Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Very Not-Dead-Yet Paul Williams

    He came to songwriting fame in the 70s. Fell victim to drinking and addiction during the 80s. Disappeared from the public completely for ten-odd years, from the late-eighties through the nineties, and then resurfaced in somewhat kinder and gentler form in the new century, but not to boisterous commercial success or greatness.
    The 21st century Paul Williams no longer seeks fame and publicity.
    But without TV or mass public appearances, some wondered where Paul Williams disappeared to. Some even had believed that he had passed-on. Upon discovering that Paul Williams had not left the world too soon, film-maker Stephen Kessler made a documentary about him. The documentary was titled: "Still Alive" and released just last year in theatres and this past February 2013 in DVD format.
     Strangely, and only further confusing the matter, another music-associated Paul Williams died just three weeks ago. The other Paul Williams was the founder of music-critic magazine Crawdaddy and he passed away on March 31, 2013. With all due respect and condolences offered to the other Paul Williams and fans of Crawdaddy magazine, this blog is about the singer/actor/songwriter Paul Williams.
     So Paul Williams is still... still alive!
      Paul Williams is an excellent singer and performer, but his own singing abilities are perhaps outshined by his accomplishments as a songwriter. His career as a proverbial 'tunesmith' was launched fortuitously by a song he wrote for a bank commercial titled "Wedding"
This song was then covered by the Carpenters and became one of their biggest hits. Subsequent songwriting success, awards and accolades from musical movies and scores, along with numerous appearances on talk shows, including some very clever and funny appearances on Johnny Carson, made Paul Williams a fairly well-known celebrity in the mid-seventies and early eighties.

        I don't want to type out a long history of William's entire career of songs or list all his TV appearances. His recent movie does a much better job of talking about his life and career than we can do here in this blog. Suffice it to say, his songwriting accomplishments are numerous and impressive. So here's a much-abbreviated list of his songs with some links: Ordinary Fool. An Old Fashioned Love Song. Rainy Days and Mondays. And most notably: Evergreen, co-written with Barbara Streisand for the movie A Star is Born and won the Oscar for best song in 1976. Paul Williams, standing 5'2'', remembered to thank the little people when he accepted his Oscar.

      But before you get all 'Love, soft as an easy chair' on me, here's where i wanted to go with this whole blog....
      There's a strange little bit of irony attached to Paul Williams, and it is not just the fact he is still... still alive. He also had a career as an actor for a while. He performed well in the sequels of Planet of the Apes and Smokey and the Bandit. However, as an actor his greatest and most prominent movie role is undoubtedly playing the villainous Swan in the movie Phantom of the Paradise.
      Written and Directed by Brian De Palma, Phantom of the Paradise was intially a box-office flop (except in Winnipeg for some reason), but the movie later achieved success by building a following as a cult-film. After a few showings on late-night television or 'Fright Night' halloween-themed shows, the movie and its characters became familiar in the culture. Slowly, over the years, more and more fans began to rally around the movie. Thanks to it's creative and innovative director and it's impressive soundtrack of songs, written by Paul Williams himself, a movie that in 1974 was a flop now enjoys a stunning 90%+ rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is a cult classic. And that is partially due to Paul's performance in the movie.
     In Phantom of Paradise, Paul Williams plays 'Swan' a brilliant but devious record producer and promoter. Swan plans to build a new Rock n Roll theatre, and In order to acquire music for the opening of his new theatre (The Paradise), Swan literally steals the hand-written sheet-music of a songwriter named Winslow Leach, then later frames him for drug trafficking and sends him to Sing Sing. When Winslow escapes prison, Swan attempts to kill the musician. And finally, having failed at murdering the artist, he 'gives in' and signs Winslow to an onerous lifetime contract that includes signing over his everlasting soul. Basically, Swan is the most evil, despicable, conniving, music industry son of a bitch that has ever been portrayed on-screen, and he is a poor songwriter's worst nightmare.
       And now... about forty years after playing the horrible, music-stealing Swan, what is Paul Williams doing now?
       He's the president of ASCAP!
      It's true. Paul Williams is the President and Chairman of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
      This means that the same guy who played the vile song-thief 'Swan' is now in charge of defending the rights, royalties and copyrights of musicians, composers, publishers and performers of all kinds of music, and all over the entire U.S.A.! It's almost as ironic as Ice-T playing a TV cop.

