Who the first rock critic was is a matter for debate; legend has it that the San Francisco Chronicle’s jazz writer, Ralph Gleason, was the first daily journalist to take the music on its own terms, just as the Dead and the Airplane were coming to prominence. In New York City, Richard Goldstein was writing serious commentary on the music for the Voice and the New York Times around then as well. And at about the same time, a 16-year-old Boston kid named Paul Williams was writing down his thoughts on the music explosion. He xeroxed them, stapled the result together, and called the thing Crawdaddy!

The next few years were heady: For decades, Brian Wilson’s lost Smile album was a Holy Grail for critics; Williams sang backup on it. As Timothy Leary’s campaign manager for his rather fanciful run at the California governorship, Williams participated in John and Yoko’s bed-ins and made an appearance in the accompanying “Give Peace a Chance” video. The rock world was much smaller then: He remembers being at Warner Brothers and talking to superproducer Richard Perry. Perry said he’d been recording a new group with one standout, if diminutive, member. His name, the producer said, was Paul Williams: “But don’t worry, we’ll change it.” The writer said not to bother.

He was sent to Woodstock by Playboy, crashed in Jerry Garcia’s hotel room, and made his way to the concert site with the Johnny Appleseed of LSD, Oswald Stanley. Beforehand he’d even been asked to contribute to the festival’s program, now a rare bit of rock paraphernalia indeed. Williams, stopping in Chicago recently for a show by Cindy Lee Berryhill, with whom he now lives near San Diego, says he hadn’t seen the thing in decades until a friend recently gave him a copy. What was his piece about? Williams pauses, his mind coursing back to a much earlier time. “Celebration,” he says finally.

He tired of Crawdaddy! after a few years and walked away from it at the cynical old age of 20. He collected his music writing in one book, Outlaw Blues, and worked on others. One of these was a volume of reflection commissioned by Elektra Records. Williams wrote it on an island commune in western Canada. The resulting Das Energi is still available after 25 printings, having sold about 350,000 copies. “In the 70s it was part of the whole self-help thing,” he says. “In the 80s it moved over to the new-age section. I never had anything to do with it.” Williams settled in Sonoma County in northern California and stayed with his various interests: among other projects, he tracked with a scholarly eye the progress of Dylan’s career and oversaw the literary estate of Berkeley science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. In the mid-80s, however, his ears pricked up. The investigation that followed produced an interesting book called The Map, in which he looked into bands like Husker Du and the Violent Femmes and found something happening again. This reawakening has informed most of his work since, most notably the typically wide-eyed and open-minded 100 Best Singles of All Time.

Last year, after a hiatus of nearly a quarter century, he started publishing Crawdaddy! again. It’s different now, but the same: a xerox-and-staples quarterly affair mostly filled with one extravagantly long Williams essay on a group of current albums. The new issue covers the Counting Crows, Tim Hardin, Joe Henry, Liz Phair, Uncle Tupelo, Pavement, and Berryhill. Those brought up on the fanzine morass of Spin or the unintelligibility of the Voice will find the patina of what an unsympathetic person would call 60s overoptimism. But what comes through is intelligence, honesty, and sincerity; absent is anything flip or glib. “I try not to cop an attitude,” Williams says, and shrugs. “I did when I was young, but I was arrogant and stupid.”

Writing like this still has its adherents: Williams sells about 1,000 copies of each issue. It comes out four times a year; you can get one for $4, four for $16, or eight for $20 by sending a check to Crawdaddy!, PO Box 23115, Encinitas, California 92023.

“What’s of concern to me is what happens when we listen, why we put this stuff on a pedestal,” he says. Such concerns transcend time, place, or style. “If anything, I can say that I was around in the 60s: I saw Janis play, I saw Jim Morrison play, in their heyday. Yet I absolutely totally disagree with anyone who thinks that some past time is better than what’s going on today. I always find myself saying, ‘Hey, it’s happening right now.'”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.