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.

Welcome Back, Adam Ant!

Music blog The Quietus has a nice interview up with Adam Ant - You'll recall I wrote at length about him. Well worth a read!

It's good to have him back.
When you get a number one
The only way is down
And if you have a sticky patch
They start looking, start looking around
In the night when things go bump
Think of me think
Here comes the grump, here comes the grump
Doctors said "Adam, sex kills"
So come inside and die
- "Here Comes The Grump", Adam Ant

Chilly B is Gone

Just found out that Bob Crafton, a.k.a. "Chilly B", died. He was one of the founders of Newcleus, known for their great songs "Jam On It" and "Space Is The Place".

I remember hearing "Jam On It" on DC radio when I was a kid. Blew my mind. So funky, so futuristic. I made my own DJ scratch dubs of the track. Wanted to get a synthesizer. Wanted to rap.

Check it out. Hear the icy cold synths and beats brush up against the warmth and joy of the vocals. Electro and rap. So far ahead of its time. Envisioning a future of hope, rather than glorifying hopelessness, guns, and drugs.

Look at that video - that's the joy of music, people. I've been looking for a band, a platform, and a vibe like that for most of my life.

Chilly B is featured at about 1:45. Dig that classic rap cadence and voice. Old school, obviously raised on Kurtis Blow. As Greg Kihn said, "they don't write 'em like that anymore". As Shakespeare said "he was a man, take him for all in all. We shall not look upon his like again."

Newcleus-Jam On It

Pantemonium! in progress: Older Woman

This track has a heavy Michael Jackson influence. Thought I would tip my shiny hat to the one-gloved master. I hope he's far from pressure and Post-It notes now.

I wanted to try to write something with a little more soul while simultaneously paying tribute to some of our hardest-core fans. Make no mistake - I love the older women. Look at Farrah Fawcett. Smokin' until the end. There are too many to name.

Still on track to have the new album finished before summer's over. Dante's going to paint up a nice cover.

Tell us what you think.

Older Woman (mix 09) MP3

Michael Jackson - Exit, Stage Right

The dissection and autopsy of Michael Jackson’s life and career will be duly carried out by sources more dispassionate and morbid than me, so I’ll try to be brief.

Dude was weird, no question. But nice, friendly, polite. At least to outsiders. That may seem like a funny thing to talk about, but you’d be surprised at how many famous people (especially the young ones) are complete jerks.

As for the weird, you’d be weird, too, if you had the upbringing he did. I experienced my own bit of precocious youth pressure back in the days of The Short Pants, trying to balance “academic excellence” with “making hit records” and chasing girls. But it was nothing compared to what he went through. The awful family situation. Worse was the early success and life in the spotlight.

I keep thinking about this Rolling Stone article I read back in the late 80s before “Bad” came out. The writer had followed Jackson around and had noticed a Post-It note in his bathroom that just had “100” written on it. (Jackson was way into the motivational Post-It notes).

He asked what that meant, and Jackson replied “I am going to sell 100 million copies of ‘Bad’ – that’s what it means.”

At that time, Thriller had sold about 40 million, making it (for a long time) by far the biggest-selling album ever. It had cameo appearances by Eddie Van Halen, Paul McCartney, and Vincent Price. It was promoted with a fantastic live performance broadcast on TV and backed up by a series of groundbreaking videos. And it hit at a time when the record industry badly needed a modern, catchy, optimistic record with broad appeal.

Thriller would go on to sell 100 million copies.

In short, it wasn’t just a once-in-a-lifetime event, it was a once-in-an-industry event. And Michael Jackson was convinced his next record (ominously named “Bad”) was going to do 2.5 times the business.

Kid stars have it the worst – they grow up knowing nothing but the spotlight. They’re forced to grow up in front of everyone, fumbling for new identities as teens, young adults, and finally, mature adults. I don’t know that Michael ever acknowledged he was getting older. The pressure he placed on himself was enormous.

He didn’t just want to be the best singer and dancer, or write big hits (and unlike many pop stars who take publishing/writing credit in exchange for recording, Michael did write many of his hits - he wrote the main riff for “Beat It”, among other things). He wanted to transform himself and went far to do it. I’m sure the physical, mental and emotional pain he kept himself in was not pleasant.

The kids. Nobody but Michael knows for sure what went on. But when you get to be that rich and that famous, and you’ve been that way your whole life, you can’t trust anyone over 13. Every time you allow yourself to meet someone new, you’re asking “Are they interested in me, the person, or my fame? Or my money? Or something else? Is this a trap?” Hanging out with kids too young to understand his life was the closest he could get to real human interaction. I’m sure he knew it was sort of messed up, too. Think about what that knowledge must have done to him as well.

I hope he is finally free of his demons and those goddamn Post-It notes. If nothing else, he’s at least free of the spotlight.

When I think of Michael Jackson, I think of a summer dance in 1982. His voice echoing off the walls of a Duke University gymnasium, as I danced into the night. I've never been sweatier, funkier, or more lost in the music.

