It wasn’t your typical mid-day lecture on Capitol Hill. This week the Copyright Office sponsored a special presentation in the Coolidge Auditorium, “Copyright and the American Songwriter.” Copyright regulations have helped many songwriters make a living by their craft, and one songwriter in particular graced the Coolidge stage to humbly represent his fellow songwriters: ASCAP President Paul Williams.
Paul Williams has been a regular fixture on the Coolidge stage. As president of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, he has presided over the annual showcase, We Write the Songs, since 2009, the year that the Music Division became the repository for the ASCAP archives. Williams took every opportunity to share his love for the Copyright Office and the Library of Congress.
Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante introduced Williams with a list of artists that demonstrated the breadth of his songs. He has written for the Carpenters, Barbara Streisand, and last but not least, Kermit the Frog.
Accompanied on piano by Chris Caswell, a Coolidge regular in the ASCAP house-band, Williams treated the audience to conversational renditions of his greatest hits. His stage patter conveyed a self-effacing humor. The songwriter, who turns 72 this month, joked that he wrote “Just an old-fashioned love song” in 1927. But his remarks also revealed a man who is humbly grateful, both for the talent he has been given and the infrastructure that protects it. Williams frequently gave gracious thanks to the Copyright staff in attendance. “You do something that has allowed me to raise my family.”
He wanted to be an actor. He can be seen in Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. But his career didn’t take off. “I felt like Montgomery Clift. I looked like Hayley Mills.” But sometimes the careers we dream of are not those that are planned for us, and Williams was grateful that, when it came to acting, he was told “No.” “When I started writing songs I began to connect with what’s here.”
Williams spoke about the technological challenges of copyright. “There’s more music now playing on more fantastic devices than ever,” he mentioned, after taking out his indispensible iPhone. He wants music lovers and songwriters alike to benefit from this technology.
He introduced his best-known songs with anecdotes about collaborators like Roger Nichols, and inspirations like his mother; both figures informed the melancholy “Rainy days and Mondays.” He offered a medley of two songs that began with the word “love:” “Evergreen,” made famous by Barbara Streisand, and the theme to The Love Boat, which he said put his children through private school.
See if you can guess the song from his introductory remarks:
- “I never meant the words of a song as much as I mean this.”
(“I Won’t Last a Day without You.”)
- “Helen Reddy sang it to a little girl. I’m going to sing it to the Register of Copyrights.” (“You and Me against the World”)
- “An angel sang it, and everything in my life changed.” (“We’ve Only Just Begun.”)
- “You haven’t really lived till you’ve been insulted in x-rated fashion by a pig.” (show-closer “The Rainbow Connection,” Williams’s favorite composition.)
Williams also spoke about the excellent documentary, Paul Williams Still Alive, for which he wrote and performed a strong new composition. “I look at the old guy in this movie, and I wonder, who is that guy?” The film is currently making the rounds of art-house theaters, and can be an uncomfortable film to watch. Director Stephen Kessler follows the common documentary conceit of inserting himself into the subject’s story. It’s a tactic that can ruin a documentary – who wants to hear about the director? But Kessler’s sometimes uncomfortable persistence in the face of his idol pushes the subject into places an ordinary documentary would not go. Williams had final edit decisions on the work, and at first refused to allow the film to use a clip from when he hosted The Tonight Show in a compromised state. But upon seeing the finished film, Williams realized that to show how far he’s come, the film should show how low he sank. The title of the film states an understated kind of triumph, but it becomes clear that Williams’s life is the testament of a man who lived hard and learned from his mistakes.
Williams took questions from the audience after the performance, and I asked about the process of writing music for Ishtar. I told Williams that I loved the music he wrote for that much-maligned film, to which he replied, “So you’re the one!” Ishtar came at a time when he was still in the wilderness, so to speak, but that opened himself to the kind of method acting he employed to write believably bad songs. Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman played the writing duo of Chuck and Lyle. Williams made sure to point out the difference between writing believably bad songs and songs that are simply bad. The latter is easy! But Williams would start with a line that had some promise, but then veer off the deep end: “If you admit that you can play the accordion/No one’ll hire you in a rock ‘n’ roll band.”
That song, “Dangerous Business,” is one of songs that make the unfairly maligned Ishtar a hilarious entertainment. I hope my question spurred at least one movie buff in attendance to seek it out.