WRITER’S NOTE: As the opening paragraph indicates, this article was originally written ten years ago.
On June 27, 2012, singer and songwriter Paul Williams along with filmmaker Stephen Kessler appeared at the Nuart Theatre in support of their documentary “Paul Williams Still Alive.” After its conclusion, both men were greeted by a packed audience that had been deeply moved by what they just witnessed. The documentary follows up with Williams years after his enormous success back in the 1970s, and it finds him experiencing happiness and fulfillment in life he didn’t have back then.
Kessler has described making this documentary as “a labor of love,” but Williams quickly pointed out that it didn’t start that way. Their relationship when filming began was an uncomfortable one, but Williams eventually warmed up to Kessler, and their strong friendship proved to be very authentic as they talked with the audience at the Nuart. Kessler even went out of his way to say the following:
“I’ve never said this in front of people before, but you (Williams) were brave to do this movie.”
No one in the audience disagreed with this assessment. Williams described this as a “warts and all documentary” that shows him at his best and worst. One particular sequence, when he was co-hosting Merv Griffin’s talk show while on drugs, was one he originally wanted to be cut out as he was terribly afraid of what his kids would think about him. His son Cole, however, was in the audience, and when asked about what he thought of the documentary, he said, “It’s great dad!”
Kessler made it clear he had no intention of putting himself in this documentary, and he even said he “can’t stand movies that do that;” directors becoming the subject of their own films. His increased participation in “Paul Williams Still Alive,” however, helped to illuminate the songwriter much more than it would have without him. While Kessler keeps going back to the past, Williams looks to the future instead.
When Williams was asked when he reached his bottom as an alcoholic, he responded it happened when he started looking out the window for what he called the “tree police.” He even joked and said, “You know you’re an alcoholic when you’ve misplaced an entire decade.” What made him say this was the embarrassing truth that he forgot for a time that Ronald Reagan was once President of the United States.
Since becoming sober, Williams says he now knows what it feels like to be around people he feels safe with. He has also entered into what he calls his “Paulie Lama” period of life as he goes out of his way to pull people off of bar stools, and that he would be thrilled to work at the Betty Ford Center if asked.
1992’s “A Muppet Christmas Carol” marked the first project Williams ever did sober, and he remembered going into it feeling very scared. But after he finished working on it, he found he was able to approach his work in a more productive way:
“Success for me has to be about authenticity and honesty. Today I have to trust that I am enough. Never again will I ever let tension and my ego keep me from writing songs.” The emcee of the Nuart told us not to ask either of the two how much “Paul Williams Still Alive” cost to make or when it will come out on DVD. This is because he wants to see it again with as a big an audience in the midst of all these summer blockbusters being thrust at us. It is certainly one of the sweetest documentaries you will ever see, and to see Williams today is to see a man very comfortable with who he is and who does not need another cup of fame to feel better about himself.
Going into this documentary, I thought it would be one of those great comeback stories of a fallen celebrity who gets their dormant career resurrected through the help of one die-hard fan. But while filmmaker Stephen Kessler seems intent on reminding the world of what this gifted songwriter has given us, “Paul Williams Still Alive” is not that kind of documentary. Instead, it’s a story of a man whose life was run into the ground by a strong addiction to fame and drugs, and of his journey back to a place of happiness and fulfillment he is ever so thankful for today. This is not an artist looking to make a comeback, but of one who appreciates what they have to where not much more is needed than that. As a result, this makes “Paul Williams Still Alive” one of the sweetest and most life affirming documentaries I have seen in some time.
Kessler is best known for having directed many popular television commercials and “Vegas Vacation,” a sequel which rated high in test screenings, but still turned out to be a dud. Kessler starts off this documentary recounting how he grew up being such a big fan of Williams and of how the songwriter seemed to be everywhere in the 1970s. Williams appeared on “The Muppet Show,” made numerous appearances on television shows such as “Beretta,” and he became an incredibly popular guest on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. On top of that, he composed the music for “The Muppet Movie,” the cult classic “Phantom of The Paradise,” and eventually won an Oscar along with Barbara Streisand for the song “Evergreen.”
Somewhere along the line, Kessler assumed Williams had passed away at far too young an age. But while ordering one of Williams’ albums on the internet one night, he discovers to his surprise that the singer and songwriter is still very much alive and continues to create and perform music throughout the world. From there, Kessler makes it his mission to make a movie about Williams in an effort to let the world today know how much of an impact his music has had on all of us and still does to this day. Remember, he was a featured artist on Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories.”
