Remembering and honoring the great Bill Withers

On March 30,  2020 the world lost one of its wisest voices, singer and songwriter Bill Withers.

Withers passed away from heart complications at the ripe age of 81, having lived a life that allowed his life’s wisdom to reach the entire world through the power of music and the magic of his soulful voice.

His memorable hits remembered by many include “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” “Use Me,” “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” and of course his timeless original “Lean on Me.” That timeless classic gave him the freedom to walk away from the music business and live a different life after 1980, after making nine studio albums in nine short years. His final hit, before he grew disillusioned with the music industry, was “Just the Two of Us.”

For me, the emotional depths Withers can find with the simplest chords on a guitar in “Hope She’ll Be Happier” is a testament to the power of music to touch someone’s soul.

And like so many, I am now turning to “Lean on Me,” from his second album, Still Bill. It provides an anchor as I search for light amid our global COVID-19 pandemic. The day I learned of his death, I played his masterpiece all night. I wrote to a friend, “Still chills. Decades go by, and it’s all I’ve got. I needed this song today more than ever. It carried me back to my humanity.”

Withers is an American original, shaped by his humble, poor beginnings and the knowledge of lived experience that he channeled into his music that found an audience the world over. “I could have done better, but I did alright,” is how he summed up his musical career, the perfect understatement of a true artist.

Born in 1938, Withers was the youngest of six children. During a 2014 interview, he said his mother actually had 13 kids, and high infant mortality took its toll. His family lived in a coal mining community called Slab Forks, West Virginia, which was literally racially segregated by railroad tracks.

Long after Withers had become successful and stopped performing, he said his early and impoverished years that he had little control over likely exposed him to health issues that caught up with him later. He said as a child, he and his family ate every part of the hog but the holler. That is a classic West Virgnia line.

Despite the inherent racism his family experienced during his formative years, his father became a respected United Mineworkers treasurer while working in the coal mines. His life as a miner, Withers later shared, led to his premature death when Withers turned 13.

Despite these hardships, Withers also saw a type of communal bond that later informed his world view and his songwriting. When interviewed by a West Virginia TV program in 2007 about historic racism in West Virginia, he responded, “When you’re coming out of a coal mine, everyone’s black”.

Withers later lived with his mother and grandmother, the latter became the inspiration for his hit “Grandma’s Hands.”

Withers was determined to leave his poor upbringing in Appalachia and escape the life in the mines that left many men unhealthy in their later years.

He joined the U.S. Navy and learned to become an aviation mechanic. He was discharged and then lived in California, working in factories, including for Ford and Weber Aircraft on assembly lines. Those years as an assembly worker taught him about working together and caring for his fellow worker, he would later tell reporters.

While working he bought a guitar at a pawn shop and taught himself to play, while songwriting. He began to share his tapes and pursue his dream of making it.

In interviews in his later years, after he left the business, he described “Lean on Me” as a product of a small, poor town, where you had to lean on others to get through hard times. He said that song could never have been written by someone from a big city, like London or New York. It’s a song from a smaller place.

When the news broke on Friday of his death, and I dug into his songs, I found there was far more to this man than I ever knew. And the more I knew, the more I realized how profoundly thoughtful he was about life. I realized how much of a Stoic he was, in a classical and advanced sense, and how there are people with whom you share spiritual and philosophical kinship, across time, space, race, and life experience.

One of my favorite lines I heard from his interviews was, ”We all become the composite of the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met.” So true, that.

He talked about the way we speak to others and our decorum come from the basic manners we learned from those who have raised us, regardless of where we’re from or our class. He also spoke about this simple stuff, and what camradarie was like in his home state.

As I mused about his life, I wrote this passage on my Facebook feed, after listening to his wonderful 2014 interview with the radio show Death, Sex, and Money: “If I could go back in time right now, and speak to my 15-year-old and very immature self, I would give myself a recording of this amazing interview with the late Bill Withers about living a meaningful life, how to be a real man as he understood it (without toxic masculine swagger, but with love and compassion), and finding one’s place in the world. This may not be the wisdom others would need, but I probably could have benefited from it. One of the most important male figures in his life was a slightly crippled man named virgil, who was also a hunchback. It was Virgil’s wise words that helped Withers overcome his own disability when he was 30 (a stutter).”

Unlike many singer songwriters, Withers never needed the ego gratification performing on the stage. He described himself as the type of kid who might be in the corner, reading a comic book not the one dancing for attention the moment someone entered the room. You can see that in his performances, where he sits on a stool, closes his eyes, strums his simple chords, and then unleashes the ferocity of his voice that comes from the human soul.

 

Toward the end of his life, he never lost perspective. You could see that in his 2015 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His stage presence conveyed, “Sure, whatever, folks. There’s more important stuff than this stage spectacle. Have a good time. I’m all good.”

In his interviews, Withers also described the difference between music and the music business. Everyone should do music, he emphasized, because of what music brings to the world. He said, when the big fat lady gets up in church and sings from her soul, that’s music, but ain’t nobody gonna pay her a dime.

Amen, indeed.

I will miss you, Bill Withers. We have lost a poet, artist, and force for humanity. I assure you, your wisdom will help all of us through the dark days of ahead:

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Thank you, Bill Withers, for showing us the way.

