In Memory of Paul Williams

Paul Williams died yesterday, aged 64.  I don’t expect this means anything to most people who visit this blog, but you should honour his memory for various reasons.

paul williams

In the wider realm of popular culture, you should honour him as the founding father of rock journalism.  The magazine he founded as a 17-year-old college student in 1966, Crawdaddy!, was the first publication to focus on serious writing about the then-new music.  It launched the career of writers such as Jon Landau (who went on to become Bruce Springsteen’s manager), Sandy Pearlman, and Richard Meltzer.  It was the inspiration for subsequent magazines, notably Rolling Stone.  Paul wrote many books about music, and particularly about Bob Dylan.

As an sf reader, which I assume you probably are, you should honour him as one of the two principal figures who kept the name of Philip K. Dick alive in the decades following his death.  Paul was a close friend of Dick’s, and his 1975 Rolling Stone article “The True Stories of Philip K. Dick” was the most significant piece of writing about him published during his lifetime.  (It later formed the basis of a book, Only Apparently Real, which was in turn the first book about Dick.)  When Dick died in 1982, Paul was named his Literary Executor, and he worked tirelessly in conjunction with Dick’s long-time literary agent Russ Galen (the other hero of this story) to keep his name alive.  Paul founded and ran the Philip K. Dick Society, which attracted hundreds of members in scores of countries.  The small publishing company he ran together with David Hartwell published Dick’s novel Confessions of a Crap Artist – the first time any of Dick’s non-sf novels from the 1950s saw the light of day.

Dick’s reputation is now so secure that it’s hard to remember that it wasn’t always so, particularly – perhaps – in the USA.  (He was generally better served by publishers in France and the UK.)  It was Paul’s and Russ’s work which transformed the situation.  When you read one of the many Gollancz editions of Philip K. Dick it is worth remembering that they are there in part because of their efforts.

He was equally enthusiastic about the work of Theodore Sturgeon, and edited the twelve-volume edition of Sturgeon’s short stories which will be appearing as SF Gateway eBooks during 2013 and 2014.

Tragically, all this work came to a halt after 1995, the year he suffered a traumatic brain injury aged just 47 in a bicycle accident.  The injury led to early-onset Alzheimer’s, and his last few years passed in a sad twilight.  He was a tremendous enthusiast, pursuing his passions with energy and determination, and that’s how he should be remembered.

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  • I never met Paul, but I read every issue he ever did of Crawdaddy in the 60s, and without realizing it at the time, the experience changed my ultimate career choice and the rest of my life. Rest well, pal.

  • Michael Bradley

    How very, very sad. Paul was one of the great inspirations of my mid-teen years in West Virginia. His collection “Outlaw Blues,” especially its spot-on appreciation of Jefferson Airplane’s third album, “After Bathing at Baxter’s,” opened my eyes to something outlet that allowed me to combine my creative writing with my intense love for the music of that era. And then there was a little suggestion at the back of the book along the lines of, hey, if you like this stuff, you may like a nascent publication called “Rolling Stone.”

    Lord, I’d hate to imagine how miserable I’d be today if I’d never encountered Paul Williams.

    His body may be lifeless, but his spirit is still very much with me.

    • James Proffitt

      I don’t leave comments as a rule but I have to say how much his writing meant to me over the years. I’m a half-generation behind him but grew up with Crawdaddy in the 70s.
      However, it was 1993 when the Dylan bug bit me bad. I’ve never read commentary that had the power of immediacy like Paul Williams could express. The best Dylan performances have this end-of-times, in the moment, creative destruction quality. Mr. Williams could feel and describe those one-off experiences beautifully. I don’t know if it’s possible or desirable to revisit such places but thanks just the same.

  • I met Paul in 1983 after volunteering to help with the PKDS newsletter, and he remained a good friend. It’s so good to see a story that recognizes his contributions to both rock music and sf.

    At the 1990 sf convention Sercon in San Francisco, Paul introduced me and my buddy Bob Colby to another PKDS volunteer, a young writer who had published just a handful of stories. Paul assured us that he would become a major literary figure. He was Jonathan Lethem. (Paul was gifted not only with unerring taste, but the ability to communicate his enthusiasm to others in a way that made you *get it.*) Bob and I ended up donating all the profits of the 2010 edition of the sf con Bob founded (with my help), Readercon, to Paul’s medical expenses. We’re the only sf con to have ever been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and I think it’s fair to say that it may have never happened that way were it not for Paul’s influence on me (and for the ongoing support of Paul’s good friend and PKD’s editor, David G. Hartwell).

    Oh, and I think that _The Map: Rediscovering Rock ‘n’ Roll — A Journey_ is the best book of rock ‘criticism ever written. (Yes, it’s hard to do justice to a life this interesting and influential without rambling!)

    • Eric M. Van

      Forgot to mention, I love fucking tweens.

  • Susan Mitchell Scott

    I met Paul in 1969-1970 when my brother, Don Mitchell, and I helped to collate one of the early issues of Crawdaddy during the one year that Paul was at Swarthmore. We spread it out on the carpeted floor of one of the fancier lounge areas open to students. I happened to be visiting my brother for the weekend, who was also studying at Swarthmore and was a friend of Paul. I still have a copy of that particular issue, saved all those years, perhaps cause I sensed it was something groundbreaking.