Paul S. Williams: The Size of Life Itself

I knew that Paul S. Williams, founder of Crawdaddy! magazine, the first serious-minded American rock and roll magazine, lay dying in hospice. But it came as a shock, small, to me anyway, that he’d slipped away March 27th. He was roughly seven weeks short of his 65th birthday.

A shock, small, I think, because I keep a modest mental space between the idea of death and its reality. I do not know how many other people do this. I do not know what Paul S. Williams experienced.

Paul at Home I knew he lay dying because his wife, singer Cindy Lee Berryhill, kept the world posted on his deteriorating status over the social media which, in Williams’ youth, seemed like the science fiction he adored and pored over not only as a youth, but as a grown man with long-range depth perception on Philip K. Dick, Buffalo Springfield, anything on his mental desk. He enthusiastically borrowed the science fiction concept of the fanzine–a privately-produced publication aimed at a niche audience–when he began to produce Crawdaddy! on a mimeograph from on campus at Swarthmore.

Death’s notice turned me meditative. I remembered what I’d felt after watching the news about Kurt Cobain, on that now-antiquated device called a television, but to us it was just life at the time. I walked down Brooklyn Avenue. The sun was out. Kurt was not there to feel it.

Back in 2013, I ran for a bus. A young fellow barged across the intersection against the blinking red hand, with his orange hat, cigarette, white-trimmed plastic sunglasses. “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care,” he chanted. “I don’t care anymore, about life.”

And I hope he was better by the day’s end. I hope he understood, better. In the virtual world Williams left behind, Crawdaddy! exists, only as a dead link, before which, as a news blog attached to another publication, and which has not been updated since late last year. (Quotidian dead ends, the junk spread over the ghost in the machine home turf to Williams’ beloved Philip K. Dick…) In the real world, he was continually getting confused with the singer/songwriter of the same name (living) and the Temptations singer, ditto (not living). This confusion continues apace, and maybe he made a crucial mistake not including his middle initial (or name) in his byline.

Still, there was only one of him.

Having written “serious-minded” above, I need to take part of that back. Williams’ grounding in science fiction fandom and SF-fanzine publication gave him templates to work from, but essentially he wanted the same thing through Crawdaddy! that his SF friends wanted from their zines. Something similar to what the English music papers put out, but American, for Americans. Impassioned, but reasoned, discussion of the new music, with, like the music, plenty of room for individual expression.

Crawdaddy! plugged in anyone who came knocking with a socket. You never before/again read Samuel R. Delany, the smartest, scariest, SF writer on the East Coast, dip his perception into Big Brother & The Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin. Peter Knobler, with Greg Mitchell, gave Bruce Springsteen his first major profile in the magazine. John Lennon, Joseph Heller, Cameron Crowe, and even an on-the-run Abbie Hoffman dropped in for dispatches. Richard Meltzer turned up to take rock and roll apart and put it back together again in accordance with his philosophy studies, what eventually became his monumental, controversial Aesthetics Of Rock.

Williams was a baby boomer and he rolled, bounced, and sometimes broke with the times. Jann Wenner came by to take notes while Rolling Stone was brewing, and Williams quietly, altruistically, let him do that, commenting later that Wenner wanted things Williams never did: adulation, the spotlight, the rock star sheen-by-association.

Williams quit the magazine and came back, through burnout, explosive office romances, a co-worker’s frank admission that she’d aborted his child. As I said, the times, which with strange aeons, became our times. He is sometimes erroneously dismissed with the sixties, but he kept listening, feeling, intuiting over new bands, new acts, new phases of old favorites. He became a go-to expert on Dylan, Neil Young, the Beach Boys. “To me” he wrote, of Dylan, “a great artist is someone who says ‘I am’ more honestly, more powerfully, more beautifully, more straightforwardly, more inclusively than anyone else except other great artists.” That might sound like boomer self-absorption. But the key, I think, lies in the “inclusively.” A great artist as that tide that lifting all boats of individual consciousness.

He monitored Brian Wilson’s slide from sanity from a sometimes-unusually intimate vantage point, watching Wilson unpack a Sony “Video Tape Recorder” at Wilson’s house, around Christmas 1966. “I remember vividly we were all four watching the screen, seeing the room on TV, and suddenly these little burn-holes began appearing in our reality, growing as we watched, burning. Jesus Christ!

“We quickly realized the lights on the Christmas tree were burning holes into the tape with their brightness, presumably because you weren’t supposed to stop the camera while facing such small-but-intense light sources. Ooohhh, creepy.”

A 1995 bicycle wreck left Williams with a head injury and the malevolence of early-onset dementia. Lucidity dropped further and further down the well, but he knew what was coming. He called for his ex-wives, for old friends, and while not all of them came to say goodbye, some did.

I think Cindy Lee Berryhill and their child, Alexander, wore out several souls each, caring for him. I also think that the soul is renewable, under the correct circumstances. I hope for them a circle of people who can care for them the forward way. I think about death constantly, wondering if I will die at any moment. And I am not sure how many people do that. I hope, eventually, through life experience and my more-proactive half-assed Buddhism, I’ll transform dread of death into acceptance of death. Is it too much to hope for wonder, at one’s death?

Williams left behind some twenty-five books covering music, science fiction (Philip K. Dick and Theodore Sturgeon especially), metaphysics, human rights, life, breath, and essence. He seemed sometimes silly but he was not afraid to be silly; if he asked himself “Am I babbling?” to the Beach Boys, that was self-awareness and frank acknowledgement of his monumental feelings in the moment. He challenged everyone reading him to make the most out of that moment. He defied anyone conducting a cramped or sealed-off methodology (you might say “hipsters” but think harder and I think you’ll agree this problem goes wider, deeper). He invoked the size of the music against the size of life itself. In these senses, I hope, his essence remains.

I think of him as a small-but-intense light source leaving holes in our reality fabric. Enough holes to form a map. Maybe even a key.

Burning.