Doing Something Else
It wasn’t stopping anything. It was just doing something else.
“I lived a good portion of my life before I started to play music,” says Bill Withers. That would be nine years in the Navy, a few more working as an aircraft mechanic for Douglas and Weber Aircraft. When his first single, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” was released in 1971, he was already 33 years old.
As Withers tells it, this late start has never troubled him. At the time, he says in Alex Vlack and Damani Baker’s documentary, Still Bill, screening Tuesday at the IFC Denter’s Stranger Than Fiction series, he wasn’t especially moved to leave his mechanics’ gig. “I decided it would be awfully nice to get into the music business,” a young Withers tells a TV interviewer, despite cautions by industry experts that he was too old. These experts, 33-year-old Withers says, “had a rhythm and blues syndrome in their minds, with the horns and the three chicks and the gold lamé suit, you know, and I wasn’t really into that. I had a job.”
Such confidence and self-respect weren’t exactly appreciated when he signed with Columbia. Instead, Withers recalls, filmed in a low, wide angle in a big white living room, he was confronted by “a whole bunch of guys trying to tell you what to do, with all their goofy suggestions and stuff. They have the R&B black guys and then they have what I like to call ‘blaxperts.’ That’s the white guys who are supposed to be experts, you know, who have some kind of tap into your black psyche.” Recalling that he was urged to cover Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto,” Withers sighs, “I was livid,” he says, as well as vulnerable and disappointed and, eventually, fed up enough to leave the business: he hasn’t made an album in 23 years.
Over an old TV clip where young Withers appears on a stage surrounded by a slick purplish lighting design, the 70-year-old remembers that he never was very good at the “fame game.” But the film underscores another point too, that this game was rigged. Withers and others were advised on how to sell their “blackness,” a concept premised on adhering to white conventions and mainstream expectations. During a sit-down with Cornell West and Tavis Smiley, Withers only half-accepts the usual line, that he’s a model artist, able to “break through” while not becoming a “sell-out.” He asks that they rethink their own language. “We’re all entrepreneurs,” he points out, “The best thing you can do is put up a sign that says ‘sold out.’”
Even as these three most authentic, admired, and well-paid black men share a laugh here (and West quotes Shakespeare on “thine own self”), the film goes on to break down what’s at stake in Withers’ crucial insight. On its face, Still Bill seems a portrait of Withers retired yet restless, watching football on TV, with lawn tools neatly arranged on his garage wall and a state of the art recording and editing studio upstairs. If he’s not wholly sure how to run all the equipment, he confesses that he’s got it for a reason. “I’m trying to give myself a chance to get driven,” he says, the frame crowded with monitors and software packages, “where just the sheer activity of doing something gets you jacked up.”
His search keeps simultaneously him grounded at home (his wife and children feature prominently in Still Bill, in particular his daughter Kori, also a musician (“You ain’t no joke, sugar,” he beams) and takes him back to Slab Fork, West Virginia, where he was born. A mining camp where “the company owned everything,” from homes to shops to transportation, now dominated by railroad tracks and pit mining equipment. Here he remembers his grandmother: “She would sing spirituals right on that porch and clap her hands,” says his childhood friend C.V. Thompson. Withers nods, “They called it getting happy.” Withers, who stuttered well into his 20s, was raised by this “elegant” woman who inspired him not to heed the taunts of his classmates and teachers (“You can’t do nothing”). He and Thompson remember sorting through the basic hypocrisies racism, their segregated existences while knowing, “Like it or not, most of us had white folks in our families.”
With that in mind, Withers and Thompson head over to the cemetery where Bill’s brother and father are buried, the headstones covered over with weeds and branches. Though they locate brother Earl’s grave, they can’ find his father’s. “Well papa,” he sighs as they trudge among the overgrown greenery, “Wherever you at, I’ll catch you something later.” Sitting on Thompson’s porch that night, the camera perched at some distance, Withers reflects on his own background and choices: “My father, he put the work thing in my head. My mother put the moral thing in my head.” Today, he doesn’t regret leaving the business so much as he considers a return “on his own terms.” “You know how unhappy you would be if you thought that the way you are is not okay?” he asks. “I started out my life like that. I don’t want to end up my life like that.”
As difficult as his own journey may have been, Still Bill makes the case—subtly and deeply—that Withers has found his way. “We’re all accidents of birth, you know,” he says. “At some point or another, we have a choice, if we’re sane enough by that point, as to how much we’re gonna apply ourselves and a lot of that is influenced by the people who nurture us.” He gazes on an old black and white photo of his grandmother. “I already did what I did. I’m not that little boy or that young guy that hasn’t had any validation.” And that makes him all the more compelling.