Thought this was worthy of its own review ahead of the monthly book report (which is running a little late). Thanks to Neal Umphred for reminding me of its existence and encouraging me to finally track it down. You might also read it as my R.I.P. for Paul Williams and a mea culpa, since I missed the news of his passing a couple of years back and certainly would have noted it here had I known:
Outlaw Blues (Paul Williams, 1970)
If rock criticism had a “father” Paul Williams was it. There were a lot of young men (not, so far as I can tell, many young women or many of either gender who were other than young) trying to write about the effect rock and roll was having on them and the world in the mid-sixties. But Williams was the first to actually get a national magazine off the ground (Crawdaddy) while at the same time pioneering an open-hearted writing, editing and interviewing style that, just coincidentally, would end up, after the promise of the sixties had burned off, remaining forever at odds with the continuation of Standard American Business Practice as Usual.
Outlaw Blues is a collection of early Crawdaddy pieces and catches its moment–those ever-befuddling sixties–like very little else. If Williams didn’t turn out to be quite the businessman Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner was or quite the writer Lester Bangs was, he was nonetheless more visionary than either, and the person whose work effectively broke the ground those opposing spirits spent their lives tilling.
It’s worth remembering that Williams was aging from roughly 19 to 21 when these pieces were written. Naivete is a certain part of the book’s charm. An even greater part, pretty much inextricable from that naive quality, is the sense of being there, fully present at the dawn of our current confusion, at a moment when all things, good and bad, seemed possible, a moment Williams, to a degree few did then and nobody does now, invariably expressed in terms ranging from acute:
“Perhaps the favorite indoor sport in America today is discussing, worshiping, disparaging, and above all interpreting Bob Dylan.” (that from July, 1966)
“Rock gave Jim Morrison the freedom to slip ‘learn to forget’ into the middle of a seduction song.” (April, 1967)
“Perhaps I don’t make myself clear. I only want to point out that if we found out tomorrow that Bob Dylan was a 64-year-old woman who’d changed her sex, and a proven Communist agent, we might be surprised, but the words to ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ would not change in the slightest. It would still be the same song.
“I will say, to dispel any doubts, that Mr. Dylan is not a 64-year-old woman or an agent of anything. I met him in Philadelphia last winter; he is a friendly and straightforward young man, interested in what others are saying and doing, and quite willing to talk openly about himself. He is pleased with his success; he wanted it, he’s worked for it honestly, and he’s achieved it. We talked about the critics, and he says he resents people who don’t know what’s going on and pretend they do. He named some names; it is my fervid hope that when this article is finished, and read, my name will not be added to the list.” (July, 1966)
“You know what I mean, that special feeling after the last words of a book, that goes on and on extending that book and yourself across forever into now, the sudden unexpected sense of the real, the flash of power and together, in your mind.” (on the Who’s “I Can See for Miles”–February, 1968)
or even to ecstasy, a near-religious euphoria:
“At this stage in its history, rock is bursting forth from restrictions placed on it in childhood, and I suppose we can say it is having a brilliant, though difficult, adolescence. It is discovering, in new ways every day, just what is really going on out here; and every new discovery is heralded as the final, unassailable truth. And perhaps (I hear it in the most recent music of the Kinks, the Who, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Dylan) rock is just now beginning to discover that there are no unassailable truths, there is only greater and greater awareness of the universe. And of oneself.” (February, 1968)
If Williams mostly saw the good in all that, he wasn’t exactly alone. And he had the excuse–sometimes the advantage–of his extreme youth. In that sense Outlaw Blues is both a gift to the future we now occupy, and (if you choose to read between the lines), a warning that we might not be able to do more than occupy it.
I mean, these days, if you want to write something like “there must be more going on than the obvious, stereotyped stuff, or why do I like it so much?” or even “The Beatles are unshakable, which certainly contributes no end to their position as culture heroes, though it may someday detract from their standing as artists.” you aren’t going to catch on at Rolling Stone and you aren’t even going to start a new version of Crawdaddy. These days, if you want to be that direct, wear that much of your heart on your sleeve, take that much risk of looking either prescient or foolish, about the best you can do is start a blog.
That’s in effect what Williams did in the mid to late sixties.
You might call that seeing around the corner.
In a sense, his specific concerns hardly matter. Besides the usual Dylan/Beatles/Stones trifecta, he was deep into the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors (who I like) and the Byrds and the Beach Boys (or Brian Wilson anyway) who I love. But after decades of living with them all, I found every interest (like/love/appreciation) rekindled as I was reading Williams’ long-ago, fresh takes from the front line.
I also found hindsight even more useful than usual.
I don’t know how much effort Williams or his publisher put into the book’s organization, but given his famous “essay into rediscovery” take on The Byrds’ Greatest Hits, an album that, half a generation later, affected my own life as profoundly as any album can, I’m guessing the overall effects of this book’s structure were not unintentional.
Which is another way of saying that placing his long interviews with the Doors’ producer Paul Rothchild and Beach Boys’ insider David Anderle near the end was a way of achieving maximum effect.
In one sense those pieces were the hardest to read, because Williams was giving over the space normally occupied by his unique voice to voices that were quite typical. This doesn’t lead to discord. They were all phoning from the same area code. But it does shift the emphasis from writer to interviewer and the insights from the personal to something more generational.
That said, the pieces are as vital as anything else and in some ways more enlightening. I had more trouble getting through the Morrison piece because I’m not as interested in the Doors as I am in the Beach Boys. But in both instances, I knew I was getting more insight into why Jim Morrison and Brian Wilson self-destructed in ten thousand words than in anybody else’s ten thousand pages.
Because that was part of Williams’ gift too. Getting people to talk. You get a sense of both the overwhelming charisma that the most gifted rock stars (meaning rock stars who are something more than “stars”) tend to project, and the tremendous fragility of egos being pressed to literally define the world for millions of people.
Not to mention the degree of free-floating sycophancy that was bound to attach itself and suffocate just about anyone who possessed enough life force to be in that position in the first place–an atmosphere Williams, at times, comes dangerously close to aiding and abetting.
Of course, it’s easy to judge such things from this distance. We know what happened to Jim Morrison and we know what happened to Brian Wilson.
But Williams could not have been entirely surprised. After all, in the moment itself, he saw far enough ahead to write this:
“Beware the baldersnatch, my son. Beware the confusion that comes at the top, that comes from thousands of people waiting for your new album, that comes from record companies standing in line for the right to spend money on you, that comes from fourteen-page magazine articles about how great you are. Remember that you are only you, remember that your prime concern should be doing what is most important to you, but that you have a responsibility, a very real responsibility to every person other than yourself who gets involved in the achieving of your personal goals.”
Few people who covered rock and roll for a living wrote like that then.
Nobody writes like that now.
Before and after he was anything else, Paul Williams was that good old distinctively American type: The Seeker. It isn’t only rock criticism that finds such folks in short supply these days.