Phantom in our Paradise
Updated: Oct 10, 2021
He owned the 70s; the good 70s, not the shamefaced 70s.
Paul Williams. You know him. Hai Karate aftershave, Lancer’s sparkling wine. His name and brand are adrift back there in the soft-focus, Foster Grant 70s, mingling pleasantly with hanging macramé planters, red shag carpet, Fondue parties and lapels large enough to bear one aloft on a breezy day. And my neighbor Cathy and me in my room at night, holding hands by black light and sitting stock still on the edge of the bed, staring at my glowing St. George and the Dragon poster like congregants, the room awash in Karen Carpenter’s crystalline expression of the gorgeous Williams/Nichols hymn Let Me Be the One, with that brilliant horn syncopation I was sure nobody else in the world had noticed. In the 70s Paul Williams freaking ruled.
His songs were all over the radio and in the movies, you couldn’t watch prime time TV and not see him cracking up the host with his deadpan delivery, then taking the stage in his tailored suit and just absolutely killing some soaring pop masterwork he’d written or co-written, tucking in his chin and emoting his ass off in song. He owned the 70s; the good 70s, not the shamefaced 70s. And the fact is he never stopped ruling; his Kingdom just got reframed for a little while as the Second Happiest Place on Earth.
“The Carpenters were very clean cut kids, and I was on my way to becoming a hard core addict,” he says matter of factly. “I did acid and psilocybin in the late 60s, developed a huge cocaine habit in the 70s and 80s…”
Not Your Father’s Icarus
Icarus, in his vainglory, flew too close to the sun. The wax that bound his wings melted and he plummeted. Paul Williams’ problem was more prosaic. He needed attention and he needed dope, and he received both in killing doses. “I spent decades defending my mistakes and hiding my addictions,” he now says. He’s seated opposite me in the otherwise bare McCune Founders Room at the Granada Theater on State Street, where later tonight he will introduce the classic film The Way We Were and do a Q & A with dynamic American songwriting duo Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who with a young Marvin Hamlisch wrote the unforgettable title song. “How can you go from doing 48 Tonight Shows and walking down the street and everyone knows who you are, and being happier now that nobody necessarily recognizes you? I don’t want fame, I’ve done fame. And I really did it, too.”
Williams and his co-writers churned out hit songs seemingly at will in that decade, and everyone wanted to sing them; Sinatra, Kermit the Frog, Claudine Longet, Three Dog Night, Elvis, Willie Nelson, and yeah, The Carpenters. Williams was the Me Generation’s Minstrel, the diminutive variety show fixture with Veronica Lake hair, Dorothy Parker drop-deadpan wit, and a selection of unusually tiny sweater vests which he wore without irony on the Mike Douglas Show. He made Carson laugh till he couldn’t breathe, guest-hosted the Merv Griffin show approximately as high as a kite, and between televised bons mot sang some of the most intelligently beautiful popular songs in the American catalog, HIS songs, center stage; often in a suit impeccably tailored to the specs of a 13 year-old boy. When he was singing you could often see the show’s host (you name the show) watching carefully from the peripheral half-light of the panelists’ riser. This is the Paul Williams we gauzily remember, and he was at the summit. The good times came bundled with the usual toxins, though, and by the late 80s he had effectively disappeared.
Daft Punk [heart ] Paul
In 2011 a weirdly charming documentary about Williams quietly hit the theaters, aptly titled Paul Williams: Still Alive – a loving if sometimes hard-to-watch record of the fall and rise of a pudgy, Phoenix-like songbird who turned his scarifying mistakes into raw power of the sort that can be shared around like a ring of keys in a jailhouse. Williams is alive all right, and he wants to spread the goods; 25 years sober and as fleet-of-foot as anyone who has shaken off spiritual chains and a two-decade hangover. Enter Daft Punk.
Following a successful concert tour with Melissa Manchester a couple years ago, Williams’ longtime pianist and musical director Chris Caswell (Cas to his friends) was tapped to come into the studio and lay down a few piano overdubs for the helmeted pop gods. Williams picks up the exceedingly unlikely tale.
