“We met in Robert Mitchum’s bedroom in 1981 or 1982.”
That’s Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer Paul Williams, describing his first — and disastrous — encounter with comedy writer Tracey Jackson, the co-author of his new book, Gratitude & Trust: Six Affirmations That Will Change Your Life.
“I was drunk,” admits Williams, “and Tracey walked into the bedroom where Mitchum and I were getting high. (I’m 24 years sober now, but in those days I would never pass up a little herb, and Bob Mitchum always had a little herb.) Tracey said the kindest thing — ‘I’ve always loved your music’ — but my response was sexist, arrogant and shallow. I said something really, really rude.
“She spun on her heels and walked out of that room a huge Neil Diamond fan.”
The next time they met, Williams was clean and sober — and the encounter was considerably less fraught: “Tracey came to see me perform in 2001 at Feinstein’s [in San Francisco’s Hotel Nikko] with her husband, Glen,” recalls Williams, “and we became great friends.”
Now that friendship has yielded Gratitude & Trust, a get-your-life-together book that aims to app
ly the principles of the recovery movement “to those of us who are not suffering from life-threatening behavior, just life- limiting behavior.” That could be anything from giving up on diets or friendships to taking on credit-card debt or embracing a victim mentality.
People mired in self-destructive habits “may not be lying in a gutter with a needle hanging out of [their] arm,” write Williams and Jackson in the book's introduction, but their current life path is not the one they “ dreamt about, chose, or even want to stay on.”
Anyone familiar with Williams’s harrowing journey to sobriety thanks to the 2011 Stephen Kessler documentary Paul Williams Still Alive will probably not be surprised at the revelations he makes in these pages. This stark admission, for starters: “I appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 48 times. I remember 6.”
But what fans of his songwriting (“We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainbow Connection,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” etc.) may not know is why the musical prodigy topped out at 4-foot-6: Short for his age in 5th grade, Williams was treated with male-hormone shots intended to spur his growth. “The hormones had the opposite effect,” he discloses in Gratitude & Trust, “causing my bones to stop growing yet hurling me into puberty by the age of 10.”
Indeed, the more you learn about Paul Williams’s early years, the more you realize how lucky the man is to be enjoying some later ones (he turned 74 in September). His father, a “six-foot-plus” itinerant alcoholic construction worker, died in a drunk-driving accident when Williams was just 13. His mother, unable to afford Paul’s upbringing, sent him to live with an aunt 1,000 miles away.
The drinking began soon after.
“I don’t know exactly when I crossed the line from use to abuse to addiction,” Williams confides in Gratitude & Trust, but “I can tell you that at the peak of my disease, I began each day with a drink. Excessive? I didn’t think so. I thought everyone started their day with a glass of vodka in the shower.”
During a break in their 12-city tour to promote the book — which included a stopover on Oprah’s couch that will be broadcast as part of her “Super Soul Sunday” program November 16 — the authors talked more about the book.
Q: Tracey, you claim to have “recovery envy.”
Tracey Jackson: Well, I’ve never been a drug addict or an alcohol abuser, but I’ve always loved the principles of the recovery program, and I’ve always loved what it did for friends who went through recovery. It’s a wonderful blueprint for life, and I’ve always wondered why the rest of us didn’t have something like that.
That thought had been percolating in my brain for years when I went to hear Paul speak after a screening of Still Alive. He said his “choo-choo ran on the twin rails of gratitude and trust,” and a lightbulb went on in my head: “That’s what the world needs, gratitude and trust.” The book’s basic message is that recovery is not just for addicts — in fact that was our original title.
Paul Williams: My side of it was that people saw me literally disappear in the 1980s: I had no life. I couldn’t function. I hid out. Everyone who observed that, then saw the new life I’ve been given in recovery, would ask the same question: “Why doesn’t the rest of the world have something like what you have?”
It never occurred to me that there would be a functional way to share my recovery story at the level we do in the book until Tracey came to me and said, “Let’s do this.” So I said, “Yeah, that sounds like a lovely idea.”
Q: Describing the moment you hit bottom, Paul, you write, “Then, inexplicably, while I was blacked out, I called a doctor and asked him to find a place for me to be admitted.” Do you still find that turnaround moment “inexplicable”?
PW: No. And I don’t expect the rest of the world to embrace my view, but I think my recovery had to do with the collective energy of a prayer circle formed in Oklahoma City in September 1989 by a concert promoter — himself seven years dry — who had witnessed one of my meltdowns. As I say in the book, “A group of Oklahoma drunks I’d never met gathered to pray for my sobriety.”
As our second affirmation [in Gratitude & Trust] says, “I don’t know how to do this, but something inside me does.” Well, maybe that “something inside me” was healthy enough, even in the midst of my blackout, to reach out for help. Or, as I’m fond of saying, “The Big Amigo rode in and saved the day.”
Features Editor Allan Fallow tells other recovery stories here.
Photos: George Baier IV; jacket design by Jason Booher, courtesy Blue Rider Press
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