Q: What are you doing in San Diego?
A: The quick answer is, I fell in love with a woman who lives here. And one good thing about being a writer is, you can do your work anywhere, as long as there's a copy store nearby and a three-prong outlet for the computer.
The longer answer is that I was born with California in my blood, even though I spent my first 17 years in the suburbs of Boston. My dad is from Palo Alto. He met my Brooklyn mom at Los Alamos, working on the atomic bomb. So I made my way from Cambridge to New York City to Mendocino to New York again to Glen Ellen, 18 years in the wine country, and now here I am on the outskirts of Greater Tijuana, ready for the 21st Century.
I like Encinitas because it’s on the edge of the wilderness, the Pacific Ocean. Every service imaginable to 20th-century humans is available a mile inland, but where I live it still manages to be a funky little town full of surfers and musicians and people who aren't in too much of a hurry. So I can ride my bicycle to the post office. I don’t mind driving to the supermarket, but riding my bike to the P.O. is very important to me.
Q: Now Mr. Williams, I’m going to make a request of you that I’m fairly sure would provoke a hostile response if you were talking to any other interviewer. Would you tell us some stories about some of the people you met and the scenes and activities you were part of back in the 1960s?
A: I’d rather talk about the American bankers and stockbrokers (and their political and media puppets) and the sucker game they’re running right now on the Mexican people and on the poor in Orange County (your neighborhood next). Except that I honestly feel that no one wants to hear it, which is depressing. Why are we nostalgic for a time when people tried to find out the truth and do something about what was going on, but we resist following the same course now, this decade, this present moment?
Q: Mr. Williams, your blood pressure.
As My blood pressure’s fine. It’s the times, and the citizens of the times. We’re moral idiots. And it’s going to cost us. It does every time. But you want me to tell stories. My friend Ray Mungo, a Southern Californian himself these years (Palm Desert), pegged it at the time. He lifted three words from a Bob Dylan lyric and wrote a book about his ’60s escapades, published in 1969, called Famous Long Ago.
Oh, okay. I’ll try.
Q: Why did you start a rock and roll magazine?
A: Partly just because it had never been done before. I was 17 and heavily influenced and inspired by the two scenes that I’d found to hang out in during my teen years, science fiction fandom and the Cambridge, Massachusetts, folk music thing. Science fiction fans are readers who get involved in a conversation with each other and soon become more interested in the conversation than in the SF stories that brought them together in the first place. They (we) invented the word “fanzine.”
I used to publish a science fiction fanzine when I was 14 and 15, so I knew that the freedom of the press belongs to anyone who owns a typewriter and can cut a stencil and has access to a mimeograph. Actually, 1 put out four or five issues of an independent newspaper/magazine on the school ditto machine when 1 was 9 or 10, so I was always headed in this direction.
I put out my own 'zine, and I read an article in a friend’s ’zine by Jim Warren, publisher of Help! and Famous Monsters of Filmland, about how to become a magazine publisher. He told his own story and got across to me the idea that what you needed was to find an audience that had a keen interest in something that was not yet being covered in a professional magazine and go forth and fill the niche.
So anyway, then I discovered girls and Dave Van Ronk and Howlin’ Wolf and didn’t publish or read any fanzines for a while. I heard Skip James perform in the Club 47. I was a few feet away from him. Got into Bob Dylan and saw him in concert in ’63. And I read a biweekly magazine published in Cambridge called Boston Broadside, which told you who was playing at the coffeehouses and profiled the artists and had a great funny column by Peter Stampfel, who made it possible for a prep school teen to feel hip just by reading and digging him.
And the Rolling Stones converted me to rock and roll (Beach Boys and Beatles had been tempting me too, but the Stones and the Kinks convinced me and made it all right), and Sonny Boy Williamson died and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band came to town. I was at the 47 all three nights. And then off to my freshman year of college, and I missed the scene, got to hanging at the college radio station instead. Had a weekly blues show in the evening and also a rock and roll program one morning a week; and since it was 1965 and there was so much great stuff to play, we usually cut classes and kept the station on the air till noon (it was scheduled to go off at 8:30). And I’m getting more and more into these British bands like the Yardbirds and hitchhiking to New York (from Philadelphia, I was going to Swarthmore) to see the Blues Project, and I’m a Stones fanatic by this point (later the same year), of course. And 1 started thinking that if there were folk music magazines, why not a rock and roll magazine?
