Pioneer of rock criticism remembered

Pioneer of rock criticism remembered
Cindy Lee Berryhill and Paul Williams in 1993. Following his death a month and a half ago, friends and family have honored Williams, the father of rock criticism. Courtesy photo

ENCINITAS — Cindy Lee Berryhill, the widow of Paul Williams, was drawn to him from the start. Considering their backgrounds, it’s no wonder they connected. 

Williams, who passed away a month and-a-half ago, is considered the father of rock journalism. And Berryhill is a singer-songwriter who has released six albums and performed with the likes of alternative artist Billy Bragg and others.

“He was Wikipedia for rock music before there was Wikipedia,” said Berryhill. “I loved listening to him talk about bands.”

Williams died at the age of 64, caused by complications related to early onset dementia that he started suffering from as a result of a 1995 bicycle accident.

While Berryhill enjoyed drawing upon William’s encyclopedic knowledge of rock, she most remembers the life lessons he passed on. She recalled, for instance, how he was working on a book when the publisher backed out not long before it was due to go to print. He continued writing it without thinking twice.

“If we wait for someone’s approval, you’re not going to finish that song; you might not finish that book — you got to write it,” he told her. “I took that to heart.”

Williams embodied this spirit from a young age.

As a 17-year-old college student in 1966, he turned rock journalism on its head when he formed and published Crawdaddy magazine. Rock music was relegated to fashion or trade magazines before he arrived on the scene. Arguable, for the first time, rock was described in intelligent terms; the art form’s growing influence on popular culture documented.

This new approach to rock criticism paved the way for publications like Rolling Stone and Creem magazine.

Bob Dylan and Paul Simon were among the musicians who phoned Williams to let him know how much they appreciated his smart, passionate writings.

“Musicians loved reading his work because he helps you understand your songs in a way you maybe didn’t before,” Berryhill said.

His growing reputation as an authority on rock gave him access to musicians on the cutting edge. For example, he hung out with Brian Wilson in a tent in Wilson’s living room in 1967. Wilson played Williams “Smile,” making Williams one of the few to hear the legendary album before it was shelved for nearly five decades.

More than a scribe, he directly shaped history. In 1968, he was the campaign manager for Timothy Leary’s failed run for governor of California. He also clapped and sang with John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their “bed-in for peace.” In fact, his voice can be heard in the original recording of Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.”

In the 1970s, Williams’ writings shifted to philosophy and science fiction; indeed, he’s credited with helping to popularize writer Philip K. Dick. But in the early 1990s, he pivoted back toward rock music, penning “Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles.”

Williams met Berryhill in 1992. Her shows, among other factors, reinvigorated his passion for music.

“He reconnected with the scene,” Berryhill said. “He loved a lot of the music going on at that time like the whole Nirvana thing.”

Inspired, he revived Crawdaddy in 1993, which he continued until 2002.

His life, however, suffered a major setback in 1995. He was riding his bike down a hill in Encinitas when he hit a crack in the road, skidded out and fell off his bike. Because he wasn’t wearing a helmet, he suffered severe head injuries.

Williams recovered several months later, but his mental condition began deteriorating around 2000. For the last five years of his life, he suffered from acute Alzheimer’s and dementia. About four years ago, he was placed in a nursing home.

To ease the growing medical bills, several benefit concerts were held over the years in Williams’ honor. Most recently, two weeks ago, bands played for six hours during “PaulStock” in Ocean Beach.

Jon Kanis, a musician and journalist, was among those who took to the stage to pay tribute to his friend.

“He was hyper-aware of music — that’s the best way I can explain it,” Kanis said. In addition to performing, Kanis also penned an article about Williams for San Diego Troubadour magazine after Williams passed away.

“It was so interesting hearing him talk about albums like ‘Bringing it All Back Home,’” Kanis said, referring to Bob Dylan’s 1965 recording.

Like Berryhill, Kanis said Williams shared more than music with him. Kanis recalled sitting on a couch with Williams more than 20 years ago and having his worldview “upended.”

“I learned a lot of Zen concepts from him,” Kanis said. “My life was different after that.”

If rock music was his first love, philosophy was second in Williams’ book. For example, he wrote “Das Energi,” his most famous spiritual work, during the early 1970s while living on an experimental commune.

Bart Mendoza, another musician who played at the benefit, said Williams’ “place in music history is secure.”

“It’s important he also be remembered as a great guy,” Mendoza said.

Echoing others, Mendoza said it was difficult seeing mental disease take a toll on Williams. Berryhill documented the spiral in her 2007 album “Beloved Stranger,” as well as with her blog of the same name.

“Needless to say, it was a hard time,” Berryhill said. Finding a nursing home for Williams was “so absolutely draining.”

Since Williams’ passing, she said hearing some songs trigger overwhelming emotions.

“I’ll think I’m OK, but I’ll hear something, then find myself just crying,” Berryhill said.

But Berryhill said she’s not trying to dwell on the negative. For her next album, she said the songs will celebrate Williams’ entire life, rather than just focus on the past few years.

“I didn’t want to write a bunch of bummed out songs,” Berryhill said. “He inspired so much in me. I want to honor that feeling, where there’s a muse.

“They’re songs about love and attraction,” Berryhill added.

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