SXSW Interview: Paul Williams on ‘Paul Williams Still Alive’

Fred Topel tracks down the man with an incredible showbiz history to discuss his new documentary.  

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

 

A straight documentary on songwriter Paul Williams would have plenty of material, but Stephen Kessler’s Paul Williams Still Alive has a spirit of fun that embraces Williams’ quirky side. Kessler found footage of Williams skydiving in his personal VHS archive, and follows Williams on a current tour performing the songs made hits by the likes of Barbra Streisand and Three Dog Night. Kessler got to spend years with Williams, but we’re glad we got 20 minutes at SXSW.

 

CraveOnline: Was addressing the documentary format within the movie important to you?

Paul Williams: There certainly was never any intended irreverence. We were talking about our favorite documentaries last night. There’s a documentary called Southern Comfort, an amazing documentary about the transsexual community. It’s a straight documentary, it’s just stunning. The Devil and Daniel Johnston, amazing docs. But to be in that experience where you’re out in front of the camera and all, I think that moment on the street, I’m so grateful that he shot that moment on the street where I had to be honest. It was so weird for me to just pretend the camera wasn’t there. As I said in the scene, I’m an actor, I can ignore the camera, I’m an entertainer, I can play to it but there’s this weird bullsh*t place that I’m just feeling really uncomfortable. If you come in here and we can talk about this stuff, then I don’t have to go crazy whether I play to the camera. It just made it so much more comfortable to me. At that point it was about comfort. I had no idea it would become a tool about how the relationship [developed]. The friendship really begins at that moment. I think that’s when you really begin to develop the relationship.

 

CraveOnline: Even when you’re sitting down inside, you ask him to leave in the part where he interrupts [and] you call him on it. You kind of direct him.

Paul Williams: I don’t think it’s so much that as me challenging him to say, “Share this. I’m telling you this meaningful story about my dad. You’re interrupting to ask about a f***ing talent show.” I don't know how much of that was him manipulating me or whatever, but the fact is I think it’s just what occurred to him, what he wanted to know. But I love the fact that he put it in the movie. I love that he was willing to pull his own covers, but then of course he follows it with a quick cut of me answering the question he wants me to answer, which is pretty funny, is pretty entertaining I think.

 

CraveOnline: When you perform shows, you sing all your hits and you have no bones about doing the popular ones?

Paul Williams: No, it’s funny because those are the songs they want to hear. I’ll always have something that’s new that’s something that I’m loving at the moment that has got that freshness, but at this point in my life, the people that come to my show – and thankfully it’s all ages, a sprinkling from all ages – but the bulk of the people who come to my show are people that are closer to my age. They have specific songs they want to hear. One of the best parts, the guys who play in my band have been with me since 1927 so what’s cool is I’ll open it up to requests and there are some really oblique requests you get, and Cass can play them all, the guy that I work with. He’s fabulous. So we do whatever we can do that they can ask for.

 

CraveOnline: Do most songwriters ever get that, where they can become the performer of a song that was a hit for another artist they wrote for?

Paul Williams: Well, I said if I was the only one who sang my songs, I’d be hot walking horses right now. People don’t long to go to sleep to the sound of my voice. My albums were like demos of my songs. I joke that I made albums that even my family didn’t buy. But what happened when the albums came out is that the A&R departments of the labels and the record producers and the artists would nail songs out of there. So that’s how all those songs wound up getting recorded by all those other people. In a way my own album, my own artistic endeavor, was in fact a bridge to placing those songs.

 

CraveOnline: Was the one tape you wanted the director to find the skydiving video we see throughout the film?

Paul Williams: Yeah, yeah. I made a short film called Grim Business that we never released and never put together. It was about a 15-18 minute freefall film. I just love that footage. There’s memories of such freedom in that. My daughter said yesterday, my daughter wants copies of some of the home movies. The opening footage of the ground spinning, when the freefall cameraman is shooting the footage and all, and when you get down below 1500 feet, 1200 feet minimum is when he has to open his shoot. Around 2000 feet is suggested but these guys will zoom it a little bit. Then they usually don’t turn off their camera until they’re on the ground, so you’ve got this footage of just spinning, plummeting. I think it’s really effectively used.

 

CraveOnline: What do you think of music today? There’s a song out called “Sexy and I Know It” that goes: “Girl, look at that body. Girl, look at that body. Girl, look at that body. I work out.”

Paul Williams: [Laughs] You know what, forget about Ira Gershwin. Those are lyrics. You know what, creative freedom. When rap really started to hit in the ‘80s, and the ‘80s and ‘90s are pretty much lost for me, listening to rap was like urban poetry. That’s different from what I did but that’s urban poetry. That’s street poetry. At ASCAP, we just honored Dr. Dre which is fabulous. I think that the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, you’ll begin to see the addition of some musical genres that probably certain writers of the great American song would sit up in their graves and go, “You’re doing what?” But it’s meaningful art.

