As the door opens to a modest Encinitas, Calif., apartment, I'm reminded that those who devote their lives to cultural enrichment are seldom rewarded with material gain. The first person I see is Alexander, 8 years old.
"Who is she?" he asks, his stare meeting mine with a steadiness uncharacteristic for a kid his age.
"She's here to talk to us about Daddy," answers his mother, Cindy Lee Berryhill, California blonde with a voice like honey.
Alexander pauses for a beat then nods his approval, retreating to the kitchen to resume work on his laptop. "He wants to be an astrophysicist," Berryhill explains, a left-brain aspiration that places parents and progeny on opposing sides of the cerebral divide. Berryhill is a singer-songwriter, notable for her witty and emotive brand of rock-infused honky-tonk, as well as for her role as co-founder of the anti-folk movement in the 1980s. Her husband, Alexander's dad, is Paul Williams, creator of Crawdaddy magazine and largely regarded as the father of rock criticism.
"Seminal" is a word that tends to get thrown around a lot, but in Williams' case, there's simply no other word that applies. Crawdaddy, started in 1966 when he was just 17, was the first publication to treat rock as a serious subject (paving the way for future mags like Rolling Stone), and Williams was the first to realize that the music was less a generational byproduct than a cultural catalyst. He had the prescience to recognize history taking shape around him and assumed the crucial role of its interpreter. In an era populated by genius and defined by iconic moments, Williams was almost magically omnipresent.
He smoked his first joint with Brian Wilson while listening to the masters of what would become Smile; he counseled a struggling Springsteen on musical direction (just before The Boss finally broke through with Born To Run); he and pal Timothy Leary spent a night with John and Yoko during the Toronto Bed-In-For-Peace, and Williams later rejoined the couple to sing on "Give Peace a Chance." He bitched out Jim Morrison for leaving a book Williams lent him behind on a plane; he hitched a ride to Woodstock in a limo with The Grateful Dead; and all the while, Williams was writing--refracting the pure creative energy around him through a powerful critical lens. And he did it so well that he, as an individual figure, doesn't tend to register in our contemporary consciousness. Rock criticism (and its various offshoots) has become such an integral thread in the cultural fabric that we assume, in a way, that it's always existed. But ask anyone familiar with its history, and they'll tell you that the genre was born of Paul Williams.
The reason I'm in Encinitas to talk about this man rather than to him is that Williams suffers from early-onset dementia, a condition likely brought on by a bicycle accident in 1995. After making what appeared to be a near total recovery from the traumatic brain injury sustained in the accident, Williams' health began to decline shortly after Alexander was born in 2001. He became irritable and fatigued, forgetful and foreign. He grew increasingly less like himself. Eventually, Berryhill could no longer manage his care, and now Williams, 60, lives in a nursing home not far from the apartment he used to share with his wife and son. While he can recall certain aspects of his past, the dementia has severely affected Williams' short-term memory, meaning his ability to maintain a grasp of the present is steadily deteriorating.
"For Paul," Berryhill says, "the life of a thought is short."
To dwell on the reality of Williams' present condition would be to risk inspiring a level of pity that he would likely neither want nor appreciate. Berryhill, in order to introduce a dimension of Williams' mind that is no longer accessible, gave me a copy of one of his earliest works, Das Energi. It's best described as a collection of aphorisms--scattered bits of hippie wisdom composed while he was living in a Canadian commune.
"The affirmation of one's own life--the acceptance of one's destiny as it manifests itself in each moment--is the supreme act of faith. / It's incredibly fucking easy. / It's a hell of a commitment."
This is a mind that betrays no tendencies toward victimhood, consciousness in seemingly perpetual ascent. But I ask, anyway, if Berryhill thought what befell Williams was a special sort of tragedy since he, more than most, was defined by his thoughts.
"I asked Paul not long ago if he missed writing," Berryhill says, hands encircling a mug of tea and radiating an unbelievable sense of calm (the strain, both emotional and financial, has been immense). "Because he was the kind of person for whom it was never enough. No matter how much he accomplished, he was never done. When he finally had to stop working, he left a few unfinished manuscripts behind.
"So I asked him if he missed it, and he told me 'no,'" she says. "'No,' just like that. Quickly and definitively."
I ask if somehow, beneath it all, Berryhill gets the sense that Williams is still anchored in a sense of self. She smiles.
"Very much so. Paul has a sense of self," she says. "He's just lost his sense of place."
"Energy is what fills the universe / Energy is what comes and goes / Consciousness is what defines the energy / Under that consciousness we're each in touch with all of it."
Originally published in the San Diego City Beat.