I thought I’d call it Crawdaddy! after the club in London where the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds got their start. It was intersession, January 1966, and I said “Fuck it” and hitched to New York and slept on the floor in a friend’s room and went to a couple of record companies and listened to records they gave me and typed. And that weekend I went to another friend’s place in Brooklyn (these were both science fiction connections; one guy later became editor of Heavy Metal and Amazing; the other became one of the leading science fiction book editors of the last few decades) and ran off 500 copies of my ten-page magazine of rock and roll record reviews, the forerunner of Rolling Stone, etc.
I went back to college and stapled them and put ’em in the mail to record companies and disc jockeys and anyone I could think of. Sing Out! magazine gave us an exchange ad, which was generous and supportive, and a few subscriptions came in. And Paul Simon saw my review of Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence album and called me at my freshman dormitory to tell me it was the first intelligent thing that had been written about their music. I was stoked. Couple of deejays sent back enthusiastic postcards. I rushed out a second issue, even less focused than the first. I’d been reading Billboard at the college radio station and the British music papers, and I had the idea that I should review singles and say whether they might be hits or not. But the third issue was a little more interesting and included an article by Richard Farina.
Then before the fourth issue came out there was a gap. Farina died in a motorcycle accident; I decided I had to fly to California for the funeral but didn’t have any money, was arrested at the airport for trespassing (I was looking for a freight pilot who might want to give me a ride!), and was then transported to a police station in Philadelphia. The charge
was soon upped to assaulting an officer—I assaulted his fist with my face and knocked my glasses across the room, after admitting that I wasn’t really a supporter of this Vietnam War.
Spent an exciting night in jail, was released into my mother’s custody after she flew from Boston and came up with 500 bucks for one of those Philadelphia attorneys. At the trial, the cop and his buddy couldn’t get their stories straight, and the guy I supposedly knocked down was clearly a head taller and twice my weight, and the attorney and judge talked privately, and I was released on a technicality. Took the opportunity to drop out of school, which perhaps had been foreshadowed by the smaller and smaller amounts of time I’d been spending at my classes.
I'm used to saying I dropped out of college to publish Crawdaddy!, which makes sense but isn’t strictly true. When I left college I wasn’t sure if I would ever put out another issue.
It had been fun (I got to meet and hangout with Bob Dylan; that’s another story), but it wasn’t really going anywhere.
So look—you get me going and I talk and talk.
Q: Maybe you could skip over the stories of selling issue number four, with its Dylan cover and your Blonde on Blonde review inside, at the Newport Folk Festival, interviewing Howlin’ Wolf and Eric Burdon and John Lee Hooker and Michael Bloomfield, finding previously unpublished writers like Jon Landau (now Bruce Springsteen’s manager) and Peter Guralnick (author of the acclaimed new biography of Elvis) and Richard Meltzer, ahem—skip over all that and talk about how you became part of the underground press scene, the antiwar scene, the drug scene, the rock scene, the hippie scene.
A: It was all the same scene, and moving fast. Growing and changing and twisting in unexpected directions like the Internet. Crawdaddy! and I had gone from the Philadelphia suburbs back to Boston, and then in December of 1966 we (and Tim Jurgens, who’d come east from California to help me; he’d subscribed through the Sing Out! ad) moved to New York City, Greenwich Village. Within a month of arriving in New York, Crawdaddy! was written up in Howard Smith’s “Scenes” column in the Village Voice, and next thing I knew I was at a meeting of Interesting People, and Richard Alpert was telling us about the Human Be-In that had just been held in San Francisco, we were there to talk about bringing it east.
That meeting got all bogged down in talk, but four of us of like mind detached ourselves from the rest of the conversation and went ahead and organized the first New York Be-In, Easter Sunday, 1967 in Central Park. It was really great. We believed in no agenda, no explanation, no entertainment—just let people show up. They did. It was the first time I saw really serious energy surfacing. (The other two major occasions were the March on the Pentagon and Woodstock, although some of my experiences in civil-rights marches four years earlier were not unrelated.)
