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Evergreen: An Interview with Composer Paul Williams

by Roanna Flowers

This article appeared in Treatment Today in 1998. Treatment Today is no longer in publication.

Our life is a garden, recovery's the gate. This little garden that I walk in has a lot of garbage, and if I walk along and look at it, most of it has my initials on it. So I've learned how not to make new garbage, and how to clean it up quickly if I do.

In the 1970s, Paul Williams wrote famous songs that entertained the world, performed by artists such as Barbra Streisand, Three Dog Night, The Carpenters and Kenny Loggins. Williams also wrote scores for several films, most famously the Muppet Movie, for which he won a Grammy for the song 'Rainbow Connection'. Other honors include an Oscar for the song 'Evergreen', co-written by Barbra Streisand. Williams is also known for his acting in the film Smokey and the Bandit.

He is a gifted composer, lyricist, singer, actor, and humanitarian. At the height of his fame, he was also an addict. In a recent interview with Treatment Today, Williams discussed his battle with alcohol and drugs through the 80s and how he overcame his demons.

"I started drinking when I was 14 or 15," Paul Williams said, recalling his first memory of alcohol as a teenager. "Alcohol was always around the house. My father was in construction, and we moved constantly. He always talked about never missing a day of work because of his drinking." Only years later did it occur to Williams that maybe his father didn't miss going to work, but he missed conscious behavior, and so many elements of being a father.

As Williams grew older he tried cocaine. "Cocaine made me feel like I could shoot basketball for money. It was the perfect drug to feed my grandiosity," he said. "Alcohol made me feel big enough to deal with the rest of the world. My behavior was alcoholic long before my ingestion of alcohol would prove me an alcoholic."

Williams, like a lot of alcoholics, had a basic terror, and alcohol and drugs became the medication to treat his fear. This fear would later lead him to recovery. "I know that addiction is a matter of use, abuse and then addiction," Williams said. When he started writing in his late 20s and 30s, there was a point when he felt the talent was not in him, but in the stuff (drugs and alcohol).

"Maybe on some weird level I thought, 'As long as the talent's in this stuff and not in me, then I'm not going to run out of it. I'm always going to get more stuff,' " Williams said. "What was interesting was coming face-to-face with it in sobriety, and dealing with writing without it. And it was terrifying at first," he said. It was not easy for him to get treatment. His "saving grace" came by way of a young lady who helped him realize his problem.

 

Divine Intervention

A 22-year-old "psych" major was the first person who, according to Williams, had the audacity to tell him that she thought he was an addict. "She was the love affair of my life, and I wanted desperately to keep her. So I did what I think a lot of alcoholics do: I told her I was sober, and I continued to use. After she would go to bed, I would sneak out the puppy door and score more drugs."

Williams uses the metaphor of a squeaking door to relate how an addict thinks: "A normal person would have oiled the front door. But I thought, if I oil that front door, she's going to suspect something's wrong." The relationship did not last, and Paul found himself alone with his drugs and alcohol. The divine intervention was to come in a phone call. "The interesting thing is that I made the phone call to a psychiatrist during a black out. I had no recollection of it at all. It was like divine intervention. At that point, I think I was just so sick and tired of being sick and tired that I agreed to do it," Williams recalled. "It was the greatest gift I could have given myself."

"The most astounding moment in my recovery -- a moment I'll never forget -- is when I sat down to write my first step. It was the first time I ever prayed about my own recovery. I asked God to let me see what I needed to see. I was so afraid that I'd get out of the hospital and I'd just go back to sneaking out the puppy door,"Williams said. "There's an expression in recovery: 'You can't save your ass and your face at the same time.' It's one of the great things I needed to learn."

Educating/Counseling

Recovery changed Williams' life and made him realize that his greatest successes came when he was passionate about something -- and he got really passionate about recovery.

"A drink to me was like looking through the wrong end of the binoculars. And I'm not looking at life through the wrong end of the binoculars anymore," Williams said. "It's wonderful when you realize that alcoholism is a disease of self, and service is the natural antidote to that disease." Buddy Arnold, founder of MAP (Musicians Assistance Program), said to Williams, "You have a natural feel for this, why don't you go to UCLA. The class is two nights a week. It'll take a year of your life, and I think you'd get a lot out of it."

Williams immediately knew it was the right thing to do. He received his drug and alcohol counselor certificate at UCLA.

"The 12-step process taught me to look upon my disease, my addiction and my alcoholism as a gift," Williams said. "I had walked away from this accident, this life-threatening disease with a bunch of tools for recovery, a bunch of information about how to live my life that I could share. It was a great way to begin to integrate back into society."

After treatment Williams eventually began to hear and feel strongly about music again. He fell in love, and started to acquire some skills as a father. "One of the benefits of my own recovery is I became a river to my people in my own family," Williams said. "My daughter, at age 6, was saying things about her brother like -- 'I think Cole's really getting in touch with his anger'. So the trickle-down effect of this healing process is immediate."

Paul Williams was recently appointed to the NCADD (National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence) Board of Directors. "My role in NCADD is basically to deal with recovery issues as they come up. What I feel like I'm able to do -- without becoming the poster child of recovery -- is when I'm asked to speak publicly about my recovery, I make a contribution toward ending the stigma about recovery."

Williams' concern now is with the lack of availability for treatment due to managed healthcare. "That's why MAP is so important, because even if you have the proper insurance, it's hard to get a full 28-day treatment,"Williams said. Another of Williams' concerns is the "romanticizing" of addiction on television. "I think someone has to point out that a rock star or a motion picture actor is no different than a bored homemaker in Peoria, Ill., drinking Listerine. They're both self-medicating. We need to stop romanticizing," Williams said.

A couple of programs like NCADD, are moving forward with offering addiction training for physicians. Williams believes, "We need to educate: Educate the caregivers already there."

Passion for Recovery

Other than alcoholism education, music is a huge part of Williams' life today. He is still passionate about music; but instead of sitting at the piano for two days and nights, he'll sit there for two or three hours everyday.

"I have some balance in my life. The gate that I walked through to my life is my recovery -- there's nothing more important." Williams can now say, "I have a life because of it and it touches every element of it. Recovery is running almost everything I do in my life." "It's just great to be a beginner at this stage of my life," Williams said. "I'm eight years sober, and I wouldn't trade my last eight years for my hottest years in the 70s. Since I got sober my name has not been on the headlines of Variety, but neither has my name been in the obituaries."

Copyright 1998 Quest Publishing Company Inc. All rights reserved.

To find out more about Paul Williams work on behalf of the MusicCares Musician's Assistance Program' click here. For more information about Paul Williams or his work, visit http://www.paulwilliamsofficial.com/.