The Improbable Birth of American Rock Writing

Jefferson Cowie

Paul Williams, the 17-year-old founder of Crawdaddy!, believed that rock 'n' roll could reach the aesthetic, political, and social equal of any other art form.

The great publishing enterprise known as American rock journalism was invented in January 1966.

By a kid. In a basement. With a borrowed typewriter.

Paul Williams, high on the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and wanting to prove that his near fatal disinterest in his first semester of college did not make him a “lazy bum”, hunched over a typewriter, plunked on the keys, zipped the carriage back and forth, and pushed open a portal that promised to reveal the meanings of the most important thing of his generation: pop music. It’s the kind of thing that only a teenager, touched by a burning apostasy to his previous faith in folk, would have been bold enough to believe might actually work. “It was an impetuous act, and later I regretted it,” Williams recalled, “but by then it was irreversible.” (“Rating the Rock Magazines”, New Ingenue, April 1975, p. 64)

“You are looking at the first issue of a magazine of rock and roll criticism,” declared the opening line of the first of 500 mimeographed copies of the first edition. Crawdaddy!, a name Williams took from an English club where the Stones played, would specialize in “intelligent writing about pop music.” No fan magazine this: there would be no pin-up photos, no industry gossip, no predictions about who would go to the top of the charts (although that last one tended to get violated). “If we could predict the exact amount of sales of each record we hear,” he declared in the first issue, “it would not interest us to do so.” Except he was misleading. There was no “we”-- just one precocious Swarthmore freshmen on winter break.

The folkies were very serious and had very serious journals of criticism; the jazzers had theirs; the British had Melody Maker and New Musical Express, both championing rock 'n' roll. But there still wasn’t any single outlet in the US devoted to serious criticism of rock 'n' roll as an art form. Most in the puritanical folk scene feared “pop” as a commercial intrusion on all that was holy and righteous. The closest competitor might have been Minnesota’s Little Sandy Review, which folded just before Crawdaddy! got going, but it was a folk-zine that managed to say nice things about Dylan at Newport but was hardly devoted to popular music. Yet it was the 17-year-old kid who believed that rock 'n' roll -- or just “rock” as it became known as its seriousness climbed the charts -- could reach the aesthetic, political, and social equal of any other art form. Maybe it could even deliver transcendence, but then again, that was the kind of idealism that would prove Crawdaddy!’s undoing.

Other rock critics were out there, sort of, but nobody had yet started a mag devoted to rock music. Depending on who or when you ask, claimants to invention criticism might include Jane Scott of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Al Aronowitz of the New York Post, and even Ralph Gleason of the San Francisco Chronicle. Robert Christgau, for instance, insists The Village Voice invented what we understand as rock criticism, beginning with Richard Goldstein’s “Pop Eye” column in 1965. And if you ask Richard Meltzer, he asserts his own paternity in the discussion, citing origins circa 1965 in a seminar paper he wrote for Allan Kaprow’s class at Stony Brook, (which was the basis of The Aesthetics of Rock). But, not to put to fine a point on it, Meltzer ended up writing for Crawdaddy!

Origins debates are silly, but there's little doubt that Crawdaddy! birthed and bequeathed an idiom that captured the frenetic register of a new (perhaps uniquely American) style of rock criticism. Sure you have the quasi-academic writing of Greil Marcus, and Robert Christgau’s belle-lettre Consumer Reports, but Crawdaddy furnished a zesty and zeigiesty index, and portended the more gonzo chroniclers of rock to come.

Williams' little rag proved to be a lightning rod of a magazine raised in the early morning calm and drawing down the many charges just beginning to split the cultural atmosphere. “The Sixties” of modern lore had barely taken off. Ties and jackets could still be seen on the Berkeley campus. Dylan had just changed the world the previous August with the snare shot that opened Highway 61 Revisitedand had weathered the storm of boos at Newport when he went electric. US ground troops had landed in Vietnam only months before. The Beatles’ Revolver would not come out until the following summer. There was no Rolling Stone and no Creem. His little typewritten, typo-laden, three-stapled mimeographs were it. He was as much progenitor as critic of the changes about to engulf young white America.