There was a sense that something was happening, and it just seemed to feed on itself. I saw the Doors at Ondine in New York, and Buffalo Springfield at the Whisky before their first albums came out, and the Airplane and the Dead and Janis at the psychedelic ballrooms in San Francisco. I first smoked dope with a guy from a group called the Lost in Cambridge in September of ’66, but I didn’t get off and didn’t try again until I was interviewing Brian Wilson in his tent in his living room in Bel Air a couple of days before Christmas that same year. The people who were distributing Crawdaddy! in San Francisco and Los Angeles and Boston were also involved with the San Francisco and L.A. Oracles and the East Village Other and L.A. Free Press and Boston’s Avatar, and so I kept meeting interesting people everywhere.
Politics was just part of the mix, unless it happened to be your main thing. I had been part of a group of people who fasted against the war for a week in ’66, while I was still at college; my wrestling coach told me he couldn’t allow it, but I was stubborn. I joined the fast partly just to find out more about the war and how 1 felt about it, and it worked. In 1967 and 1968 I found myself at street demonstrations in New York because they were exciting, because I usually believed in the message we were trying to communicate and also the strategy of raising our voices, and because my best friend was a reporter for the Village Voice, covering such stories, Don McNeill. He got hit on the head by a cop while covering the first Yippie demonstration—a poorly planned melee in Grand Central Station—and the photo of him looking surprised, with blood dripping down on his press card was one of the many memorable images of the era.
Q: Did you get to San Diego at all during this time?
A: Not until 1971. But I did arrive in Los Angeles, on my first visit to California ever, a few days after the December 1966 “riots" on Sunset Strip.
Q: What was it like?
A: Disorienting. I met Buffalo Springfield, I think, because I knew the Youngbloods from back East, and they were in town, and a young woman who worked for their manager was a Springfield fan. I already loved their first single, “Nowadays Clancy." And anyway, at some point I heard Stephen Stills sing this new song they were all talking about, just recorded it the day before, “For What It’s Worth.” Something’s happening here.... And Michael Vosse drove me up the hill to Brian Wilson’s mansion, and I stayed there a couple of days, listening to acetates of tracks from Smile, talking and talking with Brian, I couldn't tell you about what, filming and being filmed by him with the new videocassette camera/player Capitol Records had given him for Christmas, meeting the Beach Boys at the recording studio and at a dinner—they were just back from England—and attending a Smile recording session. And back at the mansion, standing in the heated pool with Brian at 3:00 a.m., all the twinkling lights of the city far below, the dogs who barked on Pet Sounds watching us, smoking dope, and having these great ideas.
Q: How’d you end up in all these interesting places?
A: I was lucky. The thing called the rock press was being invented right along with rock music, and I happened to be there at the right time. I also had fairly good musical taste, I think I can say—or else I just stumbled into all the right things. But Brian Wilson was definitely the person I wanted to meet in L.A. And I was 18 and more enthusiastic than ambitious in the normal sense (although I certainly had all the ambition of somebody who wants to be a part of changing the world dramatically—it’s a natural addiction, once you get a taste of it). So it was easy enough for me to forget about “getting a story" and just hang out and be part of things. It helped that I was my own editor, my own boss.
Q: Did you do a lot of interviews with musicians?
A: The strange thing is, I didn’t do any; I mean, not to the point of transcribing and publishing them. The 1966 blues interviews mentioned earlier are, I think, the only interviews I did with musicians in the 1960s that actually got published. Arthur Lee of Love and Brian Wilson are two people I remember pointing a microphone at, but later there was nothing on the tape that could be transcribed in sentences, as narrative. Communication had been taking place, but it must have been largely by telepathy. 1 think that often happens when you talk with musicians.
Eric Burdon, Mike Bloomfield, and Pete Townshend were exceptions. Great talkers. I’m not sure why I never published a Townshend interview—I think because we were just hanging out most of the times I talked with him (backstage at the Murray the K holiday show in early 1967, the first time the Who or Cream played in the U.S.; backstage at Woodstock in 1969, where Pete refused to tell me what sign he was, and later I found out we have the same birthday). But there was at least one great long conversation at the Gorham hotel in New York in 1968. Don McNeill and I had gone specifically to interview Townshend, and he was brilliantly articulate on subjects ranging from the unusual sonic qualities of “Pictures of Lily” to his favorite science fiction novels to the future of our great collective rock and roll-LSD-new politics-new culture experiment. I don’t remember even trying to edit or transcribe this; 1 suspect it must have been a case of nonfunctioning tape recorder or something.like that. There’s a theory that the very best stuff never lets itself get captured on tape.
