I love Bill Withers’ music so much. I cried a little when I heard he died and made him this little garden in my diary later in the day.
He seemed to be that rare artist who was as beautiful a man as he was a singer and songwriter. My friend Brian Braiker told this story of growing up across the street from him:
I knew Bill. I grew up across the street from him in LA. Carpooled with his kids. Bill was a genius, yes. A poet. He was also unreasonably kind and generous. Gentle but with a sadness. Once I baked him a thank-you pie with apples from my dad’s tree — he had given me tickets to some thing at the Greek. When I showed up with the pie he said “oh shit, Red baked me a pie!” (He called me Red.) Then he invited me inside and we talked for maybe two hours. He was a talker. He loved to tell stories. My mom called looking for me and he said “you can’t have him back!” And I kvelled. When I was little I only knew him as the guy who sang “Just the Two of Us,” a song I didn’t really have any feelings for either way. When I studied abroad my junior year, I found “Still Bill” at a thrift store. Then I got his greatest hits. I was HOOKED. I came back from Europe (it would have been 1995) and was excited to tell him I had gotten really into his music. He said, “Man, Red had to go all the way to France to discover me! I was across the street the whole time.”
It’s incredible, when you look at the words on the page, how he spun great songs out of such simple, everyday language:
Lean on me
when you’re not strong
and I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
for it won’t be long
’til I’m gonna need
somebody to lean on
There’s a 2009 documentary about him called Still Bill that I recommend watching. One of his quotes inspired chapter 9 in my book, Show Your Work!:
“Sellout… I’m not crazy about that word. We’re all entrepreneurs. To me, I don’t care if you own a furniture store or whatever—the best sign you can put up is SOLD OUT.”
There are a bunch of other quotes I could’ve used. In fact, I’m surprised I never used this one:
It’s okay to head out for Wonderful, but on your way to Wonderful, you’re gonna have to pass through Alright, and when you get to Alright, take a good look around and get used to it, because that may be as far as you’re gonna go.
Thoreau said most men live lives of quiet desperation. I would like to know how it feels for my desperation to get louder.
There’s also an incredible 2013 interview on Bullseye with Jesse Thorn that I’ve listened to several times. In fact, I have transcribed the ending in full, below. (Thorn told me yesterday that it was “the most powerful thing anyone has ever said on my show.”)
My father was this coal miner, but he was always interested in reading. Never got a chance to go to school. But he read. And, you know, dignity was very important to him. The first thing that I had to resolve in my life and the one thing that was very important to me, I had to sort this out: ‘Can I go into this thing and avoid the minstrel-ness of it?’ This is a business. And you got some cold pimps that will mail you out until you die in your grave. You got as many thieves in this stuff… There’s a life you have to run. And you do the best you can. And hopefully, as a human being, you improve. I’m 70-years-old. I’m not some kind of mindless troubadour. You know? I have an intellect I have to manage, I have some thoughts I have to manage, I have a life I have to maintain. I want to know where my stuff is. You know? I want to know who I am. I don’t want to be some simple-minded blues boy. You can bleep this out: ‘Kiss my ass with that shit.’ So I’m doing the best I can. To grow and improve my lineage as a species. So I got some responsibilities that require that I be available. I never had the benefit of a formal education, but I’ve always wanted to better myself. I can speak the language. I can write it, make it rhyme for you, if you want to. You know what I mean? Somebody said, “Education is the sum total of what you know.” That’s everything from tying your shoe to whether you can do quadratic equations or not. So, I’m not saying this should be a template for everybody, but that’s just the kind of person that makes sense for me to be. Hopefully the music that I made is useful to somebody. I mean, I get nice letters from people that say, ‘Hey man, my grandmother died, and the song helped me.’ I like that kind of stuff. As a result, it was important to me, as best I could, to try to wind up with a life that had some stability and some dignity in it… I made some choices earlier… that I wanted to be a whole person. Not just this entertainer thing. It doesn’t fill up my plate. I love it — who wouldn’t like it? But it doesn’t fill up my plate.
So long, Bill. You fill up my plate.