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Paul Williams, father of rock criticism, dies at 64

Paul Williams took the magazine from Swarthmore to Boston, then New York.
Paul Williams took the magazine from Swarthmore to Boston, then New York.Raeanne Rubenstein/NY Times/1971

NEW YORK — Paul Williams — a writer and critic who founded the alternative pop music magazine Crawdaddy, one of the first outlets for serious writing about rock music, and whose critical support helped rescue the science fiction author Philip K. Dick from obscurity — died March 27 in a nursing residence near his home in Encinitas, Calif. He was 64.

The cause was complications of early onset dementia, triggered by a traumatic brain injury suffered in a bike accident in 1995, said his wife, singer Cindy Lee Berryhill.

Mr. Williams, who was born in Boston, was a 17-year-old freshman at Swarthmore College when he started his magazine, in 1966. The first issue, mimeographed and stapled, promised readers a level of critical insight into the emerging rock scene that it said was missing in fan magazines and trade publications. ‘‘Crawdaddy will feature neither pinups nor news briefs; the specialty of this magazine is intelligent writing,’’ Mr. Williams wrote.

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Mr. Williams is considered by many to be rock journalism’s founding father. He printed the first issue of Crawdaddy (the name, taken from the London nightclub where the Rolling Stones first played, was originally rendered with an exclamation point, at least some of the time) 18 months before Jann Wenner founded Rolling Stone and two years before the debut of Creem, another major competitor. (Smaller rock publications had been started before then, but not distributed nationally.)

Turning a stapled dorm publication into a national journal required cleverness and some luck. Besides handing out copies on the Swarthmore campus, west of Philadelphia, Mr. Williams mailed them to the performers reviewed, a tactic that drew phone calls of appreciation from some, including Bob Dylan. Mr. Williams parlayed the calls into extended interviews with Dylan, Paul Simon, and others, which drew notice from record companies.

Mr. Williams left college at the end of his freshman year, moving the magazine first to Boston and then to a small office in New York, where it became a platform for many first-generation rock writers, including Jon Landau, Sandy Pearlman, and Richard Meltzer, author of ‘‘The Aesthetics of Rock,’’ a 1970 collection of essays, many of which first appeared in Crawdaddy.

Published on a shoestring, with a combined circulation from subscriptions and single-copy record store sales of about 20,000, Crawdaddy was quickly overtaken by the slicker and more professionally managed Rolling Stone, which achieved a circulation of around 250,000 within three years. But Mr. Williams’s idea to publish smart writing about the increasingly sophisticated 1960s rock scene was by all accounts seminal.

Peter Knobler, who became editor of Crawdaddy in the 1970s, described the journalism Mr. Williams developed as a combination of music criticism and close-up reporting about the gathering societal storm that came to be known as the counterculture.

‘‘The music was part of all that, and the writing reflected it,’’ Knobler said Friday. ‘‘It was generational, political, all about this new thing, the youth culture. That was Paul’s vision.’’

Robert Christgau, the veteran rock critic formerly with The Village Voice, said rock ’n’ roll writing was indebted to Mr. Williams and his magazine ‘‘for its very existence.’’

Until Crawdaddy, Christgau said, the sort of dense, almost literary analysis it ran about groups like Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, and the Doors was simply ‘‘not a possibility.’’

In 1968, Mr. Williams turned over control to others and left for California to become a freelance writer. Crawdaddy folded in 1979.

Mr. Williams wrote scores of articles for Rolling Stone and other rock journals, as well as two dozen books, including three about Dylan.

One of Mr. Williams’s best-known articles was one he wrote for Rolling Stone in 1975 extolling the virtues of Philip K. Dick, whose work was respected in science fiction circles, but was relatively unknown to the general public.

The article helped inspire interest in Dick and eventually sparked a vast new popularity for his work, much of that popularity occurring after Dick’s death, in 1982. Many of the books became bestsellers, and 11 of his novels and stories have become Hollywood films, including ‘‘Blade Runner’’ (1982), ‘‘Total Recall’’ (1990), ‘‘Minority Report’’ (2002), and ‘‘The Adjustment Bureau’’ (2010).

After Dick’s death, Mr. Williams was executor of his literary estate. His 1986 book, ‘‘Only Apparently Real: The World of Philip K. Dick,’’ was among the writer’s first biographies.

Paul Williams was the son of Robert and Janet Rothman Williams. His parents had both worked on the Manhattan Project, his father as a physicist, his mother as an administrator.

His passion for music led him to turn down a scholarship to Stanford and choose Swarthmore because he feared the distraction of the California music scene, Berryhill said. (The strategy failed, she added.)

In addition to his wife, Mr. Williams leaves their son, Alexander Berryhill-Williams; two sons from a previous marriage, Taiyo and Kenta; his father; and two brothers, David and Eric.

Leaving Crawdaddy two years after creating it was not a hard call for Mr. Williams, said his wife, who described his proto-hippie life during the next few years as ‘‘Zelig-like.’’ He lived on a commune, smoked his first joint with the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, became the manager of Timothy Leary’s short-lived 1969 campaign for governor of California, and dropped in on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘‘bed-in’’ in Montreal long enough to sing on their recording of ‘‘Give Peace a Chance.’’

Did he make it to Woodstock? ‘‘He hitched a ride to Woodstock in a limo with the Grateful Dead,’’ she said.

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