But I had some great successes interviewing producers, who can be excellent storytellers. Paul Rothchild talked about producing the Doors’ first album, including the now-legendary tale of Jim Morrison on LSD recording “The End." We did that interview before anybody knew who the Doors were. And David Anderle, who had been in charge of the Beach Boys’ independent record company, was eloquent on the subject of working with Brian WiLson and why the famous Smile album was never completed.
I hung out with musicians whose work I liked whenever I got the chance, but I think most of the time I felt that pulling out a tape recorder would get in the way of being friends, which was important to me—there was no pretense of professionalism, really. We were anti-professional, the idea was that we were all part of the same scene, including—at least at first—the audience. As the musicians became more famous and the audience became
celebrity-watchers rather than participants, things changed a lot. And the pressure was on journalists to provide stories about colorful people and scenes, rather than music. That hasn’t changed. But for me it was always the music that was most important. I wanted to write for the passionate listener, rather than the voyeur.
Q: What happened to CrawdaddyP.
A: I left at the end of 1968, after three years. Friends of mine put out the next four issues but couldn’t keep the business thing going. But then after a break of a few months, it came back in that folded-newspaper format that Rolling Stone also had in the early years. It became a magazine again in the early ’70s and came out every month until 1979. The owners of the magazine (I never actually sold it; just kind of walked away—I knew if I wanted to sell it and get paid I’d have to stay around New York for another year, and when I left I just wanted to go on to the next thing, which turned out to be a cabin in the woods in Mendocino) decided in 1979 that they wanted to expand their base, be more than a music magazine. So they changed the name to Feature, and a couple of months later they were out of business.
I always felt that it was because the name Crawdaddy! had some strange magic, and when they changed the name it was all over.
Q: You mentioned the march on the Pentagon in 1967. What made you take part in that?
A: What makes you decide to go down to the stadium to celebrate the Chargers winning the league championship? You say it’s because you love the team, but it’s mostly because of this feeling that something special is happening and you have the chance to be part of it. I remember reading about the upcoming march in the newspapers the last few days before it happened, and maybe because the people in Washington were getting very nervous about the whole thing, I started getting the feeling that this could turn into something real (a lot of marches were just stupid, of course) and so I wanted to be there. At the last minute I decided to get up at dawn and catch one of the chartered buses that was taking New Yorkers to the demonstration.
Spontaneity. People have to be in a state of mind to do things spontaneously if change and evolution are going to take place. The march itself was planned to go from the Washington Monument to this park a mile from the Pentagon, and that was it, although some of my nutty friends (including Abbie Hoffman) had been saying in the underground press that what we really needed to do was surround the Pentagon and levitate it. There was even a great handbill promoting the idea by an artist named Marty Carey (eight months earlier we’d promoted the New York Be-In with a handbill designed and donated by Peter Max), but there wasn’t really any organization, it was a vision or a hippie joke, take your pick.
But you see, there was just such a lot of energy in the air at that moment, in this case the energy of a huge crowd of us gathered from around the country to show how much we hated this war, and hanging out in a park listening to speeches just wasn’t going to be a suitable release of that energy. I remember seeing a break in the fence and people going through it, and suddenly there were hundreds and then thousands of us running across the grass in the direction of the Pentagon.
It was unplanned, unexpected, and so they didn’t stop us until we actually got to the Pentagon, filled the parking lot with our massed bodies. We were only a small part of the 35,000 or whatever it was who’d marched from the monument, mostly the younger members of the crowd, but there were still thousands and thousands of us. We were met by members of the Army Airborne forces, who drew up lines around the perimeters between us and the buildings. We pushed forward (and in some places, they did) until there was only a few feet between us, at which point we sat down, a row of unarmed scruffy kids (with many more behind us) facing a row of Army troops pointing loaded rifles at us (fixed bayonets on the ends).
