"I'm not actually holding the lyrics. It's just that they practically shot it over my shoulder."
This is how noted author and San Diego resident Paul Williams modestly describes his participation in the 1969 filming of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance." In the video, it appears as though Williams is holding up a cue card containing the song lyrics.
"You can see my head bobbing to the music the whole time," he laughs, "and at times you can see my face."
Williams wasn't there simply as a fan, though that was part of it. He was there as a respected writer on the subject of music. Not of mechanics, statistics, gossip or glamour, but about music itself, and its relationship to the listener.
Interviewed in the apartment he shares on the Encinitas coastline with his wife, singer-songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill, and their 1-year-old son, Alexander, Williams' enthusiasm for music is more than a little contagious. The gray-haired, bespectacled man has a way with a story. More importantly, he's got more than a few great ones to tell.
His official role in history: rock journalism pioneer.
In 1966 Williams started Crawdaddy magazine to help spread the word about the music that he loved. At the time there was little music coverage in either national or international media, few record stores and no magazines devoted to rock 'n' roll.
Crawdaddy changed all that.
Crawdaddy was the prototype, the groundbreaker, the champagne bottle over the bow of a ramshackle, literary vessel known as rock journalism.
Williams' little magazine paved the way for Rolling Stone, Creem, SPIN and all the D.I.Y. fanzines from here to Japan. It is the reason that CityBeat has a section called SLAMM. The impact that Crawdaddy had on the mid-'60s music scene was incalculable, but let's frame it this way: it's both the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question and an extended gag during a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode.
Born in 1948, Williams started a science fiction fanzine at the age of 14. It was that second D.I.Y. publishing venture in 1966, however, that made the most impact.
The first issues of Crawdaddy were simple, Xeroxed affairs dropped off at a few newsstands out of the back of a station wagon. He printed 500 copies of the inaugural issue. Nineteen issues later, he needed a bigger wagon, distributing 25,000 copies.
Along with his own writings, Williams gave an early voice to a number of noted rock writers. Producer Sandy Pearlman (Blue Oyster Cult, The Clash), Jon Landau and the infamous Richard Meltzer were among the scribes getting their first bits of print. A woman named Linda Eastman was the staff photographer; she'd later marry to become Linda McCartney.
While Williams doesn't give much thought to his own place in rock 'n' roll history, it's clear that he was in the right place at the right time more than once. It's a pretty safe bet, for example, that he's the only San Diegan to have contributed to recordings by three Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductees.
"I'm very proud of my cameos," he laughs, then, speaking specifically of the Lennon incident:
"It was the end of April, 1969. Timothy Leary and his wife and I were traveling around the country and we heard that John and Yoko were coming to Canada to do another "bed-in' for peace, like they'd done in Europe. So Tim tried to scam a way to get us to Montreal...
"He convinced the editor of Playboy to give us plane fare on the basis that I would conduct an interview of John Lennon with Timothy Leary together. Which I did, but Playboy didn't publish it, unfortunately," he says, sadly mentioning that he no longer has a copy of the article, nor the tape or transcription of the interview.
Yes, Paul Williams has lost better interviews than most rock journalists will ever get to conduct. Of course, Williams ended up doing more than just tape a conversation.
"John had just written "Give Peace a Chance' and had the idea of recording this song while he was at the hotel in Montreal. It's a No. 1 record, but it's credited to The Plastic Ono Band, and the members that day included John and Yoko, me, Timothy and Rosemary Leary and Tommy Smothers."
Williams was also there for the taping of the Doors' classic, "The Unknown Soldier."
"I was at the studio that day, so me and couple of other people are cocking rifles and stomping on a board for the sound affects. It's not like you can really hear me, but I'm there," Williams explains.
He also spent time with Brian Wilson during The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds era, mentioning that legendary music publicist Derek Taylor helped hook the two up in late December, 1966.
"I came in to L.A. and somebody picked me up and took me out to Brian's mansion-this was the time of the tent and sand in the living room. I tried to interview Brian-well, I did interview him, but we were smoking dope in the tent in the living room, and he was incoherent. There was, like, nothing usable from this interview.
"Ah, well," he says with a smile. "I tried."
While little real work got done that day, the two hit it off. Wilson invited Williams to a Beach Boys' session that night and the rock writer ended up in front of a microphone. Since Wilson recorded in piecemeal fashion (and possibly because his head was a little foggy from the reefer), Williams isn't exactly sure what track he's on.
"A good guess is that almost everything was for "Heroes and Villains,' a million pieces put together," he says, noting that all The Beach Boys were involved in the recording. "They'd just come back from their triumph in England, and I go to hang out a little bit. In the studio it was one of those Smile Brian Wilson moments, when he had everyone in the studio, including me, get down on the floor and make certain sounds-certain things like brass-trying to get that for the track."
In 1969, Williams left Crawdaddy and attempted to get back to nature, living in Mendocino for a spell. That same year he released his first book, Outlaw Blues, which was basically a collection of essays lifted from the annals of Crawdaddy. Williams also returned to his roots, assembling a collection of rare material, news and interviews about science fiction guru Phillip K. Dick. He also edited The Complete Short Stories of Theodore Sturgeon (another science fiction author), a series that's now on its eighth volume. Williams would soon become a popular lecturer worldwide, with 26 books to his credit and more on the way.
He arrived in San Diego circa 1994 following his muse and love, Cindy Lee Berryhill. Naturally, he also became a fixture at local shows, continuing to work on his books and beginning a new series of Crawdaddy. Currently, he is working at Carlsbad's Museum of Making Music, helping to spread the word about the place and documenting their collection of music memorabilia for a book/catalogue.
Last month, after 28 more issues, Williams put Crawdaddy to rest once again in order to devote more time to his family and his writing. To say a chapter in rock 'n' roll history has closed would be premature; as long as Williams lives, Crawdaddy may open its pages yet again to share the words of old writer friends and aspiring rock scribes alike.
Near the end of our interview, Cindy Lee walks into the living room with Alexander; it's time for his music lessons. We politely wrap up our conversation and I ask Williams the big-bang question: With his 40-plus years of experience as one of its main commentators, had rock 'n' roll turned out the way he thought it would?
He gazes out the window for a moment, then replies, "In some ways, no, of course not. Just like everybody else, I had fantasies, some of which came true outrageously. But others were not realized.
"One thing that I did expect and believe was that the really great music would endure-that people, young people, would be discovering it and getting excited about it in 25 years or 30 years or so forth. And that has definitely been true.
"Pop music at the time was written off by the establishment. If in fact it's still possible to listen to the music years from now-either the records or the live tapes-then I have no doubt that the body of work will survive.
He pauses, laughing at the hopeful, yet tragic conclusion he finds himself coming to."Like classical music has," he says.