*    *    *

Update February 13, 2014: It has been about ten months since this blog entry was first published, and since then a lot has happened concerning the inimitable Paul Williams. So much that this blog entry deserves an update.

To give a quick review of the movie Still Alive. As far as single-person documentaries go, I would give it four out of five stars. Although, if you're a Paul Williams fan, it's a five-star easily. It may not be the best documentary ever, but it's probably the best documentary that never really wanted to be made. Paul Williams, at this time in his 70s has/had no desire to return to his late-night and game-show television fame of the 1970s. (Spoilers!) The first part of the movie makes clear that Williams has neither the desire to have a movie made of himself, nor does he want to jump in front of a camera and regain the fame that he used to have. Even when director Stephen Kessler makes an attempt to start a PBS-style documentary of his life it breaks down comically within minutes. The second part deals with the director Stephen Kessler, having become part of the narrative, who has his own trepidations following an entertainer to some of those out-of-country shows that we don't usually hear about in North America, in this case in the Philipines, where the country is in political unrest, but a real opportunity for Paul Williams to 'bring home the bacon' so to speak. In the Phillipines, Williams can fill large theatres with performances, sell his CDs & posters and meet large numbers of true fans pandering for his autograph and a picture. Finally, the last part of this movie deals with how Paul Williams addiction and alcoholism led him so far away from both the music and the late-night television fame that people began to think he'd disappeared or died. Williams still claims he 'missed' the 1980s completely due to his use of cocaine & vodka. By the time the documentary has finished, the viewer realizes that the reason it is titled 'Still Alive' is not simply because of the director's mistaken idea that Paul had passed on. Instead, the title reflects the very real possibility that Paul Williams perhaps might not be with us if he didn't get sober and begin recovery from his addiction. His recovery is one that is both good news to Paul, his fans, and hopefully an inspiration to others that want to get sober and recover from addiction.

   Unfortunately, the movie 'Still Alive' did not capture what happened next. In the 1990s, in recovery from addiction, Williams resumed his career by writing catchy songs for movies and television, most famously writing the song Rainbow Connection for the Muppet Movie. So when the documentary ends with a caption explaining that Paul Williams had been elected president of ASCAP in 2009, with that ending, there seemed an unspoken assumption that it's going to be ASCAP duties, muppet-royalties and the occasional cartoon for the remainder of Paul Williams life. But shortly afterwards, and during the promotional tour for 'Still Alive', Williams found himself being included into a major project by the French Electronica robot-duo Daft Punk.

The two 'robot' members of Daft Punk had lofty goals for their 2013 album Random Access Memories. Rather than pump out another Electronic-Dance album for a bunch of teenagers high on ecstasy, they sort of 'put together a dance band', by gathering together musical talent from several eras of dance music varying from funk to disco to pop and rock and this led to the creation of a much more thoughtful album of danceable songs. It turns out that Paul Williams writing and singing style fit in rather well with Nile Rodgers, Pharrell Williams, Giorgio Moroder and others. The album was released on vinyl, not as an afterthought, but as an initial release (Which very much impressed us here at Very Us Mumblings) Both the Vinyl version and CD sold very successfully, and Paul Williams involvement was not short-shrift with a quick credit for back vocals, but instead he wrote lyrics for two songs and sang lead-vocal on one (the 8 min song 'Touch', which is about as progressive as dance music gets). On January 26, 2014, Daft Punk's Random Access Memories won several Grammy awards including the big one: Best Album.

Far from being forgotten or presumed deceased, Paul Williams is, understandably, now once again a sought-after song-writer and collaborator for both movies and original musical works. He is the living epitome of the idea that truly good songwriters don't just outlive their popularity, but actually get better if they keep themselves involved in their craft, and steer their minds clear of the more damaging addictions of society today. If we at Very Us Mumblings ever wanted a comeback story, this would have to be the one. Paul Williams is back, not just from an addiction, but to the forefront of songwriting.
Paulwilliams Official Website   
Gratitude & Trust (Recovery Blog) WebSite

Links of the other actors in Phantom of The Paradise:
Phoenix: Jessica Harper
Beef: Gerrit Graham - short interview on his role can be found here.
The JuicyFruits/BeachBums/Undeads
Peter Elbling - (did an interview for StudioKaiju in 2010)
Archie Hahn - actor/comedian
Jeffrey Comanor  - musician 
Winslow Leach/The Phantom -- William Finley -- Deceased April 14, 2012
Philbin -- George Memmoli -- Deceased 1985