Kessler started filming Williams when the songwriter visited Winnipeg, Canada where a fan convention for “Phantom of The Paradise” was taking place. This collaboration gets off to a rocky start as Williams shows a sharp reluctance to being filmed. There’s even a moment where he is singing in a San Francisco nightclub and gets the house manager to dim the lights so Kessler can’t get a good view of him onstage. As for Kessler, his solution to this problem provides this documentary with one of its funniest moments.
In some ways William’s reluctance is refreshing because, in a time where we are constantly flooded with reality shows with people becoming famous just for the sake of being famous, he is not keen about being part of this. In fact, it doesn’t take long to see he is not the least bit interested in becoming famous again like he once was as he has described the pursuit of fame as being in his own words, “pathetic.” As this documentary goes on, the narrative focuses much more on the person he is today, a much healthier human being who is humble and thankful for what he has.
“Paul Williams Still Alive” does give us a brief biography of the songwriter and of how he grew up with an alcoholic father who made him sing “Danny Boy,” and that his being so short ended up ostracizing him from his classmates at school. He comes to blame his lack of height on hormones being injected into him early in life. This was done to make him taller, but it ended up having the exact opposite effect. After moving out to Los Angeles to become a film actor, he ended up finding success as a songwriter which eventually turned him into a huge celebrity. The attention it gave him was something he came to live for, and it would eventually become an even bigger addiction for him than drugs.
As time goes on, Williams eventually warms up to Kessler, and this becomes clear during a trip to the Philippines. Williams even encourages Kessler to join him in front of the camera instead of just staying behind it, and that is saying a lot. Now this might have proven disastrous as “Paul Williams Still Alive” could have ended up becoming more about the filmmaker than his subject, but Kessler’s increased involvement proves to be a major plus. The relationship between these two men helps to define Williams as he is today.
While Kessler constantly looks to the past, Williams only wants to look forward. The one scene which makes this clear is when Williams watches himself guest hosting Merv Griffin’s talk show. Clearly high on drugs and making an absolute fool of himself, the realization of what he was doing back then forces him to stop watching the rest of the footage. The person Williams was back then is so different from who he is today, and the pain which crosses his face over his embarrassing past deeds is impossible to hide.
Near the end, Williams gives Kessler a whole bunch of videotapes he has in storage, having no idea of what’s on them. One particularly disturbing video has Williams celebrating Christmas with his family, and then later going upstairs to film himself getting high. Watching this illustrates just how far down the songwriter’s drug addiction took him and, looking at him today, it’s almost like we’re looking at a completely different person.
It should be clear by now that Kessler is not out to embarrass Williams in the slightest. Instead, his intention is to bring the songwriter back to the world’s attention, and this is a noble intention indeed. Williams is the same man who wrote the song “Rainbow Connection” for Kermit the Frog, “We’ve Only Just Begun” for the Carpenters, and “An Old-Fashioned Song” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” for himself. Heck, he even did the music for “Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas,” one of my favorite holiday specials ever.
Today, Williams continues to make beautiful music which deals with themes like love, loneliness and alienation, and he definitely deserves to be recognized for the countless music contributions he has given us. Maybe not everyone has forgotten who he is, but we do need to be reminded of what he has created.
Now some have accused “Paul Williams Still Alive” of not including more of his music, but this documentary is not intended to be a career retrospective. In actuality, it becomes more about how Williams is a better, not to mention a far more interesting, human being today compared to when he was an overindulgent celebrity. He has been clean and sober for over 20 years, and he is even a certified drug and alcohol counselor. Looking back, it seems as though he lives to be a counselor more than he wants to create new music, and that is saying a lot.
With “Paul Williams Still Alive,” Kessler has given us far more than the average showbiz documentary. He has given us an individual worth appreciating who, while having made some serious mistakes in life, has come out of it on the other side a proud and happy person. All of this is all accomplished without Kessler ever trying to be manipulative or play at our heartstrings unnecessarily. This is a warts-and-all documentary which doesn’t hide anything, and I came out of it with not just a deep respect for Williams, but also for his healthy perspective on life.
During a time which sees certain celebrities desperately grasping for whatever fame is available to them, here is one who has found the happiness we all mistakenly thought we would get when we became a super star in everyone’s eyes. In the end, “Paul Williams Still Alive” is more about what it means to be happy, and Williams has more than earned the happiness he has today. Like he says, he does not need “another cup of fame” to make him a satisfied man.
Of all the soundtracks to John Carpenter’s movies, the ones for “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star” remain the hardest to find. “Dark Star’s” soundtrack has been out of print for years and is basically comprised of dialogue and music from the movie. As for “Assault on Precinct 13,” its soundtrack was available only as a bootleg until 2003 when a French company named Record Makers gave it its first commercial release. But now BSX Records has released “Assault on Precinct 13/Dark Star,” a soundtrack which contains the music from both movies and has been newly recorded by Alan Howarth, and the results are truly fantastic.
“Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star” were Carpenter’s first movies which he directed and did film music for, and they were extremely low budget affairs which forced him to make the best use of whatever he had available. The soundtracks for each ended up inaugurating what is known as “the Carpenter sound” which was expanded on in later films such as “Halloween II” and “Prince of Darkness.” The theme to “Assault on Precinct 13” is one of Carpenter’s most memorable, and it was inspired in part by Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” His music for “Dark Star” helped to illustrate the movie’s more thoughtful elements as well as its most comically absurd.
Other artists have re-recorded Carpenter’s music over the years with varying degrees of success, but BSX Records really lucked out here in getting Howarth to recreate these two soundtracks. A highly regarded sound designer and pioneering electronic musician, Howarth worked with Carpenter on the scores to many of his movies all the way up to 1988’s “They Live.” With “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star,” Howarth doesn’t try to update either soundtrack, but instead aims to remain faithful to Carpenter’s original versions and how they sounded back in the 1970’s. The only real difference is while both soundtracks were originally recorded in mono, Howarth gets the opportunity to record them in stereo which allows for a more powerful presentation.
“Assault on Precinct 13” ends up sounding better than ever here, and the main theme will give your stereo speakers a really strong workout. Track 16 is my favorite on the disc as Howarth takes the movie’s theme and adds orchestral elements on top of the electronic ones. It’s the closest he comes to updating any of Carpenter’s soundtracks, but the theme still stays very close to its original sound.
As for “Dark Star,” Howarth sounds like he’s having a blast recreating all those primitive computerized sounds which dominated the score for the 1974 movie. He even recreates “Doolittle’s Solo” which had the character of the same name performing on a makeshift instrument made up of bottles and tin cans, and he adds in those crazy sounds which emanate from that beach ball of an alien. In addition, composer Dominik Hauser arranges and performs a new version of the song “Benson, Arizona.”
This CD also comes with a highly informative booklet entitled “Assault on a Dark Star: The Musical Pulse of Early John Carpenter” written by Randall D. Larson, a film music columnist and author of the book “Musical Fantastique: 100 Years of Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror Film Music.” Larson goes into excellent detail over the challenges Carpenter faced in making both “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star,” and of how he went about created the music for each. Larson also talks in depth with Howarth on how he went about re-recording the scores for this release and the types of equipment he had to work with.
When it comes to re-creating a well-known soundtrack, composers and musicians usually find themselves at a loss. Whether they do a good job or not, they end up giving us something which makes us pine for the original version. The great thing about BSX Records’ “Assault on Precinct 13/Dark Star” release is how Alan Howarth makes both film scores sound as they were always meant to sound. Listening to them is like traveling back in time to the 1970’s when these two movies came out, and it makes for one of the best soundtrack re-recordings I have heard in a long time.
With “Houses of the Holy“, Led Zeppelin gave the world one of its greatest albums. Filled with a variety of unforgettable songs, it takes you on a musical journey which very few albums are able to do these days. It’s also the first album which they did not name after themselves, a curious habit Peter Gabriel picked up on when it came to naming his first three solo albums. It also captures the band at a key turning point where they began experimenting with sound designs which they used to great effect here and on future releases.
This sound experimentation is immediately apparent on the album’s first track “The Song Remains the Same”. Listening to it, you might think Jimmy Page was playing three guitars at once and using his toes to play at least one of them. Either that or he’s riffing off on his double-necked Gibson guitar. The song’s title is indeed ironic because even if this one does remain the same, nothing the band has done previously can easily compare. You can feel Page’s excitement as he layers one of his guitar licks on top of another as he creates rapturous dimensions which surround Robert Plant’s passionate vocals.
The other great thing about “Houses of the Holy” is it has the band exploring a variety of musical styles. Most of their albums up to this point were inspired by blues music, and with this one they almost leave that genre completely in the dust.
The second track, “The Rain Song,” has them playing one of their many great love ballads. Then there’s “The Crunge” which has them grooving obsessively to the funkiest beat imaginable, and it’s one of their most entertaining tracks as well as the kind you never want to end even if Plant never finds “that confounded bridge”. Along with the band exploring reggae music with “D’yer Mak’er” and even experimenting with doo-wop on the last track, “The Ocean”, you can tell every band member had the greatest time recording this album.
