Paul Williams

I just watched Still Alive, a documentary about songwriter Paul Williams. Before I get into that, a story.

Last year at Canadian Music Week, Paul Williams participated in the conference by interviewing producer and musician extraordinaire, Nile Rogers. I brought my copy of Someday Man, the recently rediscovered Paul Williams solo LP. It was recorded and released before he started to have hits writing for the Carpenters and Three Dog Night, Barbara Streisand etc. The discussion between Williams and Rogers was engaging and Paul seemed like a really nice guy but after the panel, I folded and didn’t go try to meet him and get my CD signed. Too many people would be clamoring for his attention, I thought, and I wasn’t in the mood for disappointment.

Later, I saw photos all over Facebook of him and every Tom, Dick and Harry from the conference. Felt like a moron.

A word about Someday Man. It was released on Reprise Records in 1970, it stiffed and was deleted shortly there after. A disappointment, I’m sure for Paul and his songwriting collaborator Roger Nicholls who were getting cuts here and there, but mostly B-sides and album tracks. Not long after this, they would write We’ve Only Just Begun for the Carpenters and Out In The Country by Three Dog Night, (Out In the Country is so awesome, it needs its own blog post). The rest is history and started Paul on the road to being one of the biggest stars in America. Someday Man is jammed with sunny pop gems, some of the best songwriting I’ve ever heard. And I should say that, although it is a Paul Williams record, credit should also go to co-writer and producer Nicholls.

Anyway, the documentary starts out well enough, with film maker Stephen Kessler traveling to Winnipeg, one of the two places on earth where Paul’s movie, The Phantom Of The Paradise was a hit. I have a friend from there who has a full Phantom costume so I was aware of the Winnipeg idiosyncrasy. The opening sequence in Winnipeg is truly heartwarming with the fans going bonkers, or as bonkers as middle to late age fans can go, for Williams. He appears to be honestly humbled by the response and remarks that this kind of thing doesn’t really happen to him anymore.

On seeing this I feel like Paul might have been open to my slobbering fanboy attention last spring. Drat!!

The film then turns into a painful and often embarrassing battle of wills between the director and Paul, who comes off as pretty much the greatest guy in the history of celebrity. His incredible patience with Kessler is downright saintly. Instead of being a film about the artist, it becomes more about the film maker and his very clumsy attempt to become friends with Williams.

With the exception of Out In The Country, Paul’s more commercial songwriting efforts left me a bit cold and he became synonymous with the sort of low culture that dominated the 1970’s. Because in addition to being a songwriter, Paul was also an actor or more accurately, a television personality who would regularly appear on game shows, talk shows and serial television. A lot of people hate TV. Most of these people are old and remember how horrible television was in the 70’s into the 80’s. There were three networks and the idea was to not do anything too offensive that might cause a person to change the channel to one of the other networks. Cable TV changed everything and now television is pretty great. (For a deeper discussion on this, check out Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson). So my interest in Paul is not nostalgic.

Paul’s downfall, as it has been with many in show business, was drugs and alcohol. They derailed both his career and his life and he has devoted a great deal of the second act of his life to his recovery. His popularity as a performer stalled in the late ’70’s. Apart from the aforementioned Winnipeg gig and another in the Philippines, the movie reads a bit like This Is Spinal Tap, with him wandering around backstage alone looking for an exit and doing insignificant interviews.

This brings me to the point. Paul seems largely unconcerned with all of that. Our culture eats and spits out musicians, artists, athletes and supernovas of all kinds. People get to be famous/successful for a short period of time and then they are put out to pasture. Kind of devastating for people who worked their whole life for a goal that, once achieved, leaves them standing alone somewhere wondering why it had to end. With athletes, it’s usually because their bodies let them down, which is natural enough and somewhat easier to rationalize. In show business it’s, who knows why?

Watching this film, Paul seems completely content in his life. He lives in a modest house with his wife. He plays the odd gig in Vegas and elsewhere without a lot of expectation. When the film maker shows him some clips from his past TV appearances, he seems revolted, like he doesn’t even know the person he once was. One gets the feeling that he has zero interest in being back in the game in a serious way again. He must still make enough money in royalties to live a comfortable life. And he gets the call every now and then to do an appearance at something like Canadian Music Week, a call that must be a message to him that he is still thought of as a star.

So it doesn’t have to end badly. I think that sometimes when you are not part of the current culture, people can see the real value in what you do. One’s prejudices about what they are SUPPOSED to like become irrelevant. That’s why I think Someday Man is being discovered again. Now that Paul Williams isn’t a clown that you see on Hollywood Squares it’s easier to appreciate his work. This is my favorite track off of it.


3 Responses to “Paul Williams”

  • Warning: Undefined variable $oddcomment in /home/laurab/public_html/ on line 22
    id="comment-204163" >
    Lee Rosevere Says:

    I agree with your assessment on the film – there was always something about Williams that I didn’t like, and after watching the doc, I attribute it to his addictions. And it was totally about the film-maker, not Paul…which is #1 do-not-do- rule in doc making usually. But Paul turned it into his favour.

    I would also recommend getting any of the Roger Nichols and the Small Circle of Friends albums – he covers alot of the material he wrote with Paul, and has a fantastically pure voice. You probably already have it if you own Someday Man, but thought I’d mention it anyway!

  • Warning: Undefined variable $oddcomment in /home/laurab/public_html/ on line 22
    id="comment-205171" >
    Chris Says:

    Hey Moe – I would like to contact you to discuss something and this seems to be the site which is most recent. Could you send me the best way to get in touch? Thanks

  • Warning: Undefined variable $oddcomment in /home/laurab/public_html/ on line 22
    id="comment-208135" >
    Rick Wharton Says:

    Great read. The Monkees recorded (Davy Jones vocal) Someday Man, 1968-69 and it was his first songwriter major credit. Stellar tune. Should have done better on the charts.

Leave a Reply

Warning: Undefined variable $user_ID in /home/laurab/public_html/ on line 120