Interview: Paul Williams

June 08, 2012

In the 1970s, Paul Williams was everywhere. The diminutive Grammy- and Oscar-winning singer/songwriter behind The Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and Kermit's Muppet Movie anthem "Rainbow Connection" was not only a fixture on the radio, but on television, appearing over 50 times on The Tonight Show. Over the following decades, though, Williams seemed to have fallen off the map, a victim of his drug addiction. But he's Still Alive, as stated plainly in the title of a great new film by first-time documentary director Stephen Kessler. Following a 70-year-old Williams from concerts at Canadian B&Bs to one long bus ride through the jungle to a huge venue in the Philippines, Kessler finds his star not embittered or desperate to re-grab the spotlight, but totally and endearingly serene about his present life. Today Williams serves as president of the performer's rights organization ASCAP, and he's outspoken about addiction and recovery. He's still making music too, writing lyrics for Daft Punk's new album. Over lunch overlooking Central Park, Williams talked about the film, writing without drugs and how he found happiness through it all. Paul Williams: Still Alive opens this week at The Angelika in New York.

In some of the old footage of you on talk shows, where you talk about buying methamphetamine and cheating on your wife, you come across as… I look at some of that footage and I am just pathetic. I am so on all the time, you know, and I was fried. I thought I was normal. I thought everyone had a glass of vodka in the shower in the mornings. What frightens me the most is I look at myself when I'm so screwed up. I'm so arrogant, this shallow, grandiose little prick. I look at that guy and what frightens me the most is I had no idea that that's who I was. I became much better at showing off than showing up, is the way I describe it. Any game show called, I was there. Any talk show, I was there. I became as addicted to the camera as I was becoming addicted to alcohol and cocaine. But one of the illnesses of that addiction is isolation, so it went from me sitting on the couch of The Tonight Show to peeking out the venetian blinds looking for the tree police because I knew they were out there.

In the film, at first you’re reluctant to participate, but you eventually totally open up. Did you come to see it as an opportunity to correct the official record? There's nothing that I find more pathetic than some little old man going, "Please sir, may I have a little more fame? Can I have a little more attention from the media or the public?" I hate that. The last thing I wanted to participate in was another Where Are They Now?. It might have been a mild interest to some of my fans, but it had no real interest for me and I don't know that the world really needed that. There was one point in the film where I actually say to him, "Why are you wasting your time? What's the point? Why do you wanna do a film about Paul Williams?" At first I found it really annoying and it was really intrusive to my family, but at the same time I was so impressed that Kessler cared enough to want to do it.

Having a camera on you again, did you revert to the old days of "being on"? None of it was an act. At this point in my life, 22 years sober, if there's one thing that is dearly important to me, it's rigorous honesty. It's the key element in sobriety. And authenticity. You have to remember a lie. Truth, you don't—it's always there. I think Steve Kessler would've loved to have found me living in a trailer behind a junkyard, working at a Red Robin with a sock puppet singing "Rainbow Connection" to it, playing an organ, working the pedals with my feet. Not the life I have. I never hit an economic bottom. I have always been all right financially. I've supported a variety of families and wives and ex-wives and have a great new life today. This situation at ASCAP has given me a great opportunity to really be of service in a way that feels like a really good fit, and I think I can make a difference. I spend a lot of time in Washington D.C. and I'm passionate about music creator's rights. So to all of a sudden have this kind of presence and this camera and going back, back, back… Part of recovery is you look at your past and you deal with it, and I've kind of gotten past that place in my life.

But here looking back publicly becomes part of your legacy. I think a big thing for me was when my son and my daughter saw the film. Because they both went, "Dad, what a great gift this is for us, and for the world. It's a chance to really look at a retrospective on your life, but more importantly at who you are today." Life is better now. This is an amazing life. We're all on our own path. We go through what we go through and at a certain point you clean it up, you trust god, you clean house and you live your life one day at a time. You look forward. The rails I run on now are gratitude and trust. I'm grateful for the life I have today. There's hope for the hopeless. The Lazarus element is hard at work here. It's like this is a second life for me.

Are you still writing original songs? I am writing original songs. I wrote an original song for the end of the movie, "Still Alive." I've written with the Scissor Sisters, and I've written with Daft Punk for the new album.

How do things like that come about? They call me. I don't chase. Somebody calls me, and I go, "Yeah, maybe, ok, why?" Daft Punk—there's supposed to be a press blackout on all that. I'm not supposed to talk about it until the album comes out. But I'm 71. It's like, what are you doing? I wrote some lyrics for Daft Punk. But I love 'em. And I also love that Thomas and Guy chose anonymity for their creative outlet. That they chose masks. I mean, I get that.

It's the opposite of your own path. It is, absolutely. That's why I get it.

Is it harder to write without drugs? No. Matter of fact, drugs and alcohol got in the way of creativity as opposed to assisting it. On some level, the drugs, the cocaine especially, were a confidence builder that allowed me to roll out whatever I was thinking. The negative was that I got more clever. I kept trying to top myself. I intellectualized the process instead of just writing authentically what I was feeling. Once you get the drugs and alcohol out of the place, once you get the showing-off element and the ego out of the writing process, once it's just writing what you feel instead of what you think they might be impressed with, you gain an amazing ability to connect with your audience. When you say it the way that you feel it, the people that feel like you do will respond. That's what I found in post-addiction, and that's what I returned to. I sat down to write and trusted that my authenticity was enough. In a lot of ways, the work is the reward. I got the worst reviews for the songs in Muppet Christmas Carol. They said they were pedestrian. These days I get—you wouldn't believe the amount of email. "Every Christmas we drag out A Muppet Christmas Carol, that's a huge part of our Christmas. We love it." You cannot live for reviews. You cannot live by reviews. You have to live by love.

There's old footage of you skydiving in the film, and it seems really significant for you. The day after I won the Oscar, you've got the Oscar in your hand, and you've had this kind of carrot out in front of you, this sort of mystical prize that's suddenly in your grasp. You wake up and it's like, Oh my god. Now what? It's not a conscious thought, but it's like, I'm still me, I've got this, it's sitting on the shelf but what has really changed? What do you do next to feel worthy, to feel special, to feel unique? I got a phone call from [the TV show] Circus of the Stars and they said they had done this research to try to find a celebrity that had any history of parachuting, and my name was in the Parachute Club of America's logs and was I that Paul Williams? I said, Yes, I was. I think I made five jumps for the Circus of the Stars. You see the footage and I land and take off the jumpsuit and I've got a tux on. After that, I started to form my own team called Grim Business. I stayed with it for a long time and quit at 100 jumps. I loved that there was something in that zen-like, high-speed place where you slow down. That was really freedom to me. In 1970, I wrote an album with a French composer named Michel Colombier that we called Wings, and it has a line in it: A new kind of light surrounds us all and if we could we'd all be flying/ I've always felt that deep inside we're trying, we're trying. Essentially, we as people are landlocked birds. We're spirits that are stuck in these things that walk around and we want to be out of this. We want to be up in that air.

Interview: Paul Williams