Paul Williams: Founder of the hugely influential Crawdaddy! magazine


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The Independent Online

In the mid-1960s, as pop music evolved into rock, few publications catered for aficionados looking for more than basic information about the latest endeavours of Bob Dylan or the Beach Boys.

The US writer Paul Williams would go on to write authoritatively about both acts, but he was rightly hailed as the “Godfather of rock journalism” for launching Crawdaddy! in January 1966.

“You are looking at the first issue of a magazine of rock and roll criticism. Crawdaddy! will feature neither pin-ups nor news-briefs; the specialty of this magazine is intelligent writing about pop music,” Williams stated in issue No 1 of the fanzine he produced from his dormitory at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

He was still only 17, yet within 18 months his publication would grow from 500 copies of ten mimeographed pages stapled together to a proper print-run and a circulation of 25,000. It also inspired Jann Wenner to launch Rolling Stone magazine in San Francisco in October 1967, 18 months before another celebrated US rock monthly, CREEM, appeared in Detroit. However, while Rolling Stone became a juggernaut, the pioneering Williams left Crawdaddy! at the end of 1968. “The battle had been won. The New York Times was reviewing rock music,” he later reflected.

He was the precocious child of a physicist and an administrator who had both worked on the Manhattan Project, the research programme that produced the first atomic bombs during the Second World War. A folk snob originally keener on the Greenwich Village and Boston folk scenes than the Beatles, he became a converted Anglophile on hearing the Rolling Stones and the Kinks and named Crawdaddy! after the club in Richmond, Surrey, where the Stones and Yardbirds made their early breakthrough.

The first issue featured a review of Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence, prompting a thank-you call from Paul Simon to the phone in the dorm corridor. Greatly affected by the death of folk singer Richard Fariña in a motorbike crash in April 1966, Williams dropped out of Swarthmore and went back to his native Boston. That July, he put Dylan on the cover of the fourth issue, a year after he’d “gone electric” at the Newport Folk Festival – and sold hundreds of copies at the very same event.

Williams was first to commission Jon Landau, Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer, writers who went on to transcend rock criticism and participate in the recordings made by artists they were closely associated with – Bruce Springsteen, Blue Öyster Cult or The Clash – as producers or lyricists. Hanging out with Brian Wilson, the Doors or Buffalo Springfield in Los Angeles, or composing thoughtful essays without worrying about the word count, made the venture all the more enjoyable, but Williams soon lost his “sense of wonder” and left the publication in the hands of others. “They paid me a little money for the trademark. I needed to get on with my life,” he said of his decision.

The freelance Williams still had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, hanging out with Crosby, Stills & Nash in Laurel Canyon, joining the chanting on the Plastic Ono Band’s “Give Peace a Chance” in June 1969, or travelling to Woodstock with the Grateful Dead two months later.

But he was more interested in his personal journey, as documented in Time Between, a book he described as “almost a journal of intense communal living, travelling, LSD-taking.” While living on a commune in Canada in 1970, he wrote the meaning-of-life Das Energi – a spin on Marx’s Das Kapital – the first and only book published by Jac Holzman’s Elektra Records. It became an underground hit, selling 350,000 copies. A science-fiction buff from his early teens, when he published a sci-fi fanzine called Within, Williams befriended Philip K Dick and penned an exhaustive Rolling Stone article, as well as an authoritative biography of the influential author, who made him literary executor of his estate before his death in 1982.

California-based from the mid-Seventies, he edited the first book edition of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, published in 1981, and embarked on an ambitious three-part series of Bob Dylan, Performing Artist books, drawing on the 100-plus concerts he had seen by the singer-songwriter, as well as audio recordings. 

In 1993, he published Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles. That same year, he also revived Crawdaddy!, which had been dormant since 1979, as a quarterly newsletter, publishing 28 instalments over the next decade, despite suffering a traumatic brain injury in a bicycle accident in 1995. This led to early onset of dementia and necessitated a move to a nursing home four years ago.

His 1988 memoir was fittingly called The Map or Rediscovering Rock and Roll: A Journey. In its introduction, he described his interest in the music: “To me, rock and roll is a living force, resilient and stubborn. The only thing to do with rock and roll is to participate in it.”

Paul S Williams, writer and publisher: born Boston, Massachusetts 19 May 1948; married 1972 Sachiko Kanenobu (marriage dissolved, two sons); 1988 Donna Nassar (marriage dissolved); 1997 Cindy Lee Berryhill (one son); died Encinitas, California 27 March 2013.