Paul Williams was returning to his dorm room when a fellow student relayed a message that was radical even for the 1960s: “Hey, Williams! You got a phone call from Bob Dylan.”
Not long before, it was Paul Simon who had rung Williams up on the hallway pay phone. He too wanted to let the Swarthmore College freshman know how much he enjoyed his writing.
At 17, Williams was the founder and editor of Crawdaddy, a tiny journal of rock criticism whose first edition he mimeographed in a friend’s Brooklyn basement and distributed to record stores, clubs and concert halls. Williams, who beat Rolling Stone to press by more than 18 months and is now widely credited as a pioneer of serious rock writing, died Wednesday in an Encinitas care facility. He was 64.
His wife, singer Cindy Lee Berryhill, said his death was caused by complications stemming from dementia. The condition, she said, was triggered by severe head injuries from a 1995 bicycle accident.
Williams was a prolific author, with more than 25 books to his credit, including a three-volume work about Dylan. An avid science-fiction fan, Williams also wrote a biography of his friend, the writer Philip K. Dick, who made him his estate’s literary executor before his death in 1982.
Although Williams never became famous, he lived on the fringes of fame for much of his life, displaying a Zelig-like penchant for being visible in the background at once-in-an-era events.
He managed Timothy Leary’s short-lived 1969 campaign against Ronald Reagan for California governor. (Motto: “Come together: Join the party.”)
The same year, he mingled with dozens of celebrities—Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, Phil Spector—at the Montreal “bed-in for peace” staged by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Showered by flower petals from the pajama-clad couple, Williams was among those who sang with them as they recorded their signature anthem, “Give Peace a Chance,” in Suite 1472 of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel.
Williams was a scholar of the Beach Boys and wrote numerous essays about the group, which were collected in a book called “How Deep Is the Ocean?” He said he smoked his first marijuana joint with Brian Wilson, the group’s leader.
In 1970, he lived on a wilderness commune in Canada, an experience he used for a book of spiritual insights, “Das Energi.”
With all that, though, Williams is probably best remembered for Crawdaddy, a publication he named for the British club where the Rolling Stones played their first gig.
“Crawdaddy was a tremendously important venture,” said Robert Christgau, a longtime rock critic and former music editor of the Village Voice. “It was the first place I’m aware of where long-form rock criticism was published. It was seminal—no question about it.”
Lenny Kaye, a guitarist for Patti Smith—"the godmother of punk” as she’s called—said in an interview that he was deeply affected by Williams’ writing.
A critic himself, Kaye said Williams ushered in a time “when rock criticism was heightened, when you were expected to take personal and artistic chances with writing in hopes you could mirror the music you were writing about.”
The son of a physicist who met his wife at the top-secret Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., Williams was born May 19, 1948, in Boston and grew up in Cambridge, Mass. He left Swarthmore after a year, excited about the possibilities of his magazine and the explosion of interest in creating new music and a new society.
“The world was ready to take rock music seriously,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2000. “Every time you turned around, every time you heard something you liked, it turned out to be historically wonderful later.”
He published Crawdaddy from 1966 to 1968 and revived it as a quarterly, mail-order journal in 1993. It now appears as a blog on pastemagazine.com, a music and culture website.
In his younger years, he lived in numerous places, including New York City and Mendocino, Calif. In 1976, he settled in Sonoma County, where he served with the Glen Ellen Volunteer Fire Department for 10 years.
Besides his wife and their son, Alexander, Williams is survived by his father, Robert Williams, as well as his children from his first marriage to Sachiko Kenanobu, Kenta Williams and Taiyo Williams, and children from his second marriage to Donna Grace Noyes, Isabelle Sage Ansell and Eric Ansell.