“Chris is there and he hears the guys talking about Paul Williams, talking about Phantom of the Paradise.” Phantom. Where to start? Brian De Palma’s evergreen midnight goth opera of 1974 concerns a caped, helmeted figure who haunts the shadows of a rock palace called the Paradise. The gold-hearted creep is also trying to protect the girl he loves from the machinations of the evil owner of the place, Swan, played by a baby-faced Paul Williams, who also furnishes the movie with some of the most gorgeous songs of his career.
As it turns out, In their pre-helmet youth the D-Punks had bonded over the movie, had grown their friendship around it, had each seen it 20 times and could recite it as a Shakespeare scholar does Hamlet. Now, like a couple of fanboys they were quietly chatting each other up in a corner of the studio, talking excitedly about Paul Williams and the movie, all within earshot of Williams’ old pal Caswell. Williams takes a slug of cold bottled water and continues. “And overhearing them talking, Cas says, ‘Um, I was just on the road with Paul’.” In the studio a pin dropped.
“….do you know how to reach him?!”
Daft Punk came down to the little house along the canal in Naples Williams was renting (not Florida), and they talked. One of the guys handed Williams a book about life after death and asked Williams to read it. This is what the album is about, Williams was told. Not life after death per se, but a journey. “The first thing we wrote was Touch. In our first working session he played me the melody and I thought it was beautiful. I took the music home and wrote the lyric.” Williams sings on the track and is in terrific voice on what could be described as a multi-chapter prayer you dance to. The song has been likened to The Beatles’ A Day in the Life.
Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories took the Grammy for album of the year, and a varied group of smiling, fashionably underdressed hipsters and record company cognoscenti clustered around the dais to accept the award. Included in that odd throng were two nodding white robots and the co-writer of The Rainbow Connection. It doesn’t matter where or how fashionably you are tattooed, what world-conquering band you’re in or what celebrity demi-goddess you are publicly feeling up. If you’re alone in a room with Paul Williams, you are the square.
Roger Nichols and World Domination
Initially he’d set out to be an actor, and by 24 Williams was taking roles in movies, playing much younger. In his 20s Williams could be seen portraying precocious, well-spoken kids. The roles were small, the hours between takes long. He began killing time on the set by fiddling with a guitar. “My first movie was with Jonathan Winters, and when I moved up here to Santa Barbara in the 70s I bumped into him again and we had the same manager.” Williams began experimenting with writing his own tunes, and that combined with his comedic instincts landed him a gig on the Mort Sahl show, the stand-up political commentator who set the 60s on its ear. Introduced to A & M records by his friend and erstwhile songwriting and improv partner Biff Rose (it was their very early songwriting effort Fill Your Heart that appeared on Bowie’s seminal Hunky Dory album), Williams was quickly snatched up by the label and paired with a contract tunesmith in need of a bard. Roger Nichols and Paul Williams would soon find their feet and begin papering the radio walls with their hits.
“If you’d asked me at the time I’m sure I would’ve said I was much more into rock and roll, but I’d grown up loving the Great American Songbook. I mean, Jimmy van Heusen, Here’s That Rainy Day, George and Ira Gershwin…my favorite song to this day is Someone to Watch Over Me, my two favorite songs are that and Don Maclean’s song Vincent.” (he sings the final line of the only radio hit inspired by doomed modernist Vincent van Gogh). “That song goes places most songs don’t go.”
The day they were introduced, Roger Nichols wasted no time giving Williams a melody. “He gave me a cassette, I took it home that night and I wrote it and came back the next day with a lyric. It just rolled out of me, you know? I hear music and I get words. And Nichols became sort of my music school. He taught me a lot. And Roger wrote note for note. You know, he didn’t want a note changed. He was a great disciplinarian that way.” Their many collaborations include Rainy Days and Mondays, Let Me Be the One, We’ve Only Just Begun and many many other hummable little ditties the world is likely stuck with until the sun explodes. “But different writers have different approaches.”
