"One of the things I always tell my kids
is that it's OK to head out for wonderful,
but on your way to wonderful,
you're gonna have to pass through all right.
When you get to all right,
take a good look around and get used to it,
because that may be as far as you're gonna go."
"I became very interested [in the question],
can I still stay in this business
and be effective and make a living,
and not have to play this fame game?
I wasn't any good at it.
The fame game was kickin' my ass."
"You gonna tell me the history of the blues?
I am the goddam blues. Look at me. Shit.
I'm from West Virginia, I'm the first man
in my family not to work in the coal mines,
my mother scrubbed floors on her knees
for a living, and you're going to tell me
about the goddam blues because
you read some book written by John Hammond?
Kiss my ass."
I was six minutes early for my haircut, so I finished listening to the NPR interview on the car radio with the filmmakers of a new documentary about Bill Withers called "Still Bill" ("Still Bill" is also the name of his second album in 1972). No matter how overplayed "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Lean On Me" were when I was in high school, I still didn't turn the radio knob back then, and I couldn't turn him off now. The timbre of his voice put me in either a small dark bar or a sunny meadow, depending on the song, the day and what the mood was behind my closed eyelids. His simple lyrics and the way he sang about love made him someone I admired - not from my head, but from my heart. I could never sit still in my mother's kitchen when Dee Dee and I listened to "Use Me" and it even got us up off our butts to finish the dishes. Oh and I smiled through "Lovely Day" and "Grandma's Hands:" Billy don't you run so fast, might fall on a piece of glass, might be snakes there in that grass, Grandma's ha-a-a-ands, sung with nostalgic love. Would I have remembered his quiet songs if you'd asked me a week ago what my top ten favorite songs are? I don't think I would have pulled them out of where they were tucked away from consciousness. But here I was feeling like I'd come home after missing it for too long.
So when I heard that two guys have been making a documentary about him for seven years, I listened eagerly to hear what they had to say about him. Was he for real? You spend seven years with a person and you'll get a clue about whether they're that wise, tender soul behind the simple sweet songs you love. The quotes and descriptions of him the filmmakers talked about confirmed that he is a real guy who is wise from experience and self shaping, uncomfortable with fame and the ways his studio wanted to market him and his music. In a 2005 interview, he talked about CBS Records trying to get him to cover Elvis Presley's "In the Ghetto" and sexy up his blues with female backup singers. As if he needed added soul like that. That's when he said what he said about being the blues, not selling 'em. Good for him he's managed to live pretty nicely on royalties from his 1970s and 1980s songs, without becoming something he wasn't.
I turned off the radio and went in for my haircut knowing I'll be using that line about taking a good look around all right with my students, because that might be as far as some of them will go. I happen to know from experience that all right can be pretty wonderful. Or maybe it's more like deciding for yourself what wonderful is.
Bill Withers says in this first video of "Grandma's Hands" that it's his favorite of his songs. After that I also posted "Harlem," his first single, which didn't make it big the way the flip side "Ain't no Sunshine" did. In fact, yesterday was the first time I'd heard it.
My photo at the top is of the March 8 New Yorker article about him and the documentary.
I just love hearing his songs again, and I guess I hope he sticks with his version of wonderful and doesn't start touring, unless he really wants to.