Standoff. Earlier, in the chaos as we moved into the parking lot and explored the area, the confrontations were more mobile and explosive. I was hit on the head by a billy club at one point but fortunately not hurt (it stung) or discouraged. The clubs were wielded by DC cops or U.S. marshals. When I was at the front of one of the lines facing the troops (very much like being in front of the stage when slam dancing is happening—you’re in the zone), I remember roving U.S. marshals would occasionally reach through the line of troops and grab someone who was inching forward from our side a little more than the others. They weren’t set up to make mass arrests, but they would grab a person here and a person there.
We were there all night. Norman Mailer wrote a book about it, which I’ve never read, called The Armies of the Night. He and a number of prominent antiwar figures got themselves arrested in a sort of scripted nonviolent protest (I’m not sure if it was before or after our freeform invasion started) and spent the night in jail. The standoff left our gang controlling an expanse of open space, I remember it as being parking lots, but also elevated, like it could have also involved roofs of underground garages. If you weren't into being on the confrontation line (I did that for a few hours, I think), then you could walk around. It had been a warm day, and most of us weren’t dressed for what turned out to be quite a cold autumn night. We started bonfires—I don’t know what the fuel was, maybe there had been a lot ofwmxlen barricades—and gathered around them. The troops and cops had apparently been instructed to wait us out. It was still the lohnson era. The powers that be were definitely afraid of creating a situation in which young protesters might be killed.
At one point I went exploring and ended up on a long walk. I did run into people from the demonstration—it was a little vague how far the line went, and then I realized I’d gone outside the demonstration and wouldn’t be able to get back in (cops blocked my way). So I kept on in the direction I was going and ended up actually circling the Pentagon (it’s huge) and slipping back into the demonstration on the other side.
It was thrilling. It definitely felt like the Storming of the Steps or some such historical event. Liberated territory. The outlaw zone. There weren’t that many of us left in the morning (it got colder and colder), and I left around dawn; I think the hundreds that stayed were eventually arrested a few hours later, arrested and released later that day or a day later. I actually ended up flying back to New York (those were the days of “youth fare," half-price under 21, I loved it) sitting next to Jimmy Breslin, who’d been covering the event for the New York Post. I think I was too high, not on drugs but on the weirdness and intensity of the experience, to have much of a conversation with him. I might also have been kind of sleepy by that point.
Q: Did you ever meet the Beatles?
A: Not exactly. But I sang on the first Plastic Ono Band record, "Give Peace a Chance."
A: It was Jann Wenner’s fault. He asked me to interview Timothy Leary for Rolling Stone in early 1969, shortly after I’d left Crawdaddy! I did the interview, which was never published because Tim and I teased Jann in a friendly way at one point about how far was he going to go in being part of the revolution, and Jann was embarrassed to publish it and embarrassed to edit it out. But Tim and I got to know each other a little, and a few months later he called me at my commune in Mendocino—the cabin in the woods had become a hippie commune—and said he was going to run for governor of California and would I like to be his campaign manager.
I held the post for about ten days. First we went to San Luis Obispo, where he lectured to a big crowd of students in the gym (“Here, Paul, eat some of this. Now go out there and introduce me”), and then to a rock festival in Hollywood, Florida, with the Grateful Dead and the Youngbloods and maybe Quicksilver Messenger Service. There was a problem, and most of the acts didn’t get paid, including Tim, but we (Tim, his wife, Rosemary, and me) did get our tickets to New York, where Tim held a press conference (illogically enough) to announce that he was running for governor of California. And then we found out that John and Yoko were planning to do a Bed-In for Peace in Montreal, like the one they’d recently done for their honeymoon in Amsterdam, subject of the Beatles’ then-current single “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (“They’re gonna crucify me”). So, of course, we had to go to Montreal. Tim called Playboy and told his contact there that I would conduct a joint interview with Tim and John at their first meeting, at the Bed-In, and got Playboy to front us the plane tickets.