Williams’ rhetorical style in the early Crawdaddy! shows an uncanny amount of zeitgeist, a few dashes of energy what would be called “new journalism”, and a sprinkling of adolescent male mumbling. Some of the rhetoric is priceless. Of the British invasion pablum, “Teenage Failure”, by the duo Chad & Jeremy (noted for their appearances on the Dick Van Dyke, Patty Duke, and Batman shows as garden variety Beatlemania stand-ins), Williams wrote, “This is a finky song. The words are dumb, the vocal is nasal and annoying as well as unconvincing. The melody is puerile. The arrangement is competent enough, but wasted.” In the following week’s edition, he declared Noel Harrison’s painfully bad cover of Bob Dylan’s “(It’s All Over Now) Baby Blue” to be “terrible… totally devoid of any emotion… unimaginative, rasping.” “I wouldn’t buy a copy of this record,” he concluded, “if I were Noel Harrison’s mother.”

Yet Crawdaddy! was a long way from mere teenage snark. When Paul Simon read Williams’ insightful review of Sounds of Silence in the first issue, he called him up -- finally getting him on the floor phone in his freshmen dorm. Simon reported that Williams’ review was the “most intelligent” thing he had ever read about the duo’s work. Williams had devoted more words to that album than anything else in the first issue. There he situated Simon and Garfunkel less in the context of poetry or, worse, in the binary of folkies versus rockers, than as “modern bards, poets who know that poems are still meant to be sung, that minstrelsry [sic] is still the best means of communication.”

While Williams’ adolescence pops through, one hears the irrepressible voice of a person inventing a genre as he goes. Simon and Garfunkel are “sparing; they go for the essentials, never committing the Dylan-esque crime of 10 minute songs full of everything but the kitchen sink… It’s not quite rock and roll, nearly but never folk. So what do you call it? Call it poetry… call it music. And call it good. I hope Simon& Garfunkel make a million dollars.” As a result, Williams got to pal around with Simon and Garfunkel. The sheet music to “Kathy’s Song” appeared in the subsequent issue.

Somewhere between issues #3 and #4, Williams dropped out of college and by issue #7, the thing was looking almost professional. The primitive typewritten mimeograph newsletter had become an impressive publication featuring ads and real pictures -- this one with Jefferson Airplane, a band (too) often discussed in the magazine, on the cover. Inside, Sandy Pearlman held forth in an academically dense analysis of the growing influence of Indian music -- or “raga rock”.

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The magazine’s editorialized news section, written by Williams, announced “a group you have to hear. They’re called the Doors.” The news continued for pages and included the death of Mississippi John Hurt, the Yardbirds’ appearance in Blow Up, the fact that the Beatles weren’t breaking up, Bob Dylan was not dead, and Frank Sinatra forgot the words to “Strangers in the Night” during his opening night at the Sands. Another in-depth analysis explored “The Fall of the Vocal Groups”, and extended reviews of Simon and Garfunkel, The Supremes, The Animals, and a young Peter Guralnick holding forth on Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt. It went on for a full 31 pages.

By early 1968, the industry, the artists, and the fans seemed to be slipping into something less pure than Williams had imagined the potential of rock 'n' roll to be when he communed with the the rock 'n' roll muses while crafting that first issue. The music machinery had certainly kicked into overdrive in 1967 with what Williams called the “Beatles Doors Airplane etc.” one can see the young editor suffering from symptoms of a premature case of waning idealism. “Rock writing and thinking has pierced perhaps as far as the first layer of earwax,” he lamented in tones reminiscent of James Agee, “and meanwhile you are feeling this stuff through your bodies.” He needed more. “My form has always been the essay, talking on paper,” he added. In what might be the epitaph for a generation, he claimed, “My subject matter has always been transcendence.”

As it became clear that rock was as much here to pay as it was to stay, young Williams took to chastising his beloved musical form. “Beware the baldersnatch, my son,” he wrote, not yet 20, in a grandfatherly tone. “Beware the confusion that comes at the top, that comes from thousands of people waiting for your new album, that comes from record companies standing in line for the right to spend money on you, that comes from fourteen-page magazine articles about how great you are.” The relation between rock and commerce had become too tight, too constraining, too vivid. “Rock music is the first good music in quite a while to achieve a mass acceptance,” he explained. “It is also one of the few really worthy side-effects of the current state of mass media in the western world.” Yet because the entire rock establishment was wandering, rudderless, toward mass consumer culture, “we are in serious danger right now of blowing the whole bit.”

Long before the worst of stadium rock bloat, the young sage even envisioned the punk movement of the next decade. “We may drive ourselves out of the recording studio and the mass media,” he prophesized, “and back into our garages and audiences of half a dozen friends.”