 

CraveOnline: What did you think of the new Muppet movie?

Paul Williams: Oh, I enjoyed it a lot. I always say I’ve got felt in my DNA. I have such a history with them and all and I loved the way they used “Rainbow Connection” at the end. I was thrilled with the comments when “Man or Muppet” won. That was very, very generous from Bret. But there was a wonderful song in there too when Kermit’s wondering what he could’ve done differently. “Pictures in My Head” kind of jumped out of me as “Oh, that’s really fine.” I have a great history with them. Right before that came out they did “The Green Album” and there are some wonderful recordings on “The Green Album.” I’ve got a half dozen songs on there. My Morning Jacket doing a medley from “Emmett Otter” is just killer. It’s the best I’ve ever heard it song.

 

CraveOnline: How did you like the new arrangement of “Rainbow Connection,” starting as a solo, then a duet, then a chorus and then bringing in the rhythm section?

Paul Williams: I did. I thought it worked beautifully. The buildup to the finale of the picture was beautiful. And I love people’s emotional response to it. I got a lot of people saying, “Hey, I saw The Muppets and the ending of the film made me cry.” So Kenny Ascher who is my co-writer and I enjoyed it. Evidence of tears is always like “They cried again. Kenny, we’re all right.”

 

CraveOnline: What do you think of new venues available for music like iTunes and even songs as ringtones?

Paul Williams: Part of my gig as president of ASCAP, we have 430,000 members, and I am a huge fan of technology. My wife is always screaming at me, “Stop staring at your hand.” We’ll be driving through Ireland and she’s going, “This is Ireland, look out the window.” And I’m going, “Yeah, but I just found out who played Lincoln in whatever!” The great thing about the technology is that there are more amazing devices than ever before in the history of the world to enjoy music on. There’s more music being played on more devices more often. It’s just scarred it across the universe. All of these opportunities for music to be played are all wonderful as long as we can make sure that the music creator continues to make a viable living with their music. Things like iTunes and Spotify, we license all of the streaming sites. We love that the music is available. We just want to make sure that everybody can still make a living at it, not have to get a day job as a plumber.

 

CraveOnline: Do you deal with piracy issues too?

Paul Williams: Absolutely, absolutely. I think that piracy or theft is being dealt with. I don’t want to get into a conversation about the specifics of that. I don’t want to jump into this whole thing about SOPA and PIPA again but I think there is a misconception of a certain generation that we’re going after our rights, that because it’s in the center rectangle of your computer that it should be free. The fact is right now when you and I are talking, there’s somebody writing a song on headphones so they don’t wake the baby in the next room trying to come up with something that the world is going to listen to. That person deserves to be compensated for their music. The court system and legislators are working with us to make sure that the laws are enforced. We’ll do anything we can to continue that but also, and this is key, I don’t want to see anybody shut down. If there is a foreign website that is illegally posting music, I don’t want to see that website disappear. I want to find a viable way for us to work together and keep the music playing and get a fair payment for the songwriters.

 

CraveOnline: Did you ever want to write a song for someone that they couldn’t do?

Paul Williams: Oh, half the songs I wrote for people they didn’t wind up doing and someone else did. That happened again and again and again.

 

CraveOnline: How about any whose abilities couldn’t perform the song?

Paul Williams: No, not really. I took great delight in even a bad recording of one of my songs. I had great recordings of bad songs and bad recordings of great songs. It was all pieces of the journey.

 

CraveOnline: How close did you get to landing The Monkees?

Paul Williams: Well, I auditioned and Stephen Stills auditioned, but we were both contract writers or songwriters with publishing deals other places. So I think that we were never really in the running because it was going to be a Screen Gems publishing situation. But through the years, I got to know the guys. Mike Nesmith and I shared the same manager for a while. I saw Davy about six months ago down in Hilton Head. Mickey is the one who took Bugsy Malone and adapted it for the stage. So I’ve had interactions with almost all of them except Peter and good guys, all good guys. I’m blessed. In my life, no is a gift. When I don’t get something that I think I want, turns out my life turned out much better than it would’ve if I’d been a Monkee.

 

CraveOnline: What do you think of singing shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice?”

Paul Williams: I think they’re great because it’s a chance for more music to be heard by more great writers. The fact is if you want to know the absolute truth, I’m a big fan of reality crime shows. “The First 48” is my favorite show. In my next life, I’m going to be a detective. That’s it, get up at four in the morning and go to a bloody crime scene.