August 28, 2012

Renew Conversations: Paul Williams

By Joe C.

I remember Paul Williams of yesteryear. I loved the parody Phantom of the Paradise and the Streisand/Kristofferson 1976-version of A Star is Born, which won Williams and Streisand a 1977 Oscar for “Evergreen.” The Paul Williams I know now “practices these principles in all of [his] affairs.” He carries the message that music matters to Capitol Hill, teaches the craft of songwriting to emerging artists and encourages and leads his peers.

Paul Williams is not a man looking backward. This is not a man who is resting on his laurels or wants to be rewarded or recognized simply for not drinking or using. He is pushing forward. In his recovery, Paul hasn’t learned to think less of himself; he just thinks of himself less.

In a recent sit-down interview, Williams talked to Renew about the state of the industry today, how it affects his recovery and what it was like to be the star of a documentary. WILLIAMS: All I know is that authenticity is the key to being a good songwriter. I tried to be David Bowie but there was already a David Bowie. He eventually recorded one of the songs that I wrote with Biff Rose, “Fill Your Heart” [Hunky Dory 1971]. That was a great honor.

My first hit was “We’ve Only Just Begun.” Before the Carpenters rendition, it was a background song in a bank commercial. The No. 1 hit at that time was “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” I couldn’t have written a song that was further away from what was hot at that time which was that Iron Butterfly song. And yet, my song connected to something going on in people’s lives. This the spin of the roulette table in the music business—somebody comes along and says something in a particular way and that song rises to the top—no I won’t say ‘rises to the top,’ it finds its way through the maze into someone’s heart.

RENEW: What’s a 21st century version of one of these songs that reaches everyone?

PAUL WILLIAMS: I just hosted an industry event called “Kings of Songwriting.” Dan Wilson played an acoustic version of the song he wrote for his band Semisonic called, “Closing Time.” All of us thought it was a song about hooking up with someone when you’re leaving a bar but he explained it was about the birth of his child. Knowing what the songwriter was experiencing and expressing at the time, you can see how, even if you miss the connection at some level, the song still resonates with millions of people—and the right people, too. Since he wrote that, Dan has written hit songs for Adele, The Dixie Chicks, Weezer and more. We can all see how songs like “Someone Like You” is charting for Adele right now.

RENEW: Is there a phase or a trend where popular culture might be going next?

PW: … It is my purpose and goal now to help people whose craft connects with people to make a living in the music business. We live in a more fragmented world now. When I was on Johnny Carson—I say I was on The Tonight Show 48 times and I joke that I remember six of those times—at the time, there were three networks and Carson owned the 11 p.m. slot. Everyone was watching him. What we see now is a larger pie but more fractionalized than ever before. It’s harder for young artists today, it’s a struggle. But if in that struggle they succeed I want them to be rewarded; that’s my task today.

I had an addiction to fame. You go on The Tonight Show and it’s like throwing a switch—you go from feeling different to feeling special and fame made me feel special. That is a big part of what I became addicted too and a big part of what I left behind in recovery.

RENEW: Let’s talk about the film, “Paul Williams Still Alive.”

PW: Stephen always said if there’s anything he put in that I didn’t want in he would take it out. Steve filmed me watching the worst of my addiction, high on cocaine on the Merv Griffin show, a portrait of grandiosity, shallowness, arrogance, for the whole world to see—I said, ‘That’s bullshit; that can’t go in,’ but when I saw the cut of the movie with that clip in there I saw how you can’t make a movie honoring recovery without the worst of my addiction. I think the most courageous thing I have done in 22 years of recovery is to turn to Stephen and tell him, ‘Leave it in.’

There is a great history of alcoholism amongst artist and lyricists especially but my fall from grace was at such a public level that when I got sober I was really happy to be away from the life. I found a new life that meant more to me. I was really nervous about going back there with Steve and now I am glad I did. I love the balance of my life today and I am glad I said yes. Trust is a big part of my life today.

RENEW: You’re the President and Chairman of the Board of ASCAP. How do you balance advocacy for songwriters and advocacy for addicts?

PW: When ASCAP came knocking with the idea of me taking over as president, I asked them if that would require turning my back on working with addicts because I just can’t. They said, ‘No Paul, you can incorporate that into what you are doing here.’ So I said, ‘Great, let’s do it.’

RENEW: I think of you reaching out your hand in help as a fellow sufferer now; anyone who remembers you playing the Devil in the cult film Phantom of the Paradise it has to be weird to see you extolling the virtues of recovery.

PW: Swan got sober! Isn’t that frightening? Oh my God. I look at myself in that scene in the tub with me in my short hair wig, looking 12 and there’s a line where I say, ‘See this face ravaged by the forces of time.’ I want to lean forward and say, ‘Ravaged by time? You don’t know ravaged. I’ll show you ravaged—look at this face.’ as he playfully points at himself, ‘Look at this mug. This is what ravaged is,’ as he laughs out loud.

Joe C. is currently putting the final touches on Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life, the first daily reflection book for nonbelievers, due out Dec.1, 2012. Click here to learn more about Joe.

Image courtesy of Wendy L. Rombough.

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