Williams had “an excellent idea -- commercial, even,” rock writer John Swenson noted in a brief historical overview for a Crawdaddy! anthology in 1976; “but not in the rigorously principled way that Paul clung to until it he couldn't take it any further.” Crawdaddy! folded after Issue 19 in October 1968, just two and half years after it first published. “We started out trying to get the establishment to take rock music seriously,” William recalled, “and before long music became the establishment (and started taking itself pretty seriously).”

Before it ceased publishing, an enormous pool of talent had passed through its pages, setting the foundation for the future of rock criticism. It had featured the writings of Jon Landau, who would go on to be one of the great rock critics, producer of the MC5, and eventually manager and producer of Bruce Springsteen. Peter Guralnick, who began as Williams’ guide to the blues during an interview with Howlin’ Wolf for the magazine, went on to a brilliant career of rock writing, including his two volume masterwork on Elvis among other classics. Sandy Pearlman also wrote for Crawdaddy!, while co-producing Blue Oyster Cult albums and before moving on to producing a variety bands include The Clash. Richard Meltzer, who became one of the wildest of the wild boys of rock criticism (known along with Lester Bangs and Nick Toshes as the Noise Boys), wrote one of the first serious book-length works, The Aesthetics of Rock in 1970, which had been excerpted in Crawdaddy! in 1967.

According to Williams' lore, of which there's no shortage, the young editor became a rock 'n' roll gadfly. In his Zeligesque history, he got turned on to weed by Brian Wilson in the psycho refuge of the Beach Boy’s living room tent. He not only made it to Woodstock, he arrived there with the Grateful Dead in the band’s limo. When you hear the rifle being locked and loaded on The Doors’ “Unknown Soldier”, that’s Paul Williams doing the locking and loading. He served as campaign manager for Timothy Leary’s brief attempt to run for Governor of California against Ronald Reagan -- a mission thwarted by Leary’s prison sentence for a minor drug bust with a major sentence. He was even with John and Yoko in their hotel room during their second Bed-in-For Peace held in Montreal. His voice is in the chorus of “Give Peace a Chance”. When he gave up on Crawdaddy! he began wandering the world of communes, sexual experimentation, drugs, and spiritual searching. He later wrote some of the best books on Dylan ever penned.

“The total budget for the first issue,” Williams recalled, “including postage, mimeograph stencils, paper, ink, 15-cent subway fares, peanut butter sandwiches, and the one album I bought and reviewed (Simon and Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence), was less than four dollars.” Later issues of Crawdaddy! had a significant run of full page ads by record companies and audio equipment brands, but it always remained separate from the growing music establishment.

But different values were already in the works. Jann Wenner launched Rolling Stone magazine in the fall of 1967, half way through Crawdaddy!’s first life cycle, capitalized with a borrowed $7,500, and launched as a more commercial, and more powerful, rock 'n' roll magazine. It would go on to turn the idea of Williams’ magazine inside out, becoming the industry as much as criticizing it. Crawdaddy! would be revived two more times in the '70s, once without Williams and once with him, but it was never the same -- in ways good and bad.

"A lot of people really have no use for rock critics,” admitted Steve Simels in Stereo Review in 1973. “In fact, some cynics have suggested that The Day The Music Died was the day an undergraduate named Paul Williams first conceived the idea for the original Crawdaddy!.

But by now it hardly matters what one thinks about the rock press. For better of worse, like rock 'n' roll itself, it's seemingly here to stay." The birth of rock criticism marked the moment when rock 'n' roll became not just for performers and their immediate audiences, but for nerdy fetishistic critics who parsed lyrics, compared beats, provided the contexts, connected the insider dots, and ranked popping the seal on a new LP just barely below sex (Williams once wrote that “having a brand new Rolling Stones album in your hands is like being a virgin, on the brink.”).

Williams was as prescient about criticism as he was about the commodification of all that was cool and challenging in rock music. Typically forced on us as the soundtrack to liberation in the the '60s and early'70s, the period in which rock offered unadulterated faith, cohesion, and meaning was actually pretty brief. It's now a rare thing indeed, when the editor of a commercial music journal would, as Williams did in the last issue, invite you to not just listen to the music, but to also “curl up inside my world and spit at salesman.”

Jefferson Cowie holds an endowed chair in history at Vanderbilt University. He's author of a number of award winning history books, as well as articles for The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, The New Republic, Dissent, and others. See more of his work at

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