Paul Williams Is STILL ALIVE And Has Only Just Begun!

Sean Smithson, Contributor

I'm a kid of the 1970's and if you grew up when I did, then you pretty much couldn't go through life without coming into contact with the work of the diminutive Paul Williams, at least a few hundred times.

I say that only in half-jest, because for awhile he seemed to be everywhere at once. If you have ever turned on a radio chances are you have heard a Paul Williams tune. The list of performers he has written for is staggering and endless. Elvis, Streisand, The Monkees, Sinatra, Bowie, Three Dog Night, and The Carpenters to name only some of them. If you turned on the TV, there he was, whether it be cracking Johnny Carson up on one of his whopping fifty Johnny Carson's Tonight Show appearances, mixing with the other sea-faring celebrity guests on The Love Boat, or popping up in Cannonball Run or Battle For The Planet Of The Apes. He even had his own 7-11 Slurpee cup, ok?


Paul Williams has done so many things it's almost impossible to define him. Factor in that I am a huge fan, and writing about the man becomes even more difficult.


Starting out as an actor, the small statured and impish Williams, then in his 20's, made his screen debut in Terry Southern's The Loved One, playing a kid of thirteen. His second film, The Chase with Arthur Penn, and starring such high caliber names as Brando, Redford, Fonda, and Duvall was not the break Williams thought it was going to be. This is the time when a gift for composing songs awoke, and the man who gave the world such pop gems as "An Old Fashioned Love Song", "We've Only Just Begun", "When The River Meets The Sea", and the Oscar winning "Evergreen" was born in a musical sense. Think about this - If Paul Williams didn't start banging out a song to deal with frustration on the set of a film that didn't quite work out for him...we wouldn't have "The Rainbow Connection". That would be a tragedy of the highest order.


His penultimate work for me personally is his contributions as both actor and composer on the single greatest rock and roll film of all time (yes I am looking at you A Hard Days Night and Spinal Tap) the amazing, vibrant, rocking, and 1000% bad ass Phantom Of The Paradise. Rife with musical styles that spanned the overview of rock music up until that point (which was an admittedly tame 1974), directed by Brian dePalma, and bathed in Mario Bava-esque baroque grandiosity, Phantom was an obsession for me as a kid, and still is to this day. Paul's turn as Swan in Phantom, and his music for the film, made him a hero to me as a kid. Of course, it turns out that even heroes in this world are human, and that even this this diminutive, endearing man was/is fallible.


Falling into a struggle with addiction that overtook his life, and eventually consumed his career, Williams hit rock bottom, and stayed there for quite awhile. Then something miraculous happened. Just as humans are fallible, they are also incredibly resilient. Somehow Williams managed to pull himself back out into the light, and, with work and commitment, beat back the demons that almost defeated him. Becoming a drug counselor himself, Williams completely overhauled and redefined his life, reinventing himself from the inside out, while helping others to break the chains of addiction along the way. He also began helping other song-writers, as a member of the board for ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), and now, it's President.


Now, along comes filmmaker Stephen Kessler, a childhood fan, and a director of a couple of feature films (Vegas Vacation, The Independent) who was also kind of reinventing himself. He approached Paul about doing a documentary, and soon the two were shooting what is now Paul Williams Still Alive.


It's an intimate, awkward, unflinching, and ultimately endearing film, and well worth taking the time to seek out. We were lucky enough here at Twitch to have a few moments with Paul Williams, when he called to speak about his career, and the film, that proves that he, Paul Williams, is indeed Still Alive.



*Phone rings


TWITCH (T) - Hello?

PAUL WILLIAMS (PW) - Hello, this is Paul Williams.

T - I have been waiting to hear those words since I was nine years old man.


PW - (laughs) Well, I'm glad to not keep you waiting any longer, that sounds like a long time. Just let me sit down here, and we'll talk!

T - I know our time is limited, so I am going to jump right into the proverbial deep end and ask, why did you initially agree to do the documentary? You seemed very stand-offish through the first half.

PW - You know, I've always said there's nothing more pathetic than an old man standing there going "Please sir, can I have another cup of fame" is just annoying. I didn't know what Steve (*director Stepehen Kessler) wanted to do. Was this going to be like a Where Are They Know type of thing, a Whatever Happened to? Type of thing, and I just had no interest in that.
You know my life was really wonderful, I was 17 years sober, had a wonderful relationship with my kids and my wife, I was writing, and was on the board of ASCAP. I wasn't the President yet, but I was on the board. My life was really nice, and I just didn't know if I wanted to go poke the bear again. What's the point, what's my relevance? I wasn't completely sure I wanted to let those genies out of the proverbial bottle again.

