The pantheon of rock journalism includes such recognizable names as Lester Bangs, Jann Wenner, Richard Meltzer, Robert Christgau and Michigan’s own Susan Whitall and Dave Marsh. Preceding them all, however, was Paul S. Williams, erstwhile editor of “Crawdaddy!” magazine and author of a shelf of books on the genre, who knocked down the door for all others to follow.
Williams passed away on March 27 from complications related to dementia, but his 64 years of life serve as a compelling case for writers and other artists possessed of a Big Idea to go it alone without government subsidies. Williams employed his do-it-yourself ethos to create “Crawdaddy!” in 1966 and abandon it two years later, only to pick up the reins once again in the early 1990s for another 10-year run as editor before folding the publication for good due to financial and health issues.
As a young Swarthmore College student in the mid-1960s, Williams possessed two passions: science fiction literature and rock’n’roll music. After publishing several sci-fi fanzines, he scrounged up the initial $40 to mimeograph and buy postage to mail 500 copies of the 10-page premier issue of “Crawdaddy!”
An unknown entity, Williams couldn’t rely on record company promotions departments to send him new releases to review. Instead, he had to purchase the copy of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” critiqued in his inaugural issue, which he wrote in its entirety.
Williams founded “Crawdaddy!” to fill a void in American culture — a periodical that discussed pop music not in terms of the teeny-bopper salaciousness (“Win a Date with Davy Jones!”) of “Tiger Beat” or the inside-baseball industry analysis (“Andy Williams Expected to Sign with Columbia”) of “Cash Box” and “Billboard,” but, instead presented record reviews and musician interviews.
As Williams noted in his first issue:
Billboard, Cash Box, etc. serve very well as trade news magazines; but their idea of a review is: ‘a hard-driving rhythm number that should spiral rapidly up the charts just as (previous hit by the same group) slides.’ And the teen magazines are devoted to rock and roll, but their idea of discussion is a string of superlatives below a fold-out photograph. Crawdaddy believes that someone in the United States might be interested in what others have to say about the music they like.
As noted above, Williams walked away from his brainchild in 1968 at a time when rock music had ceased being marginalized as music only kids cared about. Williams told Jim DeRogatis (no slouch in the rock journalism department either) that he felt he had fulfilled his initial mission: “By then, the New York Times was reviewing the new Beatles album when it came out, and there was no longer a need for the crusade which I had been on, to get people to try to take this stuff seriously…. I had a lot of fun with it, but by then it was obvious that people were taking this stuff far too seriously.”
By 1968, “Crawdaddy!” had 20,000 subscribers, a host of advertisers and stacks of wax from record company promotions departments. It also had competition from a San Francisco startup with far grander ambitions from the year prior. That magazine, for better or worse, was “Rolling Stone,” which quickly eclipsed “Crawdaddy!” whilst pilfering some of its most esteemed writing talent.
In time, Williams’ byline would appear not only in “Rolling Stone,” but as well on books he authored on his dual obsessions with rock music and sci-fi. While earning tremendous respect among his peers and readers, long-term wealth and fame eluded Williams, relegating him as a footnote in cultural history.
But what a footnote! Described by DeRogatis as a “hippy to the core,” Williams presumably cared more about pursuing his talents and passions wherever they took him than he did about padding the bottom line.
And herein is one takeaway from Williams’ career for writers and other artists: Sometimes personal bliss derives from arduously following one’s passions regardless the financial payoff and public recognition. For truly obsessive artists and businessmen such as Williams, calculated risks are taken in the pursuit of that happiness, which may or may not ensure a secure livelihood — and as well the livelihood of those individuals hired fulltime or as freelancers.
Back in the day, young readers, the sky was the limit. Ink-stained wretches with a passion for a particular subject matter would take it upon themselves to publish their rants and raves rather than expect government to shoulder the heavy lifting of financing the operation.
That was back in the day, mind you. Nowadays enterprising individuals with a computer, design program and Internet access can achieve instantaneously a high-quality blog on whatever floats that individual’s boat. No postage, no printing charges — just time, graphics and words.
You may not desire nor experience massive wealth and celebrity, but you may shuffle off the mortal coil secure in the knowledge you permanently altered the cultural landscape while simultaneously getting your creative ya-ya’s out. As well, you may recognize the satisfaction of doing it all on your own — following the template established by Paul Williams.