I just watched a documentary, “Paul Williams – Still Alive” (directed by Steven Kessler) on Paul Williams, a great songwriter who was catapulted into fame in the seventies, who has been 20 years sober at the time of the documentary’s filming, and who now lives a more thoughtful life but still does some touring and concertizing.
I remember Paul Williams from my younger days—mostly as a celebrity who turned up on just about any talk show or variety special you can name from that era—but I was also aware of some of his songwriting credits—his songs that were made hits by The Carpenters made me respect him as an artist, but his media-presence showed less of his musical genius and more of his desperation for attention and acceptance—and that was a big turn-off for me. (That is probably because he was doing the same sort of showboating that my own insecurity and introversion would bring out, had it been me who was famous.)
But there was (there always is) a lot of the ‘big picture’ I was unaware of. For instance, he wrote hits for Streisand (“Evergreen”), Kermit the Frog (“The Rainbow Connection”), Three Dog Night (“An Old Fashioned Love Song”), The Monkees (“Someday Man”)—well, just look him up on IMDb—he is a major thread interwoven into the Movie, TV, and Music industries of his ‘heyday’—and he won multiple Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes, and other awards including the Music Hall Of Fame. Look him up on their site—the list of song credits is four pages long! He is presently the President of ASCAP which, along with his touring and his family, keep him busy and happy.
But all that stuff is what I learned from Steven Kessler’s quirky documentary—what I want to talk about is what was running through my own mind while I watched it. Anything related to the Carpenters always brings to mind the tragic helplessness of Karen Carpenter trying to please the whole world and dying from it. It also reminds me of those so-relatable, heartbreaking Carpenters hits that spoke to me with, it seemed, my own voice—the voice of a lonely, yearning teenager who would have (had I been in a position to) willingly sacrificed myself in the same way, just for some intimacy or attention.
Paul Williams’ songs always had a bitter flavoring, sprinkled on top of the simplest melodies—a plurality that I always associate with that time in my life, and in entertainment history. He was too soft to be akin to the Stones or Dylan or the Who—but he was exploring the emotions the rest of us (the uncool, the unpopular) were feeling when we compared ourselves to Mick Jagger—or even to the most popular jock or cheerleader in our own schools.
There was other stuff too—iterations of the same pattern—such as being condescended to by peers who ‘knew’ what ‘real’ music was. The truth, that I was much more familiar with music in general, including Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Nationalist, Ragtime, and with the popular music of that entire first half of the twentieth century, pre-Elvis, pre-Beatles, was practically meaningless, since the ‘serious’ music officiandos and taste-arbiters of my school days discounted all of that as merely the dross that lead to the ‘real’ music of our day.
But I don’t have to dissect the teenage psyche—it was bad enough without going over it again, don’t you think? The truth is that taking a serious attitude towards anything is a mistake while in the adolescent milieu. And that was me—too serious, too oblivious, too insecure, and a teacher’s pet (the fate of all who do too well in class).
And now, forty-some years later, I finally realize that my musical influences were not The Beatles, The Monkees, Three Dog Night, etc. Those were performers—no, my real influences were the songwriters—Bob Dylan, Carol King, Neil Sedaka, Paul Williams, Randy Newman, Lennon & McCartney, etc. Each music group had its own special timbre, but the music they played was very often written by someone else.
We once looked at these legendary rock bands as idealists, champions of truth and justice—or, conversely, as turncoats who had ‘sold out’ or ‘knuckled under’ to The Man. We were too young to see them simply as professional musicians and performers—we completely overlooked the fact that all these groups had contracts with major labels, managers and agents that molded their repertoire, and far more personal demons and foibles than personal crusades.
We were fundamentalists of rock n’roll, really—we ignored all the factual details and bestowed upon our rock gods a great power and knowledge that only existed in our dreams. And every advance that ‘Music’ made back then rendered the previous gods and goddesses suddenly immaterial—there were times when Dylan was too ‘old’, the Beatles were too ‘banal’. And many were the stars who shone only briefly, until the cool kids came to a consensus about their authenticity as ‘hard’ rockers, or their lack of same. Some of the artists who failed this test were among my favorites—Beach Boys, Abba, Cat Stevens, the Association, Herman’s Hermits, Peter Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Donovan—the list is endless.
And I’ve had the cold comfort, over the years, to see many of my favorites enjoy a comeback, or a re-assessment, that in some way validated my early, uncool opinions. Some of the old groups and artists have even surfaced here and there as cult figures—Abba, Barry Manilow, the Monkees, Neil Diamond—and I, for one, am gratified that the quick dismissal of we teenagers of the 1960s-1970s was not the final word on the quality of their music—and that many, many other people still feel as strongly as I do about that early music.
Musical seriousness is something I’ve always avoided. Judgmental attitudes about the aural arts have their place, when speaking of professional musicians. They work hard enough at their field and their lives are made or unmade by their artistic choices—they have every right. But as audience members, people who take their music seriously enough to question someone else’s tastes are just being disagreeable on purpose—or so I see it, anyway. Think of the YouTube videos that show toddlers in car seats, bopping their entire bodies along with heavy metal or rap songs—how they cry when it’s turned down, and how they’re right back to bopping when the volume is restored.
To me, that is the essence of music appreciation—love whatever you love and don’t waste time disrespecting someone else’s choices. Today’s ear-buds free us from even having to share our musical tastes to hang out together. And music, good or bad, is not improved by arguing over it. In the end, I’ve come to only one problem—I love so much music, and it can only be listened to one track at a time—I’m spoiled for choice, as they say.