T - I was a recording/touring artist myself for many years, as well as dealt with addictions both my own and others. I get the genie out of the bottle thing, I really do. It's nice though to see someone like yourself not be so concerned with chasing the next Q rating. You seem to be very comfortable in your skin now.

PW - I think with this kind of TMZ mentality it is really prevalent these days. Fame can be as addicting as meth or coke. I think I went from feeling very different in this world, because I am, physically I'm much smaller and looked so much younger than I was, to feeling special. It's addicting. You get that attention. You're walking down the street after doing your first Tonight Show and everybody is saying "Hello" and there is rush to that, like "Wow this is really wonderful!" and it's all so great . I had fans, and I felt like I had friends, and all that. Then at some point I felt like I got better at showing off than showing up. My writing suffered, because  instead of staying home and being an authentic songwriter and composer, all of a sudden I'm running off to do the Gong Show or any other game show that calls. Loving the attention, loving the drugs. Then the next thing you know the addiction to the drugs has overrun the addiction to the camera, and it's the 80's and I'm fighting it out in my bedroom. You know man?

T - Sadly, yeah I do know.

PW - Financially I was in a place where I could keep doing the drugs too, so I did.

T - Which of course, is an incredibly dangerous position to be in for a drug addict. As much as you want, for as often and as long as you want. After such a long bout, and what it takes out of a person, do you think it's possible to "get back" creatively, to full power? 


PW - Oh sure you can, absolutely.

T - In the name of full disclosure, did the drugs ever fuel your creativity back then?

PW - I never wrote anything good because of the drugs, anything I wrote that was any good was done in spite of the drugs. I would get high, stay up for two days and nights, finally get a little bit of sleep, then wake up and write something that was okay. All those pages and pages of stuff I wrote when I was loaded were trash. You know the big for moment for me was when I realized that the reason my songs were successful wasn't because there was something unique about me. When I wrote honestly about what was going on in the center of my chest , other people responded to it, because they felt the same thing. You responded to what I wrote because what was in me matched up honestly with what was in you. Emotions are a common thing. So when I tried to intellectualize it, when I tried to top myself, when I tried be really bright in my writing, I write "great songs" that nobody related to! So when I wrote form a head place or en ego place, it didn't succeed. But when I wrote from the center of my chest it did. That's what people related to, the simple emotion. I write all these Mommy songs (laughs), you know, pick me up and love me. I know that I write co-dependent anthems! (laughs) But people really responded to that, and that was my connection to people. I'll tell you, 22 years ago, when I got sober, I had a totally different kind of connection to people, because for the first time in my life I was on my knees to my addiction, and I reached out. I said "I don't know what to do. I'm scared to death, I feel like I'm dying, I don't know what's going on, you need to help me'. I asked an absolute stranger, and that stranger said back "We understand. We've been where you are. We are here for you." and they were there for me. Then all of a sudden I had a connection to the world that I couldn't have imagined.
I think that is kind of part of what I was guarding when Stephen Kessler came to me wanting to make this film. I think part of me was guarding the anonymity of the life that I have right now, you know? I wasn't so sure I wanted to mess with that.

T - You, know when I got loaded and wrote, it was this really aggressive music, and I was doing it with a loud, crunchy amp, writing songs about death and destruction. You're getting loaded though, and writing these delicate pop melodies like Rainy Days And Mondays (laughs) which isn't exactly apropos to being wired.


PW - (laughs) Well, when I was writing Rainy Days And Mondays, I hadn't quite progressed to the major leagues. That really happened in the 80's. You can kind of see where my use and abuse turned into addiction. In the 70's, I won a bunch of Grammy's, was being nominated for Academy Awards (*of which he won for Evergreen from A Star Is Born) and there was all this amazing success, and by the 80's I was just this guy trying to do something meaningful but...(pauses)...it was lost, because there was no clear vision. The 70's and my youth is gone, and all of a sudden I'm just a mess, you know?


T - When you perform now, at clubs or something like Phantompalooza, has there been enough time passed to where you now kind of hear your work back, with maybe, I don't know, ambiguity? Are you ever surprised like "Wow, I wrote that!"