Every night I step up to the microphone and The Pants fire into another song, I am chasing that one moment.
Billie Jean
Wanna Be Startin' Something
Shake Your Body Down To The Ground
Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough
Leave Me Alone

ZZ Top - Grandfathers of Electronica and Electroclash

ZZ Top are criminally underrated. Seriously.

The 3 Texans have had careers longer than most musicians have lives - they started playing together in 1869. They've been savvy enough to get way rich without selling out - they turned down $1 million each from Gillette to shave their beards. They've been doing exactly what they want longer than anyone can remember and people love them for it.

Everyone knows they're cool. But they don't get the respect they deserve, especially these days. Yeah, yeah, they're in the Rock n'Roll Hall of Fame. Don't hold that against them - it doesn't count for anything, and the kids today haven't managed to pick up on how awesome they are. They're too busy listening to Journey and Duran Duran.

ZZ Top never cared what anyone else thought and still doesn't. They played their blues-roots rock for something like 100 years. They wrote great, slightly dirty songs like "I'm Bad...I'm Nationwide", "Tush", and "La Grange".

And then they started getting weird.

They made an album called "Eliminator". Maybe they were bored after making several dozen solid blues-rock records, each with super-solid singles. Perhaps they were savvy enough to understand what tastes were changing to in the 1980s. I like to think it was instinctual rather than calculated.

For "Eliminator", drummer Frank Beard played to a click track and synced and mixed his live drums with a Linn Drum. They took their buzzing distorted guitars and mixed buzzing sawtooth synthesizers in, chugging sequences augmenting the chugging guitars and bass. It's a breathtaking combo, which sounds both raw and polished, timeless and modern.

"Eliminator" sold over 10 million copies, becoming one of the first albums to be certified "Diamond" by the RIAA. Also one of the last, because since the music business threw itself out a window and genres splintered into a million shards, nobody buys records like that anymore.

A big portion of the album's success came from the fantastic videos they made to go along with it. "Gimme All Your Lovin'", "Sharp Dressed Man", and "Legs" were the quintessential MTV videos. The band appeared, driving the car on the cover of the album. There were (by 80s standards) high production values, short stories of the band turning ordinary losers into cool people, and of course, hot chicks.

These videos, for all intents and purposes, were the 80s. You wanted to be one of the people in the video. Or grew up looking to find people like the ones in the video to sleep with. The videos supported rather than upstaged or ignored the music. They kept similar cast and stories so the videos all felt part of a piece.

They managed to parlay their success into a song on the hottest movie series of the 80s - the Back To The Future trilogy. And they followed up "Eliminator" with an even more synthesized album, "Afterburner".

Not as charming as the previous record, "Afterburner" sort of sounded like the band on autopilot. But that was also perfect for the 80s zeitgeist. It had more of everything, and some big hits as well. "Rough Boy" is particularly nice, with a clear influence from Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" video, and an icy take on a pop blues ballad.

So what's so special about ZZ Top? Well, since their big breakthrough on "Eliminator", countless other rock bands have tried to combine drum machines, synthesizers, and guitars. The bands who have tried to duplicate ZZ Top's brilliant sound include:
  • Def Leppard. Their albums with "Mutt" Lange actually surpassed ZZ Top's in technological achievement and sales, but without any of the quirky fun.
  • Jesus Jones. They don't know it, but they owe a debt to ZZ Top
  • Nine Inch Nails. Trent acts like he's the first guy to think a drum machine and a distorted guitar would go great together, or that a clever video would help sell a record. Sorry, man. ZZ Top FTW.
I could go on, but I don't need to shame anyone else. They know who they are. Stealing from the greats without paying respect. But not Sid. I love ZZ Top. I owe them.

I ran into Billy Gibbons at a party I crashed in the Hollywood hills in 1991. He did not look well, but I suspect he had probably crashed the party, too. I wanted to tell him how much I liked his music, but he was just so cool and there...I couldn't bring myself to get close enough to say anything.

If I could have said anything, I would have said "I want to ride in the car. I want the hot chicks in the animal prints to do unspeakable things with me. I want to be transformed by the power of rock into the cooler version of me I know is in there. I want to drive down a dusty road to a brick loft with neon and Nagel prints on the walls and an old refrigerator full of beer. And thanks for the music."

Alas, it was not to be. Should I be fortunate enough to be graced with the opportunity again, I will not fail. I will tell him that I, too, am bad...and nationwide.

ZZ Top still around, they're still playing. I suspect they'll be rocking in another hundred years. Rick Rubin is producing their new album. Despite Rick's continuing self-cartoonification, I look forward to hearing what ZZ Top sounds like in AC/DC drag.

Until then, check out this short playlist for an example of their unmitigated awesomeness.

Sharp Dressed Man
I Need You Tonight
Rough Boy
I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide
Tube Snake Boogie
La Grange