Some of the best Led Zeppelin songs have the listener feeling like they are on a journey, and this is definitely the case with “Over the Hills and Far Away” which makes you want to run through the fields. Plant is at his most beautiful here vocally as Page eases us in with his acoustic guitar before throttling into gear with an electric one. This is one of the musical numbers you feel like you are flying high in the sky more than anything else.
But the great thing about “Houses of the Holy” is how each band member make their unique contributions really stand out. When people think of the band, Page and Plant are the first people who come to mind. But then there’s the late great John Bonham who remains unrivaled as the greatest drummer ever, and I still cannot think of another who can match his genius. John Paul Jones never seems to get the same amount of respect as everyone else, and this is a shame as his bass playing here is what really drives the power of these songs, and the riffs he pulls off are truly thrilling.
With “The Crunge” and “The Ocean”, you can feel each band member coming together as one. No single person steals the show from the other on “Houses of the Holy,” and realizing this makes this album all the more enjoyable. Everyone here is on the same page (no pun intended) when it comes to their individual contributions, and you can feel the band’s joy as they perform the music.
Years after its release, “Houses of the Holy” continues to find new generations of listeners who love the music as much as we do, and Led Zeppelin continues to outlast the musical fads Beck sang about in “The New Pollution.” As much as fans want to see the surviving members reunite for another world tour, they don’t need to as their music remains as popular as ever. With this particular classic album, Led Zeppelin expresses an eagerness to stretch beyond their safety zone and explore avenues of creativity they had not previously tapped. It remains one of their best efforts, and there is no doubt future generations will come to love it as much as we do.
While it may be more fun to watch them in concert, AC/DC’s first live album, “If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It,” will still have music fans grooving to the relentless beats of this infamous Australian hard rock band. The album cover shows Angus Young impaled by his own guitar while original lead singer Bon Scott stands behind him with an incredibly demonic look on his face. It’s their ever so subtle way of telling the listener they are about to hear some nasty rock and roll their parents don’t approve of, and they ain’t about to apologize for that in the slightest.
This album was recorded while the band was on their “Powerage” Tour back in 1978, and it captures them as they begin to find an audience outside of their native Australia. Included on it are songs from “High Voltage,” “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” “Let There Be Rock” and, of course, “Powerage.” Things get off to a fantastic start with “Riff Raff” as Angus commands the audience’s attention with his lightning quick guitar licks. The listener will be unable to keep his or her feet still while listening to it.
Angus, one of the greatest rock guitarists ever, makes himself known with his amazing solos on songs like “The Jack” which captures the band’s love of blues music. By the time he gets to “Let There Be Rock,” one can’t help but wonder how he finds the energy to keep going full throttle without breaking any strings on his guitar. Listening to him play away is thrilling, and it’s easy to believe he could pluck away at any six-string guitar ever given to him even while he sleeps. There’s no getting sick of his amazing talent.
But the other band member who deserves as much attention here is the late Bon Scott. Scott sounds magnetic as he holds his own with Angus and the rest of the band. This was his next to last album with AC/DC (the last being “Highway to Hell”) before his tragic death in 1980. With all due respect to Brian Johnson who took over lead vocals when the band recorded “Back In Black,” Scott had a better vocal range and always sounded like he was having the time of his life onstage while singing “Rock ‘N’ Roll Damnation” or getting the audience to chant “HIGH” during the band’s performance of “High Voltage.”
The rest of AC/DC makes their presence known as well throughout this live album. Angus’ brother Malcolm Young plays a mean rhythm guitar which Angus can improvise off of endlessly. Cliff Williams’ bass guitar is supremely powerful and keeps the audience revved up during “High Voltage” and “Let There Be Rock.” And finally, there is drummer Phil Rudd who pounds away on his set and keeps everyone else in line as Bon sings and Angus lets loose on a solo which he sounds like he cannot fully control (not that it’s a problem or anything).
Actually, this is one of those live albums which could have been a double album if the band allowed it to be. While it’s great to hear the AC/DC rocking away on these songs, fans will miss other favorites like “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” or “T.N.T.” Unlike most other live recordings, this one feels surprisingly short and could have gone on for much longer. The band must have realized this years later on when they released double live albums for “AC/DC Live,” “Let There Be Rock: The Movie – Live in Paris” and “Live at River Plate.”
Listening to this live album again in its remastered edition, the sound design is incredible. Fans will feel like they are at the concert while they are listening to it, and they will be able to picture Angus doing his Chuck Berry two step move across the stage throughout. AC/DC remains a powerhouse of a rock group after an amazingly long run. “If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It” showed how full of potential they are when in front of a live audience, and hearing it again proves none of that potential has ever been wasted in the service of rock and role music.