Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Confessions of a Tasteless Hack (Bill WIthers, Touch)

"My real life was when I was just a working guy. You know, it's OK to head out for Wonderful. But on your way to Wonderful, you're gonna have to pass through All Right. And 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."
- Bill Withers.

When I first started doing the singer-songwriter 'thing,' and entertaining it as a life, my parents tried the scare tactic of having a guy over who had been through the rigamarole of the music business. He brought a guitar with his old band's name stenciled onto the case, played me a perfectly crafted song in an alternate tuning, and told me failure was a near-certainty.

I'm absolutely certain my parents expected this to dissuade me from my pursuit -- instead, it galvanized my desire to prove to them that this can happen. My biggest regret is that by the time I was 21, I was so gung-ho about achieving unassailable success that I had lost sight of the work. I was obsessed with words like "springboard," trying to find ways to vault myself to fame and fortune -- I should have just been doing the work.

Yesterday, I stumbled across the trailer for "Still Bill," the new documentary on Bill Withers' autumnal years (still going, btw), and that quote up there was in it, and blew my mind whole. I can't imagine what it would be like to live in this guy's world, to have him around to give advice. Does he always talk like that? Is the secret to his amazing frank lyrical style just that when he opens his mouth, he says fantastic, profound shit, by using little words that say giant things? I think it may be.

I have to confess that the reason I'm obsessing about Bill Withers, also, is that up until a few days ago, I didn't have a single Bill Withers album. Having bought the Greatest Hits, I think it's still arguable that I don't. So many of these songs have been such ubiquitous fixtures in the world, it's weird to think they have a context -- how did no one sit me down when I was wearing new grooves into that Club Nouveau version of "Lean On Me" and say, "OK -- Here is where we blow your mind with how great this stuff can be," and lock me in a room with the real thing?

My musical awakening was slow and churning. My parents turned me on to the Beatles, and popular folk, mainly. My father was big on folk groups -- Peter, Paul and Mary, Chad Mitchell Trio, The Brothers Four -- and Dionne Warwick, which really meant that he was big on Bacharach, I think, because the R&B started and stopped in his collection with her. My parents also led a folk choir at St. John's Student Parish in East Lansing, and the swingier hymns used to get my attention (before I hit puberty, I would sing along with my mother's harmony parts, which is probably why I've always been good at background vocals).

Frustrated with my limited tastes, my sister locked me in her room with a Top 40 station one day, and I started accepting that stuff as the Real Stuff. Today, I can enjoy Survivor's "The Search Is Over" with a healthy level of irony, loving it for how truly limp it is, but back then, I was of the belief that THAT was the pinnacle of songwriting. Well, that and Paul Young's version of Daryl Hall(who?)'s "Everytime You Go Away," which I was only OK with once someone explained to me that she wasn't taking actual limbs with her.

The Eurythmics, though, were the first band that stuck out for me as true artists -- the smoothness of Annie Lennox, the jerkiness of Dave Stewart, the ineffable (for a 9-year-old) clash of the analog and the digital -- so when my mother asked me what album I would like (she was on her way to buy Michael Jackson's Thriller), I asked for whatever was the newest one of theirs. "Touch" became my first LP.

Look at that cover. Would you let a 9-year-old have that? If you were my mother, you would. I wish I could say that from there, I embarked on a voyage of alternative discovery -- that I experienced Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, the Smiths, all of that stuff, while it happened, but I can't. Somehow, I just kept letting the radio tell me what to listen to, even though I adored "Touch," and memorized every bleep-bloop, and loved the songs that didn't get on the radio way more than the songs that did (I could never process that "Cool Blue" wasn't a hit, and that chorus still freaks me out).

I've since bought it in all other formats, each time rediscovering the material and finding new things to love about it, but I still have that copy of that record -- even when I got rid of all my albums (unwise, but I move around a lot), I kept that one around.

That was fun -- maybe I'll do more of these.

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