Like a Rolling Stone

Alt-X's Interview with the rock historian Paul Williams

By Thomas R. Irmer, Alt-X German Correspondent

Paul Williams belongs to the first generation of American critics who accompanied the revolution of rock in the Sixties. Williams, now in his mid-forties, introduced methods of art history for the writing of blues and rock history. In 1966, even before the popular Rolling Stone was established, the 18-year-old Williams published and edited Crawdaddy!, a magazine whose essays were Critical Theory for the emerging rock culture. The author of twenty books (starting with Outlaw Blues, 1968), he has worked for many years on a comprehensive analysis of Bob Dylan's artistic development that has resulted in a huge project called Bob Dylan. This first book in to have come out of this major work-in-progress deals with Dylan as Performance Artist and covers the years 1960 to 1973. Williams chose to describe Dylan's work as performance art so as to play down the too often romanticized notion of "the protest singer as superstar." Williams, in turn, pleads for a critical method that includes writing, singing and performing as the cornerstones of a great body of work - just like Picasso's life has been presented as the organic development of an artist devloping through different stages of production. The second book deals with The Middle Years. Meanwhile Paul Williams reestablished Crawdaddy! as a voice of alternative criticism without advertising or glossy photographs. We met the man, who never speaks with representatives of the music business.

Alt-X: Your book about Dylan is not quite a biography. Childhood and youth are summarized on ten short pages, and even there the point is Dylan's first "performances."

PW: It is an analyses of his art and a biography through the work. My intention was the story of the artistic development as it is reflected in the work. Therefore it is about the music, the lyrics and the concerts in the first place. The book starts with the first recordings that we have from 1960.

Alt-X: In the first volume you describe and explain the years 1960-1973, the period that is known as the cultural Sixties.

PW: Dylan is often talked about in connection with the Sixties culture. But for me it is just his first decade as a public artist. It is obviously the time when he made his biggest impact on the world, no question about it. The second volume, The Middle Years, deals with the period from 1974 to 1986, when Dylan was in a completely different situation. And the third one will cover the rest up to the present. Back then things were in the air that weren't communicated until Dylan became a kind of vehicle to express them. It was an explosion of activities similar to the situation when the Beats came up in the 1950s. And Dylan was still very much influenced by the Beats.

Alt-X: You prefer the term artist or performing artist over singer / songwriter or musician. Why?

PW: Yes, specifically the term performing artist. A performer, like an actor or a dancer, is making it right at the moment, without working over it. That holds true for Dylan the performer even in the recording studio.

Alt-X: The image of the protest singer that most people associate with the Dylan of the Sixties has been changed in your book.

PW: This is a very short period and there are just a few "protest songs" in the actual meaning of the word. Dylan once joked that all of his songs were protest songs by which he means that love songs can be protest songs and Christian songs can be protest songs. He is changing the meaning of the word. He is a very political singer but his politics is individuality, the power of the individual. Very much in the tradition of Thoreau and Emerson. On the other hand, he expresses his compassion for the underdog. His idea of political action is more for the individual to see the truth and stay with it rather than any kind of program.

Alt-X: Yet in the second volume we see a change of direction.

PW: Yes, after his motorcycle accident Dylan hadn't performed for six and a half years. He came out in 1974 and has been touring ever since almost constantly. There was "Blood on the Tracks" and Dylan very deliberately rejected the role as "King of the Hippies." That is the second period of Dylan when he came back even stronger - but not as popular. He made a whole new statement as to what he wanted to say as an artist.

Alt-X: At the same time he seemed to have retreated from the public.

PW: Dylan then was a very famous person, much more famous than his music was popular. He had to secure his freedom as an artist when everybody wants something from him. He had to shut the world out in order to go on. That is the problem of the difference between image and artistic work.

Alt-X: Was it hard for you to get in touch with him? Did you conduct interviews for your books?

PW: We had a number of meetings that certainly contributed to my books. But all this was outside the specific interview situation. I did not interview him for writing the books. Again, the perspective is on the work as I see it with all its contexts and potential interpretations.

Alt-X: You belong to the newfound genre of serious rock criticism, along with Greil Marcus and a few others who established this kind of writing.

PW: There isn't very much of it even now. Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs are fascinating writers. There is not much of exciting writing because the power of the music business is so great. You have to be independent from the music business system when you want to write about the art.

Alt-X: The new launch of Crawdaddy! seems to have the same sensibility and distribution modes of alternative magazines like this we are conducting the interview for. Do you share the "vision" of the zine-scene?

PW: I wish there was more. Personally, I put out a magazine that doesn't do any advertising and I don't communicate with the record companies and I don't rely on selling magazines that have celebrities on the cover. Only because I want to have the freedom to write about what I feel and think. When I started Crawdaddy! in 1966 it was the same reason. I didn't realize it at first, that it is now the same situation, but it's true.

Alt-X: What is your method of writing rock history?

PW: First of all, it is about the impact it has on the listener - on me. If I think, one album is particularly great, I write an essay on what I feel, on what I think makes it a great work.

Alt-X: That's a very subjective approach...

PW: Yes, I personally have a strong argument that art history is subjective. In my field we may add that performing arts are underrated.

Alt-X: For the first generation of living rock artists like Dylan, Neil Young, the Stones...

PW: The Stones died long ago!

Alt-X: ... the biological clock is ticking. How will their demise, and this will be decisive for the historians, change the perspective on rock history?

PW: I don't think the influential figures are important anyway today. There are a few older artists who are still extremely creative. Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young. Many others simply recycle their own legend. But there is a fantastic amount of new music around.

Alt-X: Is this completely new in your opinion?

PW: Yes, it is. There is so much going on. I don't think, for instance, Pavement is a great band yet. So many bands are still exploring their ways. There is an extremely creative area right now. There is more good music coming out than anybody can listen to. But the danger, of course, is that people think there is a model, let's do it the same way it happened in the Sixties.

Alt-X: How do you handle the situation that there is more music than you can be aware of?

PW: You make personal choices. You don't try to be the expert on everything. Most rock writers are looking on their crew and want to know what's going on. People love their music anyway but that's not the issue for the rock writer.

Alt-X: Are you interested in rock music as a social act in specific contexts?

PW: Yes, of course. People discover their music and that allows them to find a truth for themselves. Clearly, this reflects what is going on in the society. If you feel connected with it, you are talking your feelings and not so much what the mainstream culture is saying to you. That strengthens your own feelings and creates a sense of community around which you hadn't before. But there is a very big difference between passion and fashion. You can have your desire of freedom but at the time it is part of the package, commercially, and it is no freedom at all. For the artists it is a cosmic challenge to not become part of fashion and business. It is almost a truism now that the music business turns young people's feelings into advertisements and merchandizing. The two contradictory tendencies - that every new movement is eaten up faster and faster by the industry and that some people show new impossibilities and new truths against it - mark our time.

Alt-X: This new qualitiy of interdependencies between alternative scenes and big business seems to be the new characteristics of the 1990s.

PW: Absolutely true. And that's the only opportunity I have as a challenge: to write about what I feel. Maybe a few people read it and find it encouraging. Too much is programmed by fashion.

Crawdaddy!, ed. Paul Williams, Box 231155, Encinitas CA 92023. phone / FAX(619) 753-1815.