When we got there, John and Yoko were in bed, of course, in a huge hotel room with a fair crowd of cameramen and Hare Krishnas and newspaper reporters and local hip dignitaries, etc., all neatly choreographed by the Beatles' most skilled and loyal minder, Derek Taylor, whom I’d met back when he was doing PR for the Beach Boys and, I think, the Byrds. John was on the phone, talking live on the air on one U.S. radio station after another, explaining what a Bed-In was and his and Yoko’s vision of peace and answering questions about the Beatles’ controversial new record (once he'd accidentally stirred up a hornet’s nest by saying the Beatles were more popular than Jesus and eventually had to apologize; now, a few years later, he was purposefully inserting “Christ" into a Beatles song in hopes of stirring up controversy and thus world attention for his message, his cause).
As visiting hip dignitaries, we were promptly introduced, and Tim and Rosemary and John and Yoko spoke for a few minutes before we had to step out of the precise center of the energy and instead relish our positions right there beside it, observing and enjoying and hanging out in the fashion one quickly learns in the presence of rock stars and, I suppose.
other forms of royalty. It was a fascinating afternoon, and then at some point John’s incredible workday was over (Yoko was totally present beside him in every communication but didn’t give the same impression of “working,” because she was so calm and centered, balancing his wonderful outgoing frenetic vibe). It was as though a bell had gone off, and the whole world was politely and efficiently ushered out, and John and Yoko got out of bed and padded over in their pajamas to visit and have room service dinner with Tim and Rosemary and Derek and me.
A fabulous visit. I did turn on the tape recorder and caught John strumming a guitar and sharing his new song “Give Peace a Chance”; and Rosemary and Tim telling a story about
a recent acid trip at a rural retreat near Laguna, camping out for several days up some holy hill; John and Yoko replying excitedly with tales of mystical voyages off Scotland and of a recent cruise in the Aegean, where John, basically an urban kid, slept outdoors under the stars for the first time in his life. Tim explained his gubernatorial platform (something about a marijuana tax) and said that he and Rosemary were really running together, as a couple, and that he/they tremendously admired John and Yoko’s revolutionary expression of coupleness as opposed to the cult of individuality, and that their campaign slogan was “Come Together, Join the Party!” and would John please consider writing a campaign song? He did fool around with it a little on the guitar, as the conversation and good feeling continued on into the evening, and every time I’ve run into Tim Leary in the last dozen years or so, he’s asked me about the tape, no doubt thinking a tiny piece of the royalties from the Beatles’ subsequent number-one record (yeah, “Come Together”) would be a pleasant thing to have.
Indeed. But I have to tell him each time, there is no more tape. I transcribed it, sent the story to Playboy under the title “Things We Said Today," and got a rejection, too real a conversation, not an interview at all. Lost my last copy of the transcript when I failed to get it back from another magazine editor and lost the tape when I moved to a wilderness commune and gave my copy to my most retentive collector friend, who promptly moved to a commune himself and actually let go of his burdensome possessions. It was the times. Something in that conversation wanted to get out from under the camera’s eye, the microphone's surveillance, and I respect that. The public eye must not be all-seeing.
The next day J&Y got us and the Hare Krishnas and Tommy Smothers together in another, smaller hotel room converted into a recording studio, and we all sang “Give Peace a Chance," which is how I became a charter member of the Plastic Ono Band (you can see me swaying and clapping in the video, which was shot more or less over my shoulder). Then it was time to go. Al Capp, creator of “L’il Abner,” had been flown to the Bed-In by Canadian television to make their documentary more interesting; and he performed well, asking John and Yoko if this was how they would have resisted Hitler’s advances, provoking his less-experienced debating partners into a rather inarticulate rage. John began referring to him as “ Al Crap,” but Tim Leary knew Capp from past media-promoted confrontations, and they were old chums as well as adversaries; so, of course, Capp offered us a ride back to the States on the six-seater plane CBC had chartered so he could make his next appointment.
Leary was a great fan of the science fiction novels of my friend Philip K. Dick but had never met him, so sometime during those two days I arranged for Leary to call Dick from John Lennon’s hotel suite, which tickled Phil tremendously. We gave John and Yoko a copy of Dick’s novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and later I believe John told Rolling Stone he wanted to make a movie of it (of course, he never did).
Q: Can I ask you a personal question?
Q: If you never got any money for Crawdaddy!, and Playboy rejected the “Lennon/Leary” piece, and so forth, how did you eat?
