Paul Williams – “Outlaw Blues” (1969)

March 3, 2010 at 2:52 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

This review of music critic Paul Williams’ 1969 “book on rock music” comes from Salahuddin I. Imam in The Harvard Crimson, March 18, 1969. The hardcover at that time went for $4.95, and the paperback sold for $1.75. The times certainly have changed… 

In the annals of rock and roll writing Paul Williams, who was spawned and bred in our very own Cambridge, Mass., holds a special place. The story is of how he dropped out of Swarthmore three years ago to single-handedly set up his own magazine of rock, Crawdaddy!, and went on to establish it briefly in all its tacky splendor as the finest underground publication of its kind.

It is true that Crawdaddy! today is a decadent rag, full of archly pretentious art-writing about rock and that it has been decisively and deservedly supplanted by Rolling Stone as the only worthwhile rock magazine around. Nevertheless it is equally true that Paul Williams himself remains one of the most perceptive and sensitive rock writers on the scene, a fact which is vividly established by the publication of his first book, Outlaw Blues.

Williams’ writing is strewn with astonishingly true insights which range in scope from one-line revelations about our most major and complex artists (e.g., that Bob Dylan has always been at heart a rock and roll singer who started out in folk merely because there were no other options open to him in his early years) to finicky discoveries about the minutest details (e.g., that the Sergeant Pepper concept of a album as an integrated whole “can be traced back to the end of Between the Buttons”). And, remarkably, these multifarious insights are not stranded and left to fend for themselves in a mass of prose but, in Williams’ writings, are usually integrated into a solid conceptual framework, of the kind which is absolutely essential to good rock writing.

For the problem is that most people have very strong preferences in their rock music tastes.

The rock and roll writer always finds himself addressing not a neutral but a highly partisan, opinionated audience. In fact, the main reason the members of this audience even deign to read about rock and roll at all is to have their own strongly held opinions confirmed about all the records and groups in the rock universe. So the rock writer is always under a heavy obligation to explain exactly why he himself likes or dislikes a particular album or group. And the only way he can do so is to invent a theoretical framework within whose terms all of rock music can be better understood. Unless he puts his discussion of value in terms which are supposed to be universally true the skeptics in the audience will not even pause to consider his opinions.

When, however, this objective theoretical framework is sensibly conceived and sounds reasonable, the opinions of the rock writer can trigger two kinds of reactions in the reader. Those who agree beforehand with the judgment being defended find that their joy is immeasurably heightened; and those who disagreed at the outset are lured, interested and sometimes converted. Paul Williams is a master at formulating conceptual aids to justify his choices of favorites. Which makes him an immensely satisfying and stimulating writer even when he is at his most provocative.

A typical example of Williams’ style is his method of evaluating Jefferson Airplane. He begins by positing two concepts: complexity and kinetics. Complexity means that “there is a lot going on” in the Airplane’s songs, intricate musical interaction among the group’s members, the enormous energy that therefore is contained in each Airplane venture, the uncanny understanding that each person in the group has of what the others expect him to play. And Williams gives profuse and exact examples of what he means by interaction through close analysis of the songs on After Bathing at Baxter’s.

The danger of this kind of elaborate complexity is, of course, that a song might get bogged down under the sheer weight of all its minute structuring, which makes it dead and therefore a bad rock song. Just then Williams’ second theoretical concept, that of kinetics, comes along to clarify and expand the meaning of the discussion. Because kinetics stands for the ability to keep the listener “caught up in the motion of the songs,” an ability that very few rock groups, such as the Who, possess. Again Williams gives carefully chosen examples of how exactly and Airplane manipulates tension, rhythm, loudness, and speed of tempo to produce a furious drive in their songs.

Thus, having established that the Jefferson Airplane combines both complexity and kinetics, Williams can claim that they are indeed a very good group, and he has very sound and convincing grounds for saying so.

Williams’ ability to find objective grounds on which to make judgments about the value of rock music combined with the sensitivity he generally displays makes him particularly qualified to pronounce authoritatively on three of the greater controversies of the rock world. About the Satanic Majesties Controversy (was it the Stones most disastrous mistake or was it a beautiful product?) Williams writes compellingly to point out the album’s genius and its fine balance.

The two other controversies plaguing rock concern the merits of the Doors and the Beach Boys. Both groups have pockets of passionate defenders who try to counter the majority opinion which is overwhelmingly critical. Paul Williams is an important and influential voice who makes an articulate and gripping defense of both groups. In particular Williams thinks extraordinarily highly of the Beach Boys and of their guiding spirit Brian Wilson. He devotes nearly 50 pages of the book to exploring Brian Wilson’s psyche and enthusing over the Beach Boys’ music. The net effect is certainly to force one to reconsider all one’s opinions about the groups and, to some extent, to lead one to a new respect for their music.

Williams also hits some magnificent stretches of writing, for example when describing the gradual development of an Airplane jam from its sputtering beginning to exhilarating conclusion, or in his third essay on Dylan which is an expressionistic tour de force.

All of which adds up to a great book. In view of the flood of third rate books on rock now hitting the market it is especially important that Paul Williams’ Outlaw Blues not be submerged.

Salahuddin I. Imam

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