The New Yorker‘s pop critic, Sasha Frere-Jones (who I thought of for a long time as a sassy woman of colour, but *alas* is a fortysomething white guy with a blue-chip ancestry, originally Alexander Jones) wrote a piece recently about Bill Withers.
I came across Bill Withers in the early 80s when I was rummaging around my then brother-in-law’s pile of cassettte tapes (this time-slip makes me hear Dr Who electro-wobbleboard music) and … well, Withers is wonderful. He only wrote and performed between 1972 and 1985 but as SFJ puts it, produced “a small but indispensable section of the American songbook.”
The gems in his crown include the unassailable “Ain’t No Sunshine,” with its non-chorus of “I know, I know, I know,” repeated 26 times according to Frere-Jones. There’s the impossibly sincere and tender “Lean On Me,” and the quite unsettling liberation of “Use Me,” often mistitled “Use Me Up” which I first heard in the reggafied and louchely masochistic rendition by Grace Jones. (See lyrics below.)
The marvellous thing about this moment right now is that you can check these marvels and several million others on YouTube. It is a little sliver of a golden age – free access (gratis the Googlegod) to a global cultural cornucopia. How long can it last? Jealous waifs in 2025 will be hearing stories, ‘When we were young, we had a magic pipeline – YouTube …” It will be like we were in virtual Woodstock. Enjoy, as they say in the cheaper restaurants.
Oh, that orange ribbed turtleneck!
Think its their appointed duty
They keep tryin’ to tell me
That you just want to use me
But my answer
To all that use me stuff …
I said brother
If ya only knew
You’d be wishin’ that you were in my shoes
To keep on usin’ me, keep on usin’ me
Until ya use me up
Until ya use me up
Update: Always happens when you dash something off; you think of other necessary, forgotten bits after lunch: SFJ’s article tells us that Withers is an untrained musician, making his work all the more remarkable. Now 71, he proves unmellowed, as real as he ever seemed to be in his performances; he hasn’t forgotten growing up in the age of segregation. As he says in a new documentary, Still Bill:
“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.”