TV Review: Still Bill: The Bill Withers Story BBC4
There is nothing more undignified and upsetting than seeing a middle aged man up on stage in leather trousers and hair dye desperately clinging to the faintest strands of youth with half arsed new music that is limper than a three week old stick of celery. Let's face it, by definition, pop music is a young man's game. Your creative juices are normally on the wane when you turn the wrong side of 30 and the rigours of touring and promotion mean that musicians need to have youthful levels of energy and enthusiasm or access to massive amounts of quality drugs to last the course.
For every artist who has managed to buck the trend of being middle aged and creatively bankrupt (Bjork) there are twenty who are a depressing reminder of their former glories. (Morrissey, Prince, Jagger, Dylan, McCartney etc). They still do big money concert tours for fans that are prepared to pay top dollar for the old stuff and willing to put up with one of the most deflating phrases you'll hear from an established act:
"Here’s one from the new album".
The latest in the long running series of quality music documentaries on BBC4 comes the fascinating Still Bill by filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack who achieved the real coup of being granted access to the inner sanctum of reclusive legend Bill Withers who called time on his music career before needing to invest in the Just For Men.
If you are not a lover of soul music you would be forgiven for thinking he had popped his clogs long ago as he is rarely seen at awards ceremonies, barely gives interviews and hasn't released an album since 1985. Fact is Withers has always been an outsider. Whether it was being picked on and bullied at school for his pronounced stutter, joining the music industry at the ripe old age of 32, rejecting record company bullshit when it would have been easier to tow the line and bowing out of music at 45 to concentrate on his family he has always ploughed his own furrow.
These days we look at X Factor and see nobodies turning into superstars quicker then it takes to say "inferior cover version" but things really weren't that different in 1971. Withers was making aircraft toilets for 747s one month and the next he was on the Johnny Carson show. Not many people play their first live gig to 5000 people.
"...Couldn't get any women earning $3 dollars an hour. You sure do get better looking when you get a hit record"
Withers had a pretty good run through the 70's making solid albums with the high point being Still Bill with the triple whammy of Use Me, Who is He (And What is He To You), and Lean on Me. Commercial returns diminished toward the late 70's and early 80's with legal disputes and management interference stifling his creativity. He scoffs at the suits who advised he should cover Elvis' In The Ghetto
"I call 'em Blacksperts. White guys who are experts on black people"
He readily admits he wasn't good at the fame game wearily acknowledging that it "kicked his ass". There is a terrible clip of Withers on Top Of The Pops in the 80's wearing a rugby shirt with two plastic looking backing dancers mugging his way through a performance that sums up the latter day dilution of his soulful brand of "realness".
Since quitting the music business Withers has shunned the limelight and concentrated on his family with wife Marcia (who he met at a Gil Scott Heron gig- she didn't know who he was) law student son Todd and aspiring singer Kori. His wife admits Withers has no problem showing his emotions.
"He can express what he is feeling, Sensitive but tough"
He certainly doesn't sugar-coat reality, not even for his daughter, who has ended up on the painful side of his honesty when criticised for her early songwriting forays.
"Its fine to be wonderful but you got to pass through alright. Take a look around. Might be the furthest you get."
Throughout the documentary he is disarmingly frank. He gives short shrift to the notion of celebrity and feels it is
"remiss to give so much attention to performers and athletes, when so many people more deserving get so little respect"
When he goes back to his hometown of Slabfork, West Virgnia a sleepy, backwater, coalmining town that growing up had the usual small minded tensions, he muses that the racism back then was short-sighted as
"After a days work in the coalmines everybody is black anyway"
When he is set up in a manufactured interview with Tavis Smiley he is quick to stomp on lazy criticism of modern artists "selling out".
“I’m not crazy about that word. We’re all entrepreneurs. To me, I don’t care whether you own a furniture store or whatever, the best sign you can put up is ‘sold out.’
So, the million dollar question: What is stopping him making another album? This is where he takes a turn for the coy. At first he is just dismissive and says that he has other priorities in his life. Then as we delve a bit deeper we see he’s insecure about performing admitting
"It would be tough to go back out...I need...show-off steroids”.
Then we get to the nub of it.
"If I was completely honest with myself, I’m probably a little manic depressive. That’s why I might write some songs that might reach somebody else’s emotions, because I have my own.’
His daughter confides that he does have creative peaks and troughs conducive with the illness
“When he wants to do something, he’s just obsessed. He’s all in, up at 2 o’clock in the morning, not eating, not sleeping.”
I got the feeling he would love to perform more but he lacks the motivation and is probably fearful that he would be unable to reach his former glories. It is a real shame as he is at his most animated and alive when he is joined in the studio (which earlier he says he doesn't know how to operate) by Raul Midon as they work on the cracking Latin flavoured Mi Amigo Cubano. It remains unreleased.
The most dramatic moments of the movie involve Withers breaking down in tears when he hears his daughter performs a jazzy ballad, Blue Blues, in what seems a moment of self realisation and again when he cries after listening to a group of stuttering kids perform a song for him. Having gone through the same struggles growing up as they did it all becomes too much.
"You've reminded me of a lot of things I've forgotten"
All in all a fascinating documentary about an enduring talent interspersed with the songs that formed the legacy. A no nonsense, humble, honest, self-effacing and complex artist. They really don't make them like this anymore.