Williams is currently co-writing, with Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla, a stage adaptation of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. This collaboration is a bit more freeing. “With Roger at times it could feel like cross-hatching,” Williams laughs. “This, though, is the most passionate collaboration of my life.”
And what of the oddball cult rock musical that provided the early Daft bond? And how on Earth did horror auteur de Palma choose Paul Williams to write the songs for this thing? We’re doing rock and roll horror, people; dismemberments, electrocution, blood-soaked mayhem – a Faustian orgy with the lights on. Get me the guy who wrote We’ve Only Just Begun. And make it snappy! Maybe like that?
“Initially I wasn’t going to be acting in it – I have no idea why de Palma chose me for that movie. I was probably the worse choice, of all the rock n’ roll singer songwriters and rock acts that he could have gotten to do that, there’s nobody whose bio is more against the grain. This genre-jumping glam rock movie…why did the guy who’s writing for the Carpenters get this?” Williams himself wonders aloud.
Then as De Palma started hanging around Williams and observing his writing process, the way Williams worked with the musicians, he started seeing something in the cherubic Williams, a surprising Svengali streak? “He saw what he described as a Phil Spectorish quality, is how he described it,” Williams says, referring to the legendary rock producer who gave us the Wall of Sound, the Ronettes, and Paul McCartney clutching his hair at the layers of honey Spector ladled onto Macca’s The Long and Winding Road, a simple piano and voice outing when left in the producer’s care by four former friends who couldn’t wait another minute to depart each other’s company. Spector is presently serving life in prison for shooting a woman to death in the anteroom of his mansion. Again – get me Paul Williams!
Gratitude and Trust and Tracy and Karen
Today, Paul Williams, writer and co-writer of more terrific and indelibly stamped Great American Pop Songs than most people will ever realize, is giving back. He and Tracey Jackson have written a volume called Gratitude and Trust and he is traveling tirelessly to get the word out (gratitudeandtrust.com), using his own dark experiences and missteps and catastrophes to make light, and to show that the climb back is not only doable, it’s energizing. A new podcast is aimed at spreading the love even further. And even now he wonders if he isn’t dancing too close to the Me Me Me fire. He is also president of ASCAP, the songwriters’ and publishers’ consortium since 1941, and its most ardent spokesman for fairness in compensation for music creators in this era of piracy, downloads, and the lust for free stuff. But he does occasionally worry about a renewed vanity attack. “With my ASCAP role and the podcast I wonder sometimes if I’m not getting a taste of the thing I shouldn’t be nipping at. But then I see the potential for good. I’m only speaking 20 or 30 times a year, the book and the podcast are a way of reaching a lot more people; IF it takes off. We’re only into our first two weeks of the podcast.”
And apropos of absolutely nothing, does he recall where he was when he learned of Karen Carpenter’s untimely passing? “Yeah. I was in Washington D.C. doing a benefit for Wolf Trap (National Park for the Performing Arts) with Elizabeth Taylor, Rod McKuen, a bunch of us were there. It was just….so sad. You know, her weight concern, it gave her a focus. it was like her weight was the only thing she finally had any control over. Somebody wrote in a review or something that she looked a little heavy, and it deeply affected her.” He pauses. “I often think, if she’d run off with the drummer, done a lot of drugs, just gone crazy, I think she’d be alive and sober now. I didn’t think that then, but I wonder now, sometimes.”
The publicist walks politely into frame and gives us a five minute warning. I have to ask this one last, possibly threadbare question. Does Paul Williams ever step back and consider how many individuals around the globe have, over the decades, been emotionally stirred by his songs?
“Well…when somebody hears something that says another human being feels the same stuff they’re feeling, there’s a relief to the loneliness. And if you’d talked to Harry Nilsson or to Jimmy Web, Randy Newman or Leonard Cohen or Tom waits – what we’re doing is chronicling a human emotion we all feel. It’s that commonality that creates our success.”
“That’s a great way to look at it,” I remark, almost to myself.
“It’s a little healthier than it used to be!” Williams laughs loudly. “I’m a work in progress.”