Bill Withers: Music Industry Casualty

I watched this documentary "Still Bill" over the weekend, all about Bill Withers. Who is Bill Withers, you say?

Bill wrote some of the finest songs ever, including "Ain't No Sunshine", "Use Me", and "Lean On Me". His other big hits include "Grandma's Hands", "Just The Two Of Us", and "Who Is He (And What Is He To You?)". Any one of those gets you into The Master Songwriters' Club for life. Nailing that many gets you a chair with your name on it.

And Bill did all that without knowing, in his words "an F sharp from 9th Street". He also had a hardscrabble upbringing in a coal town in West Virginia. Apparently he stuttered badly until his late 20s.

But when you hear him sing, that voice...that is a timbre that you are just born with. Sid may have a nice voice, but Bill Withers has a beautiful instrument. His phrasing is masterful, instinctual, and just perfect.

His melodic ear is brilliant - his melodies can be melancholy, wistful, and slightly dangerous. His songs are both instantly familiar and yet surprising.

Despite all that, Bill is sort of a forgotten figure in the music business these days, and that's sort of how he wants it. Maybe. He made his last album of new material in 1985, a year after our own debut was recorded.

He says he's been writing this whole time, but not finishing anything. Working in his own studio a little. Scribbling tons of fragments here and there, all the time. But mostly he says he's been goofing off, being a little lazy, enjoying his comforts. Raising his kids.

This happens sometimes. The Muse is fickle, and the fire you have as a young person, desperate to prove yourself, can get stifled, dimmed, or put out by even a modest amount of financial success or emotional validation.

Put another way, many of my L.A. friends have all kinds of intimacy issues. They all wanted or needed to be on stage having hundreds of people professing their love because they couldn't find a single person offstage who would do that. And once a few of them found that bliss in their personal lives, their artistic life was done. 

That don't mean you gotta suffer to create, though. Success in the biz comes through work. That means you pick up your axe and you write, you get out there in front of people and play. Because that is what you do, what you love, and because you need to pay your entourage. You have people depending on you.

One of my music teachers told me never to get a day job. He said "Don't do it. You'll end up with a good job, and you'll get a nice stereo and a nice house and a nice car and then pretty soon you'll get used to all of it and you won't want to give it up. And then you won't be able to focus on your music anymore."

I've seen that take down some folks too. I guess some people stop being hungry after they eat, you know?

I'm not sure if he just lost the spark. I know Bill really didn't like the biz part of the music business. He liked the singing OK, but the rest of it - the record company guys, the recording, the touring - not so much. He was lucky in that he got big enough that he could pick and choose, and had a good enough head on his shoulders to appreciate what he had.

Sometimes that machine just beats your desire out of you, and sometimes even moreso when you're successful. Once you've had a few Bill Withers-size hits, you don't need to take shit from nobody. You don't feel like making a record, you don't have to. And you sure don't have to listen to people who haven't (and never will) have Bill Withers-size hits tell you what to do and how to do it.

But maybe he just didn't want to cheapen his legacy. He's also a perfectionist about his writing, and says he just hasn't been that inspired. He doesn't want to repeat himself either. This, I can respect.

The downside to being a pro entertainer (as opposed to an artiste) is that you have to ship new product constantly. Many of the pros I know see their fanbase like a crop - they tend to them, water and feed them each year, and then harvest some cash by putting out something new. Doesn't matter whether it's "good" or "interesting" or "creative". It's something for the fans to buy. It's breakfast cereal, not timeless art or frozen architecture or whatever great music is.

I mean, hell, I've written a few good songs and part of me wants to just throw my hand up like George Costanza and leave the room. What if my next song isn't as good as "Lifestyle Magazine Lifestyle"? What if my next 30 aren't? I sure don't want to make a record so bad it makes people think less of my good records.

So comfort, hassle, quality control...maybe some combination of those things is why Bill's shop has been closed for so long.

Bill is over 70 now, but you'd barely know it from watching him and listening to him. Tons of energy, sharp as a razor. I aspire to his level of calm, cool, and self-assuredness. I wanna be like him when I grow up.

In the last few years apparently he's gotten interested in working again. Maybe he's realizing he doesn't have too many days left. Maybe he's bored. Anyhow, I hope he does something he's proud of. I can't wait to hear what he does next!

Bill Withers "Ain't No Sunshine"

Bill Withers "Use Me"

Also Sasha Frere-Jones wrote a nice article.