Paul Williams, rock critic and founder of Crawdaddy, dies at 64

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Paul Williams, the writer and editor who founded Crawdaddy, the first national publication entirely devoted to in-depth commentary about rock music and the incubator for a generation of renowned rock writers and critics, died March 27 in Encinitas, Calif. He was 64.

His death was confirmed by his wife, singer-songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill. Williams was being treated for dementia caused by a 1995 bicycle accident. He had lived in a care facility since 2008.

There were no journals exclusively devoted to serious rock criticism when Williams started Crawdaddy in 1966 as a freshman at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. The few periodicals that covered pop music focused on how high a record charted or catered to the fantasy longings of teenage fans.

Crawdaddy, whose first issue was a 10-page mimeograph, predated Rolling Stone, the best-known rock magazine, by more than 18 months and Creem, another competitor, by nearly three years. Williams named his publication after a club in Surrey, England, where the Rolling Stones played their first shows.

As Crawdaddy grew, it nurtured notable pop music writers and musicians. Jon Landau would later write for Rolling Stone and manage Bruce Springsteen. Peter Guralnick, the magazine’s blues reviewer, later wrote acclaimed and exhaustive biographies of Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke. Lenny Kaye went on to play bass for punk poet Patti Smith.

“You are looking at the first issue of a magazine of rock and roll criticism,” Williams wrote in the first issue. “Crawdaddy! will feature neither pin-ups nor news briefs; the specialty of this magazine is intelligent writing about pop music.

“If we could predict the exact amount of sales of each record we hear, it would not interest us to do so,” he added. “If we could somehow pat every single pop artist on the back in a manner calculated to please him and his fans, we would not bother.”

Five hundred copies of the first issue were printed. Of those, 300 were mailed to music business offices listed in the annual Billboard magazine music directory.

“The total budget for the first issue, including postage, mimeograph stencils, paper, ink, 15-cent subway fares, peanut butter sandwiches and the one album I bought and reviewed (Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sounds of Silence’) was less than 40 dollars,” Williams recalled in the introduction to a 2002 book of pieces from the magazine.

The Simon and Garfunkel review found its way to Paul Simon, who called to say thanks. Williams had to take the call on the dormitory pay phone.

After leaving Crawdaddy in 1968, Williams traveled with LSD proponent Timothy Leary and attended John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s May 1969 “Bed-In for Peace” in Montreal.

Williams also continued to write. A 1974 Rolling Stone interview with science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick helped bring Dick wider recognition from mainstream audiences. Dick’s 1968 novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” became the basis for the 1982 film “Blade Runner.” The two writers became close friends, and when Dick died in 1982 at 54, Williams was named his literary executor.

Williams spent much of the 1980s and 1990s writing a trilogy of books, “Bob Dylan: Performing Artist,” that chronicled the singer-songwriter in live performance. The books relied on archival concert tapes and film although, by his own estimation, Williams had seen Dylan perform more than 100 times.

Meanwhile, Crawdaddy was relaunched as a mass-market publication in the 1970s with a new editor, Peter Knobler. Knobler pushed it to compete with Rolling Stone and Creem until its demise in 1979. Williams relaunched Crawdaddy as a self-published magazine in 1993 and ran it until 2003. He sold it in 2006 to an archival website, Wolfgang’s Vault.

Paul Steven Williams was born May 19, 1948, in Boston. His father was a physicist and his mother an editor, and both had participated in the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort that produced the atomic bomb. The younger Williams produced a science-fiction fan magazine at 14.

His first marriage, to singer Sachiko Kanenobu, ended in divorce. Besides Berryhill, survivors include two sons from his first marriage and a son from his second.

Williams often said that his goal was to convey something very personal that went beyond typical criticism.

“In writing about rock music, my intention was not to judge the records (like a critic) or report on the scene (like a journalist) but to explore, as an essayist, the experience of listening to certain records and feeling the whole world through them,” Williams once wrote.

“My form has always been the essay, talking on paper,” he added. “My subject matter has always been transcendence.”

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