South Point Showroom at South Point Hotel Casino, Las Vegas; NV
Friday, July 22
In the 1970s Paul Williams was suddenly a giant superstar – as he’d stacked all he could up against his diminutive stature. If it seemed like overnight success it was hard fought, a failed film career and then one or two songs started to stick. Then more. When he was the toast of the town he would turn up at the opening of an envelope – appearing on many and then any of the talk shows and then to soaps and sitcoms with special walk-ons and guest appearances, a film role in one of the Planet of the Apes movies and the bonkers-but-brilliant Phantom of the Paradise which he acted in and scored.
In the 1980s the drinking and drugs caught up and the inspiration dimmed. All those love songs based around the most obvious and overt of universal themes stopped writing themselves.
Williams’ star faded.
Sober now since 1990 he has been peeking up over the fence and into public life once again, a few Las Vegas shows, the 2011 documentary, Paul Williams Still Alive, a cameo contribution to Daft Punk’s last album…
The show started with a montage of photos, and a few of the famous talk-show appearances, and then into Just An Old Fashioned Love Song. It was a little shaky, but hey, we’re in. And the Showroom at Las Vegas’ South Point Casino is one of those classy rooms that’s somehow dated and timeless all at once. You can imagine Jack Nicholson’s character from The Shining slinking a glass of whisky before taking a slug at the bar. You can see Steve Buscemi’s character from Fargo enjoying Jose Feliciano over in the corner. You can imagine all manner of show bands and various light entertainment acts, the comedy-magicians, the Donny and Marie shows, the 167th Final Ever Performances from Engelbert Humperdinck and John Rowles and Wayne Newton.
And now tonight it’s Paul Williams. Back in Vegas for the first time in three years for the first evening of a two-night stand. And he’s worried about where he left his comb. He might instead show some concern for who has the keys to his voice box. He’ll try picking that lock with any key other than the one the song is in it seems. And though he was never a great singer in my book tonight he’s pancake flat more often than not. He scrapes and slides and grimaces a few times – a couple of his band-members even chuckle (and more than once) and every sha-la-la-la of those magical Carpenters songs tends to go wo-wo-woefully down the plughole as he gurgles in aim of a croon.
It’s not good.
And so no matter. We get the banter. Which he still has – you can see straight away why he was always a good guest on Johnny Carson and could light up a room. He’s charming and funny and self-effacing and he would be next in the cue to say so if he didn’t beat you to it.
The humility he’s sure he’s found from ditching drinking is hiding at the bottom of a giant bottle of ego. He talks about the newly received wisdom and clarity in his life as the Pauly-Lama phase. No, really.
But he also sounds somehow majestic near-mangling Rainy Days and Mondays. It’s akin to Bacharach singing his own songs. You marvel to hear the song from the voice of the writer. Even if the voice is gone the song lives on.
And so it is with so many of these – Evergreen from A Star is Born, a little light-hearted schmaltz from Bugsy Malone, the theme from The Love Boat, even the high camp of the Phantom soundtrack gets an airing, incongruous for its attempt at bawdiness and a lurching form of musical strut when the majority of the program is served up as a soundtrack for shaking hands with the front row – those long, lingering handshakes with moisty palms, all the hot breath hitting in from the mouth of the super-fans who can’t quite enjoy it all at the time since they’re already nervous about how the post-show meet-and-greet might go.
Williams spends most of the show sounding a little (again, incongruously) like Lou Reed, rather a lot like William Shatner, and when he gets to the Rainbow Connection it’s a bit like what Kermit The Frog might sound like when fucked into submission by Willie Nelson.
None of this matters though.
How many hits have you written?
How many evergreens like, well, Evergreen?
There is a weird patch in the middle of the show and a huge dip in quality. The voice is rasping and wheezing and caught in a never-ending game of catch-up and he’s singing songs about his own sobriety and reminding the audience that he’s cashed some pretty big cheques. He stops one of his own apparently breath-taking new/ish songs to whisper, “Jesus” and wipe a cosmetic tear from his eye. The enormity of his humility has finally got to him it seems. He’s caught in a moment he wrote for himself, about himself. That’s how fucking bloody humble he is see!
Also a young protégé joins him for a bland sing-song. Her voice is better than his (well, it’s hardly a compliment) but she has no stage presence at all. She’s there only to give us a break from Paul’s bleat. She’s there, one of his sheep, dressed up ready for whenever Wes Anderson might call asking her to stand next to a briefcase record player for an hour or two.
So the show’s going down and Captain Stubing’s favourite hum-along is first to be jettisoned.
But then the strong, strong finish.
Even the story about We’ve Only Just Begun hints at a strange kind of magic. A watery, weeper of a tune. Written, cloyingly, for a friggen bank ad. The sodding Crocker National Bank. Written because someone was going to buy it. That’s all it took. The chance of a cheque and Paul called, “get the guitar” and strummed out that almost instantly old-fashioned love song. One of the first of so, so many.
We had our own go at wiping a cosmetic tear. Ordered another drink. Clinked bottles on the opening chords as the piano signalled that he would actually have a go at this song. It was a bit like watching an Olympic high-jumper… (oh, sorry, that’s actually a touch cruel) prepare to leap large.
Would he make it over the bar?
Yes! Somehow yes. He did. I mean it sounded kinda ghastly. But shimmering and gorgeous as well.
“All of this applause is for Karen Carpenter”, Williams announced while the song was still going, predicting the crowd to erupt. That bloody Pauly-Lama.
You And Me Against The World, he sang. Or mumble-spoke. And that was how he saw it always. The little engine that could. And did. And then didn’t so much anymore…and now couldn’t really, except for to remind us that he had. Those songs are his. He won’t ever let anyone forget it. The applause on the night might have been for Three Dog Night and Karen and Barbra as he instructed after each mega-hit someone else made after he wrote. But it was really for him.
And anyone that can pull off the magic trick of being the worst professional singer I’ve ever seen and yet still making me love most of the moments of the show deserves every bit of that applause. And belongs right here in Vegas…baby…VEGAS! Shaking those hands. And nerves.