Saturday, 19 May 2012

Paul Williams 'Someday Man'

There's a Paul Williams documentary called Still Alive which has just come out in the States. Rumer has recorded his Travellin' Boy on her new album. So it seems a good time to take a look at his first solo album, Someday Man, a personal touchstone. I talked to Paul about it in 2001. Here's what he had to say.

"Some people always complain that their life is too short, so they hurry it along
Their worries drive them insane but they still go along for the ride
As for me, I have all the time in the world..."


It's early 1970, and Paul Williams and Roger Nichols have been writing a few songs together. Great songs, too, that saw them shaping up as a Goffin and King for listeners who had hung around soda fountains listening to Bobby Vee in their early teens. For Up On The Roof, there was Harper's Bizarre's The Drifter; for Oh No Not My Baby, read To Put Up With You by The American Breed. But while there was plenty of work rolling in, notching up hits was a different matter.

"We were just about convinced that we'd never have a smash single. We almost sank The Monkees with Someday Man - Listen To The Band on the B-side got more airplay." The release of Paul's debut album, then, was never likely to test the noblesse of that opening lyric. By the end of the following year, the Nichols/Williams team was America's most in-demand.

Nichols was from Missoula, Montana, a city at the convergence of five mountain ranges, spreading down the Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers. In 1968 he released an album as evocative as his rural roots with brother and sister Melinda and Murray MacLeod. Roger Nichols And The Small Circle Of Friends came out on A&M with help from the cream of the West Coast - it was produced by Tommy LiPuma, engineered by Bruce Botnick, with Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks in attendance. Nichols' lyricist was Tony Asher, and in many ways Small Circle is a lyrical sequel to Pet Sounds - a little older, a little wiser, an album for early twenty-somethings thinking of settling down, but still turning to Smokey Robinson songs for relationship advice.

The album didn't do too well (though it did sell 50,000 copies when it was re-issued in Japan in the nineties, encouraging a belated sequel), but A&M owner Herb Alpert was impressed enough to get Nichols a staff job as a songwriter for A&M publishing, which is where he was introduced to Paul Williams.

Paul Williams had a peripatetic childhood, born in Omaha, Nebraska, but constantly moving, changing schools (nine by the time he reached the ninth grade), thanks to his father's job in construction. Then his father was killed in a car crash and Paul was shipped off to live with an aunt and uncle. He quit singing in talent shows and became more interested in film and acting, actively pursuing a movie career when he reached 21.

Soon he was acting alongside John Gielgud and Rod Steiger in Tony Richardson's The Loved One. "I was suddenly living my dream, 23-years old playing a 13-year-old squeaky voiced genius." His looks - part cherub, part Jim Henson creation - meant he was made for character parts, usually a good deal younger than his real age. In The Chase (1965) he taunts Robert Redford with a snippet of one of his own tunes - which inspired Paul to write, if only for his own amusement. A few months later he unsuccessfully auditioned for The Monkees. Acting work was drying up, and a short-lived publishing deal with Ishmael Music, part of White Whale, ended after three months with Paul being told he had no future in music.

A chance meeting in 1967 with songwriter Biff Rose was the catalyst. Together they wrote Fill Your Heart, recorded by Tiny Tim and later David Bowie; they also got a publishing deal with A&M, whose head of publishing, Chuck Kaye, teamed Paul up with writer/arranger Roger Nichols. Paul recorded one patchy but worthwhile LP on Reprise with a short-lived group called The Holy Mackerel (with pre-Elvis Jerry Scheff on bass), which was released in '69 after they'd already split. It included a moody soft-psych track called Scorpio Red, as well as one bona fide classic, Bitter Honey, an ultra catchy co-write with Roger Nichols which presaged the uplifting melancholia that was to become their trademark. "Roger is the best thing that ever happened to me as a songwriter. I learned more about structure, discipline, quality and class from Roger Nichols than anyone I ever met. He made me feel like I was a real lyricist."

Owing Reprise one more album, Paul recorded Someday Man in '69 with Roger producing. The pair had already released a legendary publishers album, We've Only Just Begun, that was a beauty in its own right. On Someday Man, Williams' warm, intense vocals - like a reedier Gene Clark, with a similar emotional tug - are a perfect match for Nichols' soft magic: there's the baroque Americana of I Know You, and the incredible switches on Roan Pony from urban paranoia to panoramic dreamscape. Oboes and harps figure strongly. "It was really Roger's album," Paul modestly reckons, "he did everything, charts, player choices. I wasn't an artist yet, not as much as I would become in a few more years I think."

Yet the spirit of Someday Man is more in Paul's lyrics than anything, the generosity, humility and humanity. Truth and beauty. Really, it's a whole philosophy: "I wrote from my heart more than I realised." The Monkees' cover of the title song probably makes it the most familiar track. "Is it about me? I'm not sure. I think so. It's a song about trusting."

The critics' indifference to the record hardly seemed to matter as the Carpenters' recordings of the Nichols/Williams canon - starting with We've Only Just Begun - sent their publishing cheques into the stratosphere. The former was originally written for a bank, a jingle commissioned after one of the bank's executives heard Nichols' Small Circle of Friends album. It was written the day before the ad company's deadline. Then Richard Carpenter saw the ad, the Carpenters cut their version, it reached no.2 in the States, and was nominated for a Grammy. A swathe of classics followed: I Won't Last A Day Without You, Rainy Days And Mondays, Let Me Be The One. By 1973, Nichols and Williams had "gone our separate ways after several years of day-to-day contact. I was off chasing movie dreams. I had a huge ego and a performing career ahead of me and I was using and drinking so my perception may have been altered." 

Bugsy Malone and Phantom Of The Paradise, plus a string of Radio 2 staples like An Old Fashioned Love Song, followed but somehow the magic and innocence of Someday Man wasn't to be repeated. "The sweet surprise is finding out that there are people around the world who really honour the work, really cherish the album. Me and Roger have been collaborating a bit, we both think we've got one more really good song in the partnership. You never know."

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