PW - Well I had never done Phantompalooza before, it was just such an amazing experience, and I's so grateful to the people of Winnipeg which have had such a great love affair with that movie. That was enlightening and fantastic. There were two cities that embraced Phantom Of The Paradise, that's Paris and Winnipeg, Manitoba. I don't know why, but the nice thing is through the years it has developed this cult following. One of these years we're going to do a great remake of it I think, and one of these days it's going to wind up on the stage as a big musical, which we've been talking about for years.

T - Please please, as a kid who needed those songs for day to day survival, I implore you or whoever, don't change that wonderful music!


PW - No no no. We won't be changing the music, if anything I may write something additional, but one of the elements no one wants to change is the music. They absolutely want to use the original score.

T - Ok, Paul. Tell me a story. Take me back to the writing of "Old Souls" from the film, which may just be my favorite composition of yours ever.


PW - My mother had passed away right before the making of Phantom, and I got to thinking about our own mortality. I believe we all have many, many lives. We go and we come back. So I wanted to write a song about reincarnation, and eternal love. You know, "Our paths have crossed and parted/This love affair was started long long ago/This love survives the ages/In its story lives are pages/Fill them up/".
May ours turn slow". It's about reincarnation.
I just love how Jessica (Harper) sang it too. When we were casting, Brian and I were in New York listening to singers, it was funny it was almost like the audition scene in the film. I walked up behind this woman singing quietly to herself, and it sounded fabulous. Then she came in and sang for Brian and I, and started belting it out, and I said "Just sing it to yourself like you were outside", and she did, and it was really there. It was really something special. Jessica is a wonderful actress and singer.


T - She sure is. I have to say, the key change in that song, when it becomes hopeful and moves up the scale, is just a masterstroke. Now, I'm going to rattle of some names and then ask you an impossible question!

PW - Uh oh. (laughs)


T - Streisand. Elvis. Sinatra. Bowie. Ella Fitzgerald. Kermit The Frog. Ray Charles. The Carpenters. This doesn't really cover the list, but that roster gives our readers a general idea of who you have composed music for. Do you have a personal favorite among that incredible list, or anything close to one?

PW - Of course all of those recordings are dear to me. The fortunate thing for me was my career was peaking at a time when these great iconic singers were in their third stage. I caught the Mel Torme's, and the Sinatra's and Elvis, and my gosh even Bing Crosby. These people were all still around and still recording. I was on Bobby Darrin's last recording session. When he did "Won't Last A Day Without You", and that was very special for me. But you kow, I have an extra special place in my heart for Jim Henson, and the work I did for The Muppets, and I think probably "The Rainbow Connection" is my favorite, or one of my favorites. I'm also very proud of the song called "Love Dance" I wrote with Ivan Lins, it's been recorded a bunch by jazz artists, recently Streisand actually. A song called "With One More Look At You", it's the last song in the movie I wrote with Kenny Asher. But yeah, you look at the number of artists who have recorded "The Rainbow Connection" like Sarah McLaughlin, Me First And The Gimme Gimme's, Willie Nelson, and others. That little song has had an amazing life, and anything I did with Jim Henson was just super special. A very loving experience.


T - So let me ask you in closing, after having the life you've had, with all it's ups and down's, what makes you smile when you wake up and when you go to bed at night these days?

PW - First of all. I love my gig at ASCAP, fighting the good fight to try to keep our 450,000 members taken care of. I have a great relationship with my kids, and I have a golf swing that will make you pint and laugh, but it gives me a lot of pleasure!

T - I've seen the film. I have to agree with you about the golf swing. (laughs)

PW - (laughs) Well you know, of course Stephen left in all the shots of me shanking! But I still love him.


Paul Williams Still Alive starts tonight, June 8, at the Angelika in NYC. Tonight and tomorrow both Paul Williams and director Stephen Kessler will be in attandence and doing a Q and A following the 8pm screenings.

Check out the two exclusive clips below, and go HERE for tickets and more information. Be sure to catch this intimate and ultimately winning piece of work on a screen near you as it rolls out into other theaters.







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  • MarsHottentot

    Man, you are not kiddin'! Williams was everywhere back then - he drove me crazy! Of course, when I grew up and learned WHY he was everywhere, I had nothing but respect for the man - this is great!

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