A Talk with Paul Williams, Part Two

Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter

On writing “We’ve Only Just Begun,” collaborating with Ivan Lins, writing songs for Ishtar, writing “Evergreen” with Barbra Streisand, writing songs for Bugsy Malone, drugs, sobriety and more.

This is Part Two of a two-part interview with Paul Williams.
*Read Part One Here*

“I remember Bing Crosby driving off the lot at A&M, pointing at me and talking to his driver with great disgust… and I was probably the only guy on the lot who wrote the kinds of songs he would sing.” Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter.

This is Part Two of our conversation with Paul Williams. It picks up as Paul is discussing the origins of “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and the irony of having success with this traditional song at a time when his life was anything but traditional.

PAUL WILLIAMS: “We’ve Only Just Begun’ had all the romantic beginnings of a bank commercial. Roger Nichols and I were asked to write a song for a Crocker Bank commercial. It was something that really hadn’t been done yet, to use a song instead of copy for a commercial. 

Roger wrote the music, and since it was a commercial about a young couple starting out, I wrote ‘We’ve only just begun/white lace and promises, a kiss for luck and we’re on our way’ — that takes us through the wedding and then driving off into the sunset — ‘before the rising sun we ride…’.

We wrote the bridge after the fact and just strung together what we had as a song just in case anyone wanted to record it. It never occurred to us that anyone would.

I mean, ‘In A Gadda Da Vida’, was the big song at the time, so to come along with something so schmaltzy as ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ and to have it take off like it did, nobody expected it.

Mark Lindsay recorded it first and his record was on its way up the chart when The Carpenters, who had also heard me sing it on the commercial and had asked if there was a whole song, recorded it. They released their single and it just raced up to number one.

Some songs take months and others take minutes. ‘An Old Fashioned Love Song’ was a twenty minute song. ‘Rainy Days And Mondays’ took months to write. I knew that ‘rainy days and Mondays get me down’ but I didn’t know why or what I was going to do with it.

I think the interesting thing about the song is that it sold more than three million copies of the sheet music. Which means people were buying it and learning it. To me that was a sign of something going back into the family structure; learning the song and playing it at home.

It was very Norman Rockwell for someone who was as Mad magazine in their personal life as I was. Because just as my success was ascending, my lifestyle was getting more and more like Dante’s inferno. I never looked like the type of guy who wrote those songs. I wore round black glasses and had shoulder-length hair, a top hat with a feather in it, tie-dyed pants and took a lot of psychedelics.

I remember Bing Crosby driving off the lot at A&M, pointing at me and talking to his driver with great disgust. And I thought it was interesting because I was probably the only guy on the lot who wrote the kinds of songs he would sing. So I felt very rejected. I think I went out and drank.

I am a very romantic person but I had a very dark side. I think I had a spiritual awakening. It’s the reason I can sit at this table and talk about this stuff. I can’t talk about songwriting but I can talk about my life. If you want to talk about the fact that my life has been saved. What you write is up to you, but I give you absolute permission to quote me on all this stuff.

I think there was a reason for everything that happened to me. I think our greatest lessons come from the depths of our life experiences. And I learned a lot down there. As I said, my bottom was on a five-acre estate in Montecito, but it was an emotional and spiritual and physical bottom that I guess I needed to heal.

Do you think that the drugs made it easier for you to write songs at first, or did they get in the way?

Drugs didn’t make it easier to write. They made it easier to stay up. It’s funny. I think that songwriting, in a way, was a drug to me too. Because writing about emotions instead of sitting there feeling them, I became an objective observer to my own feelings. It got me out of my own experience and put me in the role of narrator to what was going on inside me. It was a way of protecting myself.

God knows how many more songs I would have written if I would have gotten sober and stayed that way. But I’ll never know. It was part of how I lived, and it almost killed me.

Did the drugs make you unrealistic about what you could accomplish in your songwriting?

Yes. What I chose to do was give myself impossible challenges. I’d give myself a month to write a whole song score, like the score for ‘Bugsy Malone’ and ‘The Phantom Of The Paradise’. It was always a terror: Am I going to get it done? Now I don’t have to do that anymore. What I have to do now is be realistic with my allotment of time. I don’t tell someone I can do something in a week if it’s going to take a month to do it. That’s the difference.

“It was very Norman Rockwell for someone who was as Mad magazine in their personal life as I was.”

When I first got sober, I had trouble writing. I would look at the piano and it looked like it was growling at me. When I first got sober, I literally didn’t think I’d ever write again. The first thing I wrote was with my daughter’s second grade class. A song called ‘Paddington Bear’. We just did it. Wrote a kids song on the spot.

People asked me what happened to Paul Williams, and I’ve got to deal with that, because I went home for ten years and alphabetised my canned goods. Turns out I’d been taken hostage. By myself. It was funny, I was watching a real hostage on TV saying how he’d been gone for five years, and hadn’t seen a newspaper or heard a newspaper or heard a radio. That’s what getting sober was like for me. I’ve been gone for a while.

 Since getting off drugs, how has your process of writing songs changed?