As Well, I didn’t have any trust fund, if that’s what you’re getting at. The secret of my success as a self-employed writer has always been, “Keep the overhead low." My apartment in New York City in 1967 cost $85 a month, the compound in Mendocino cost $75 a month till they threw us out, and the homestead on an island in western Canada belonged to the parents of one of the guys who lived there and was basically free, except for coming up with land tax once a year. I sold books—the first one, a collection of rock essays from Crawdaddy!, called Outlaw Blues was published in 1969—and some magazine articles, liner notes, whatever came along. Playboy'sent me to Woodstock; they rejected that story also (again, too real, I was never your basic objective journalist), but we lived on the kill fee for months.
I learned real early to make the money last and not to count on income I hadn’t received yet. It got and still gets kinda hairy at times, but the tradeoff s a simple one: fewer things, more freedom. And that freedom includes writing what I want to write, rather than what the market wants from me. The benefit, of course, is that I still enjoy writing and feel happy about most of the work I’ve done. And I’ve managed to raise a family on the 50 cents or so I get every time someone wants a book of mine bad enough to buy a copy. I would have liked to have gotten one of those big advances you hear about, but not getting them, I haven’t had to bear the personal or professional consequences of getting paid well for a book that didn’t meet sales expectations.
Q: How many books have you written and published?
A: There’s different ways of counting, but I figure that Energi Inscriptions, which was published in June, is the 21st. And that’s not including some of the books I’ve edited. I’m currently working on a project to get the life work of a great American short story writer, Theodore Sturgeon, back into print. I’m editing a series of books called The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon. Volume one in the series, The Ultimate Egoist, was published last February. Sturgeon was a brilliant writer of science fiction and fantasy who died in 1985. Editing and annotating these volumes—there will be at least ten before we’re finished—is a real labor of love for me, time-consuming and financially unrewarding and extremely satisfying.
Q: Were you going to tell us how you met Bob Dylan?
A: Yeah, well, that takes us back to the beginnings of Crawdaddy!, February 1966. Dylan and his band were coming to Philadelphia, so I sent copies of the first two issues to the theater and asked for free tickets to the concert, and, P.S., any chance of getting an interview? So they passed them along to Dylan, who was just entering his rock and roll phase and I guess was charmed by the idea of a 17-year-old kid putting out a rock magazine. He invited me to his hotel room, and we talked for two or three hours, and I was also given backstage passes for the concert. A few weeks later, the Blues Project came to Swarthmore for the first-ever college rock and roll festival, which I was only peripherally involved in. I introduced myself to Al Kooper, and he said, “Oh yeah, I heard all about you from Bob Dylan.”
Dylan was very friendly and easy to talk to, maybe because I didn’t have a tape recorder and wasn’t trying to do an “interview.”
We talked about getting together after he got back from Australia, but I didn’t meet him again until 1980 When he'd “gone Christian” in 1979, I wrote a little book called Dylan—What Happened?, which, despite the title, was as much a defense of an artist’s right to follow his own path as it was a critique. Dylan must have appreciated a sympathetic voice (I also praised his movie Retuildo & Clara) at a time when he was being attacked from all quarters, because he bought 100 copies of the book and invited me backstage when he and his band played another two-week stand in San Francisco the following year.
My then-wife Sachiko and I spent about two hours with him backstage after the show each night for four nights, and again he was friendly and fun to be with. He read me the lyrics to a song he was working on, which turned out to be “Every Grain of Sand.” Since then I’ve written two huge books about Dylan’s music (Boh Dylan—Performing Artist, Volumes I and II) but haven’t seen him again, except, of course, onstage, at his shows, which I go to every chance I get. I met my current life companion, Cindy Lee Berryhill, at a Dylan concert in 1992, and I’ve just come back from a dream vacation (thanks to frequent-flyer miles) attending a dozen European Dylan concerts, in Prague, Paris, Brussels, and various cities in Holland and Germany.
Q: What is Ettergi Inscriptions?
A: Oh hell, I can’t describe these books. It’s really an essay on sort of everyday philosophical or spiritual or emotional issues, influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the I Ching. But the essay is presented a thought at a time, as a way of slowing down the reader and allowing her or him to fill in the blanks more for themselves, the way you might chew on a Zen riddle or an interesting late-night comment from a friend. So there’s sometimes just a few lines or even a couple of words on a page. It looks like aphorisms, but it’s not, really, just a continuous essay slowed down to be a different sort of reading experience.
