neil Diamond. We have to bring equal measures of hope and skepticism.

I raised this issue explicitly in a 1998 Crawdaddy article on the Beach Boys, a shared passion for Williams and myself. “I think of Paul Williams as a friend, and I want to argue with him…,” I wrote. “Paul has often argued that negative reviews are a waste of energy and magazine space. Why should writers attack music that some people enjoy, he asks, when they could spend the same time proclaiming the virtues of music they really love? Isn’t the purpose of music writing, he adds, to increase listeners’ pleasure? Yes, but there’s genuine pleasure in a good argument. If you are emotionally engaged in pop music, aren’t you as angered by its dishonesty and half-hearted efforts as you are exhilarated by its honesty and passion? Bob Dylan, for example, obviously loves America, but he doesn’t hold back his criticism of his native land…. Shouldn’t we music writers approach our job the same way Dylan approaches his? Or should we be as relentlessly cheerful as the Spice Girls?”

I went on to claim that no one loved the Beach Boys more than I did, but that a mature love—as opposed to a teenage infatuation—requires that we recognize our partners’ flaws. And the Beach Boys’ output in the ’90s, while not without merit, had many more shortcomings than Williams was willing to recognize. To his credit, Williams ran my piece in Crawdaddy without changing it, though he did get one of his friends to write a rebuttal. We drifted apart in the new century, and he shut down the print version of Crawdaddy in 2003. For years he battled the after-effects of a head injury from a 1995 bicycle accident and finally succumbed to them last month.

Whatever our eventual differences, Paul Williams altered my life by sending me down the path of music criticism. He provided a high standard to aspire to: an insistence that music criticism is not about personality and business, not about celebrity gained or celebrity sought; it’s about music. It’s about that sonic space where the artist and the listener meet and something happens that cannot exhaust our exploration. It’s a declaration of faith that such examination can not only clarify but also enrich that interaction. Even in death, Williams stands as a needed counterweight to today’s world of music journalism, which seems obsessed with everything but the music.