Before I got sober I would sometimes get so caught up in the frenzy of re-writing that I wouldn’t know I had finished. Working alone sometimes it’s hard to know when a song is finished. For me it’s finished when it’s too late to change it. Now it seems that some of the frenzy is out of it for me. I feel that we’ve finished a song here, we haven’t found a cure for AIDS here. I don’t think that frenzy, that turmoil, is necessary. I can’t live like that anymore. If there’s a place for what I do, the way I do it now, that’s great. If not, then I’ve left a pretty good catalogue and there’s other stuff I can do.

So much of songwriting is on a subconscious level anyway. Where what you’re writing just comes out of you. And it’s totally different from what you’ve been concentrating on consciously. It comes from a totally different place. And I think that if I can trust that work is being done on the subconscious level, then it kind of flows out.

I used to use drugs (to get to that place), now I have patience. Have a little patience, give a little time, it will come. You don’t have to write down every single line. If you just sit quietly or go about your business, the right line will come. I write just what I need.

I love the film Bugsy Malone. And you wrote wonderful songs for that.

Thank you. It was Alan Parker’s first film. He came from London with these amazing drawings of what he wanted to do. I thought he was crazy. But I loved the idea. Because there were kids dressed as adults driving cars with pedals. It seemed to me I could take that twist and use it in the songs. It was creating a non-specific period music. It wasn’t really thirties or forties. Jodie Foster played Tallulah in that and she was wonderful.

Jody Foster performing “My Name Is Tallulah,” by Paul Williams, in Bugsy Malone, 1976.

Your collaboration with Ivan Lins, the great Brazilian composer, on “Love Dance” was exquisite. How did that project come about?

Quincy Jones called me and said he had a great melody and he wanted to do it with George Benson. He sent me the music. I was in New York at the time floating around on a lake listening to this beautiful melody, and came up with the lyrics, and decided to call it ‘Love Dance’. ‘Turn up the quiet, love wants to dance’ was the first line I got. It’s a great piece of music, I really love it. Took me a couple of days to write it.

I love “Evergreen” which you wrote with Barbra Streisand. She’s smart about working with the best. It’s not surprising she would want you to do the lyric. Did she write the melody herself, before you wrote words?

Yes. She had the melody down and played it for me on guitar. She was really shy when she played it to me, really charming. I’ve re-examined my relationship over the year and realized she’s gotten a lot of bad press, that she’s difficult to work with, and all that. Which she didn’t deserve, and I think I contributed to that. And told her so. She’s a terrific lady.

That melody was full grown and completed when I got it. I didn’t change a note. I think I would have been picked up by the hair if I had.

As I started working on the lyrics, she got really excited, as if she had never heard a song before. It was really charming. Her performance in that movie (A Star Is Born) of ‘With One More Look At You’ which I wrote with Kenny Ascher, at the end of the film, was really brilliant. That was a tough one. She was under a lot of pressure and so were we.

When I heard her melody for ‘Evergreen’ I knew we had our love ballad. That’s the classic ballad. Now all I had to do was write words for it. No wonder I did drugs when you set yourself up like that!

It was a classic melody. I’d like to see her write some more. She writes with two instruments, the guitar or keyboard, and this amazing voice and this head that thinks melody options against chords that I don’t know where they come from, but they’re beautiful.

Barbra Streisand, “Evergreen,”
From A Star Is Born, music by Barbra Streisand, words by Paul Williams.

I loved Ishtar. I know the critics rained on it, but it the funniest movie about songwriters ever, about that mindset of always trying to write one more great one. What was that like to write their songs?

I became possessed with my absolute belief that Chuck and Lyle were two real guys, the characters that Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty played. I worked months on that project. Oddly enough, a lot of underground bands are starting to do those songs. So maybe Chuck and Lyle will have their day yet.

I enjoyed that. It was like therapy, finding out who those guys were. And I crawled into their heads. It was a safe place to go, because I was busy losing myself, and I wasn’t comfortable in my own head, so I climbed into Chuck and Lyle’s.

I wrote like fifty songs for this. Everyone had to like the songs: Dustin, Warren, Elaine [May, the director] and I had to like them, and they had to be bad. No wonder they took a long time.

From Ishtar, Warren Beatty as a songwriter working on the song “Hot Fudge Love”
(which Paul Williams wrote).

I was surprised the critics panned it to the extent they did. They were gunning for Warren. They didn’t review the movie, they reviewed the budget. I thought it was pretty good.

Everything I’ve done has brought me to where I am right now, and I’m the happiest and most serene I’ve been in my life. I’m capable of living my life now, instead of hurling myself at the days. Now I walk through life and I coexist. I don’t have to skewer myself on a mission of songwriting. I can make songwriting a part of what I do. At least it appears that way.

There was a time in my life when I first got sober, I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to write again. Not just my songwriting, but my entire life was caught up in drug and alcohol use.

But I know now that my ability to communicate came from God. So I’m writing a little slower now, but at least I’m writing.

End of Part II.

Read Part One here.

Paul Williams, photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter

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