There are many versions of Bill Withers, the steady, complicated singer who died last week from a heart attack, at age 81. There is the true-blue friend of “Lean on Me”; the happy cuckold of “Use Me”; the country boy of “Grandma’s Hands,” the song on which Withers most sounds like he hails from a town called Slab Fork, West Virginia. He could be a little scary, as in “Better Off Dead,” in which he stages a suicide by gunfire, and brutally funny: on the 1973 album Live at Carnegie Hall, he praises his grandmother’s church by telling the audience, “It wasn’t one of them sad churches where they sing them songs that make you wish you could just hurry up and die and get it over with.”
His down-home eloquence could mask the version of Withers we seldom saw. But that version appears in a brief moment of the 2009 documentary Still Bill, when Withers goes to New York to be honored by a support group for kids who stutter. Withers himself was afflicted by a stutter, especially as a kid, and was often mocked for it. In New York, he tells a small group of parents and kids about a party he attended the night before: he went up to a man to introduce himself, and got stuck after saying his name. “And it brought back memories,” Withers says, brushing away tears,
Because there was a woman with him, and she started to laugh. There was fear—fear of the perception of the listener, this fear that makes us apprehensive right at the point of trying to speak that stops us. Well, one of the ways to deal with the fear is to approach people with a prepared forgiveness. We have to be more civil than most people that we will encounter. Having had people not understand me … helped me wait a little beat to where I could extend something that hasn’t been given to me. And I think that makes you a much bigger person.
Withers was not always nice, but he was evidently capable of disarming kindness. It is very kind of him to attend this event, to tell this story and share this advice. It is kind of him to reveal the sort of vulnerability that comes from never knowing when an impairment might strike again, and of deciding the only way to control it is to forgive people for their callousness in advance. That tenderness, as well as the will to make room for fear, uncertainty and pain, shapes Withers’s songs, even those that seem most cut-and-dry.
How long do you think the studio version of “Ain’t No Sunshine” is? Four minutes? Five? It’s two minutes and five seconds. The opening couldn’t be starker. Withers and his guitar just come right in:
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone
It’s not warm when she’s away
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone
And she’s always gone too long
Any time she goes away
Now the strings start to swirl, and the situation intensifies and gets more specific. The two people share a home, it seems, from which the woman periodically departs to go stay somewhere else:
Wonder this time where she’s gone
Wonder if she’s gone to stay
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone
And this house just ain’t no home
Anytime she goes away
“Ain’t No Sunshine” might be the most efficiently poignant lament in American popular music. And yet, there is a coil of repetition at its center. In the bridge, which is more of a cul-de-sac, Withers sings “I know” 26 times. The line is untethered from the others, so that the object of his knowing remains enigmatic. I guess what he knows is what he concludes on the other side of the loop: “I oughtta leave the young thing alone.” But this is not the wry wisdom of “Use Me,” where the speaker knows he’s being used, and owns it. Here, the repeated “I know” leads to a moment of self-chastisement that is really just a turnaround; it brings us back where we started: “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.”
The “I know” is a stutter. It is a stutter that couldn’t be steadier. And the obsessive circularity it winds into the song produces new layers of meaning. In the romantic reading, which is the one on the surface, it only feels like she’s “always gone too long” because that is the nature of love. But it is also possible that the woman really stays away for long stretches at a time—maybe because, like the woman in “Use Me,” she just doesn’t love him that much. Or maybe, thinking ahead to the abusive control Withers expresses on “Who is He (And What is He to You)?”—and, biographically, to the domestic violence that marked his relationship with his first wife, Denise Nicholas—he keeps driving her away. Maybe she leaves to take refuge from him, and the “darkness” he feels in her absence is not only loneliness but guilt. The repeated “I know” opens up alternate meanings, because it is a spiral of knowing that is also not-knowing, or denial. In short, if this is a stutter, it makes the song more articulate; makes it say more, not less.
Withers has long been lauded for his economy as a songwriter, and the two minutes and five seconds of “Sunshine” bear that out. But it would be a mistake to hear, in that economy, an effort to compensate for the stutterer’s excess. Withers’s songs were not perfect containers of meaning that shone sharp as gems. Instead, the form of those songs made a spare yet hospitable room for the sprawl. According to the poet and critic Nathaniel Mackey, the ability to do this is a feature of black music. Theorizing the repetitive stammering sounds of modern jazz instrumentalists, Mackey writes, “The black musician’s stutter is an introspective gesture which arises from and reflects critically upon an experience of isolation or exclusion, the orphan’s or the outsider’s ordeal.” The stutter is a form of “telling ‘inarticulacy,’” a “refusal to forget” experiences of alienation that are personal but also historic—the orphaning of black people worldwide, through slavery, from a motherland and a mother tongue. It is a surplus that lets us know this world is not enough.
Withers had come to music from the margins, and, in many ways, that’s where he stayed. He was already in his early thirties when he scored his first hits; before then, he had served in the Navy and worked a good job as a mechanic on military aircraft—and he had no interest in what he called the “rhythm and blues syndrome … with the horns and the three chicks and the gold lamé suit.” He rejected the entertainer’s role altogether when he retired from the music business in 1985. But he was always an outlier. In 1974, he traveled to Zaire to play in the concert that accompanied the “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. The concert documentary Soul Power features James Brown’s frenetic star power and Celia Cruz’s sequined fabulousness. Then Withers, as if rejecting the whole spectacle, including its black ambassadorial ambitions, just sits down with his guitar and sings. In fact, he plays one of the slowest, most melancholy songs in his repertoire: “Hope She’ll Be Happier” (that is, with someone else).
The song is an answer to “Ain’t No Sunshine” because it does the work of letting go that “Sunshine” resists. In place of that song’s spiral, “Hope She’ll Be Happier” features an impossibly long goodbye. “I never thought that she really would leave me,” Withers sings. “But she’s gone.” He stretches the word “gone” over several measures, holding it out, in a feat of breath control that is also a performance of excess, for fourteen seconds. As usual, he admits to another perspective: “Maybe the lateness of the hour makes me seem bluer than I am.” But the protracted “gone” acknowledges how a whole life can be shaped by someone’s absence. This “gone” might be the opposite of a stutter, but it, too, produces a telling inarticulacy by facing what is and admitting there is at once too much and nothing else to say. In this season of loss, when we wait, on edge, to see which blows might come next, we might hear in Withers’s music a way of facing the many facets of what is, and of approaching ourselves and each other with a prepared forgiveness of all the ways that we are destined to fail.