Saturday, August 19, 2017

Songs With Which to View the Solar Eclipse

"Ain't No Sunshine When
She's Gone" / Bill Withers

So when the moon takes away our sunshine on Monday, here's another song that would be fitting accompaniment.

It's another 1971 number -- another of those songs that haunted my senior year in high school/freshman year in college. It was Withers third single, but his first hit, climbing to #3 on the US charts (a year later he'd #1 with "Lean On Me"). Having grown up on Motown, I could tell this was something else -- that pulsing R&B tempo, the undertow of weariness and despair.



The creased and weathered quality of Withers' voice was so different from the mellifluencies of Marvin Gaye or Smokey Robinson. And it also felt more of an affinity to rock music -- though this song was produced by Stax mainstay Booker T (released on Sussex Records), the personnel also included Steven Stills on guitar and Jim Keltner on drums.

Even more important, "Ain't No Sunshine" had a restless, provocative bite -- those morose verses, with their glum plodding bassline (Donald "Duck" Dunn?) and repeated melody -- "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, anytime she goes away."

Who knows why she's away -- did they have a fight? is she cheating on him? or is she just a free spirit? (After all, this was an era of free spirits and feminists.)  But he's so down in the dumps, he can't even tell us. The grief-stricken swell of those minor-key strings speaks volumes.

And of course, the best part: "Well I know I know I know I know I know" repeated 27 times, sung with shifting syncopation on one loooooong breath that finally peters into a croak. Apparently Withers -- who, when he recorded this, was still working a day job in a toilet-seat factory -- sang it this way in the studio as a placekeeper, intending to write a "proper" chorus, Holland-Dozier-Holland-style. Thank god Booker T was there to stop him.

I remember riding in the back of a car with my friends, singing along with the "I knows," every time. You'd nearly asphyxiate, trying not to draw a breath, letting your voice crack and croak along with Withers'. It lasts for nearly 15 seconds and seems even longer. It's so damn cathartic.

Just like an eclipse.

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