Bill Withers/Bill Withers
The revolution was/is a bit overwhelming. I’m always playing catch-up. The thing I caught up to this week was Bill Withers’ string of fantastic LPs from the seventies–the hard-to-find ones on Sussex and the more readily available ones on Columbia, all now neatly packaged in a nine-album box set you can pick up for twenty-five bucks on-line.
The box is a beautiful thing. Withers held a unique space which nobody ever bothered to name because nobody else lived in it. If it was soul and country and folk and funk and jazz and supper club pop all rolled into one without the least sign of strain, then “Bill Withers” was the only name it needed.
None of the albums are less than good, but the first two were the most consistently inspired–inspired enough to produce his forever-signature tunes and to garner him a gig at Carnegie Hall which was recorded for a scintillating live LP, the highlight of which was Wither’s “Viet Nam” song (lots of people had one in those days–not many had one this good) “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” about a vet who has had his right arm blown off.
I don’t know if the song lives on any other album. In any case I had not heard it until it caught me on the highway this week. And about half-way through, when it became obvious that the “war-is-harmful-to-children-and-other-living-things” element in Withers’ intro rap was a set-up–that he wasn’t putting gauze on the pain so much as easing into it from one of his patented sly, unique-unto-him angles, the better to draw it out on the other side–I started thinking….“If he goes straight into…”
Well, you don’t need to have been taking junior high chorus in 1972 to know what you want Bill Withers to go straight into when he finishes a funny, edgy, hauntingly matter-of-fact song about a Viet Nam vet who has had his arm blown off.
It wasn’t the first time “Lean On Me” threw a chill on me, but–even knowing it just might be coming–it was the first time it threw me off balance. The first time, I guess, that I heard the doubt in it–the doubt as to whether Bill Withers or anyone else could bear the weight the song asks for.
And ten times as powerful for all that–as if Bill Withers knew there would come a day when having a body part blown off just meant you were a handy means of becoming a poster boy for the miracles of modern medicine and keeping the death toll in these ‘wars” we fight now that the old -devil-Viet-Nam-Syndrome is sure enough licked from reaching a number that might make somebody nervous.
At which point, “I’ll help you carry on” would become an even more necessary last-line-of-defense against cynicism than it was in 1972.
Which is saying something.