When I was living on the island commune in Canada in 1970, I found myself writing this strange book called Das Energi, a few lines a day, very guilty because I should have been working in the garden or otherwise making myself useful. Das Energi was turned down by lots of publishers, and finally Elektra Records decided to put it out, their first and only book, in 1973. It turned into a sort of word-of-mouth bestseller, absolutely no reviews (what can you say about that kind of book?), but people liked it and gave it to their friends, and at this point it’s been through 22 printings in the United States and has sold at least as many copies as all my other books put together.
As a result. I’ve been able occasionally to get other books published in the same format. It’s actually a very satisfying way to write when the inspiration strikes, which for me tends to be once every five or ten years. Each book has its own voice, which is also partly my voice, and partly, if things work out right, the reader’s voice. None of them has approached the popularity of Das Energi. There’s some sort of message in that book that really reaches certain people, and I’ll tell you honestly, I don’t exactly know what that message is. But I think, anyway, that songs or books are not about preexisting information but about something that is created at the moment that the words connect with the reader or listener. I’m a strong believer that the reader has to do (and deserves credit for) at least half the work.
Q: You were the literary executor for Philip K. Dick. -
A: I was turned on to his novels back in 1967 by Art Spiegelman, now the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Maus, then an obscure underground cartoonist. Phil and I met at a science fiction convention in 1968 and were close friends until his death in 1982, the same year the film Blade Runner came out, based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In 1975 I’d written a profile of Dick for Rolling Stone, and I co-published Confessions of a Crap Artist, the first time Dick was able to get one of his novels published that wasn’t science fiction. Anyway, after his death, his daughter Laura hired me as literary executor, and I supervised the publication of more than a dozen unpublished books and helped arrange for publication of his collected stories and six volumes of correspondence. I started the Philip K. Dick Society, whose principal activity was a newsletter published for Dick’s fans and readers around the world. We put out 30 issues in the course of ten years, and I still get letters constantly from new fans ordering back issues. When people discover Dick’s work, they want to read everything by and about him.
And you’re publishing Crawdaddy! again, in San Diego?
A: Yeah, but it's real small scale. It’s a newsletter featuring long, in-depth essays about new and old records and what they mean to me or whoever’s writing the piece—very much like the original Crawdaddy!, when I was first doing it. except this time I won’t take advertising and I don't want the magazine to grow into something bigger. We sell about 1000 copies, mostly by subscription; and I’d love to have more subscribers, but I don’t want newsstand distribution or photos of rock stars on the cover or calls from publicists or any of that stuff. The people who read the magazine are really into serious, personal, honest writing about music. They’re a tremendously challenging and responsive and rewarding audience for me to write for. And that more than anything is what a writer needs—an audience that requires and appreciates the best work he or she can possibly do. It's really not an easy thing to come by, a good audience—you can try to mock it up, but it won’t work for long.
Writing for me has been a lifelong struggle to get into that place where I can feel someone on the other side of the words pulling them out of me, and if I haven’t gone deep enough or been honest enough or spoken clearly enough, I know it and am forced to go back and try again and again. For me, getting paid is definitely a motivation, bpt it isn’t enough of a motivation. You can do crappy work and get paid for it and do brilliant work and not get paid for it, let’s face it.
And I love music. I want to write about the music I love, but I don’t ever want it to degenerate into just a job, an obligation. It’s a very fine balance. I mean, already, after only eight issues of the new Crawdaddy!, I feel a responsibility to my subscribers to write about the things I believe they want to read about, and so forth, which can definitely get in the way of my sense of freedom as a writer. But it also gives me some guidance, some input, some frameworks to work within—absolute freedom is also worthless. In fact, the need for money and other people’s deadlines, etc., etc., have often been very helpful to me in causing me to undertake and complete good work I could never have managed otherwise.
Q: Any last words?
Just that the other reason for Crawdaddy!s return is that there’s as much good new music around right now as there’s ever been, maybe more. And plenty of interesting people to meet. And that I’m enjoying living here on the edge of the ocean and the edge of the century and the edge of the rest of the hemisphere. Stay true to what feeds you and, you know, watch out for falling bluffs.