Saying goodbye and finding meaning

The writer Robert Green, author of many books on human behavior, shared these words that make me think of Mom. Green wrote: “But despite what you may think, good luck is more dangerous than bad luck. Bad luck teaches valuable lessons in patience, timing, and the need to be prepared for the worst; good luck deludes you … making you think your brilliance will carry you through. Your fortune will inevitably turn, and when it does you will be completely unprepared.”

Mom at the Seattle Wooden Boat Festival, July 2004.

Like all of us, Mom had good and bad luck. Unlike many, she always learned from her misfortune and knew exactly when she finally found the tide turning. And she also knew good luck simply didn’t happen. She worked hard for it.

Mom was a child of the Depression and the daughter of an immigrant, who was fortunate to leave Germany before a much worse misfortune befell her homeland. Those immigrant lessons were passed down to Mom from her mother.

Being a child of that era, it shaped Mom and her generation. She spent her early years in a working class community of New Jersey—something that I think taught her about working hard and knowing that others around you could be less fortunate. She never forgot this her whole life.

Mom also grew up in the shadow of a great city, the epicenter of culture, and finance. The Big Apple’s glow could be a draw to anyone, particularly a woman like my mom who had an abundance of great looks. Those looks, however, never went to her head.

Mom attended Bronxville in NY (Concordia College, Bronxville, today) to pursue professional studies that the sexist workplace of the 1950s offered single women of lesser means. She made lifelong friends there. One became the godmother of one of her children (me). They were called the “Triple Threat.”

Mom, when she would turn heads during her college years in New York.

I don’t know the full story how Mom moved from greater New York to soggy Saginaw, MI in the mid-1950s. My guess is she needed work. When she had to work, she would always “crack on.” I learned this from her early on.

In 1958, she met her first husband. They moved to Detroit. They adopted my sister and I and raised a family. They moved to Boston for a spell in late 1965 and then to Clayton, Missouri, in late 1966. The pair divorced in 1973 and she re-entered the workforce as a teacher, eventually in the St. Louis Public School System and the University City Public Schools system.

She was a lifelong teacher, completing her career in University City Public Schools as a reading specialist. She devoted her professional life to the wellbeing of young people, many of whom were lower income, minority, and had higher needs.

Despite Mom’s great looks, she was remarkably grounded in the world around her, in people, her church, her community, and her family.

She was profoundly spiritual. She didn’t need to tell the world about her faith. It resided in her. She was devoted in the fullest Christian sense to her Christian identity and the congregations she belonged to. She dragged me and my sister to church. She knew better than we did why our nearby Lutheran church would be good for us. She was right. Her faith stayed with her to her last days.

Mom always had style. I never saw my mom look shabby. It’s the style the world saw on the show Mad Men, of women of that era. Mom always carried herself this way.

Mom had style, always

Mom also had an artistic side. Her creative outlets included fixing furniture, making beautiful outfits with her hands by sewing. She could throw herself into project and be unmoved by distractions. The house she purchased together with her second husband became an art gallery. They both loved great art and had impeccable taste.

Mom was very smart—like all her family members. She loved crossword puzzles, which she did for decades. I could never keep up with her when she’d work them out on the kitchen table.

Mom managed the impossible: navigating a divorce, reinventing herself, raising two kids, switching jobs, buying a home on a teacher’s salary without any help. And then, with two kids in tow, she found her lifelong soul mate, who she married in 1983.

Mom may have felt she didn’t see the world, but she did.

With her second husband, they travelled nearly everywhere in the United States and Canada. She even travelled nearly 50 miles up a dirt road outside of Cordova, Alaska, in the pouring rain, just to see a glacier and laugh at how beautiful and crazy that was.

Mom and her second husband lived for a short spell in England, where he had a position for a short term. They also travelled to multiple destinations in Europe together: England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Belgium, Italy, Greece (I believe a couple of times).  They always looked like there were glowing in their holiday pictures. Snap, here we are in Paris. Snap, here we are in in Florence. Snap, here we are in in Rhodes. Wait, here’s Thurso, Scotland and Bruges, Belgium.

Author, Rudy Owens, and Mom, about four months before she finally succombed to Alzheimer’s disease.

She was a great cook. I loved her Christmas stollen and cookies. She taught me this art. She kept learning new recipes and growing with her expanding love of food outside of her St. Louis world.

Through thick and thin, Mom was devoted to my sister and remained generous to her. Mom was always about doing.

Mom was tough. Her friend from college shared some stories about that with me, and I can see that throughout her long life. I call it grit. It’s the virtue I respect the most in people who matter.

I think all that she confronted in life–stuff that might bend or break others–did not push my mom down.

She could weather storms because she always knew something good was ahead.

Mom during one her several moves in the mid-1960s

Mom was right, of course, and her marriage to her second husband was the highlight of her life.

The thing she said the most to me, for the last seven years of her life, when her illness took hold, was, “I have the best husband in the whole world.” I would always say: “I know mom. He’s a great guy.” She was would always laugh and smile. We had this conversation literally hundreds of times. She last said it to me on Thanksgiving Day, on the phone. I said, “Yup, mom. You are a lucky woman.”

Mom was the best friend and loving wife of her second husband for 37 years. She welcomed his family as her own and devoted herself to their shared relations. In the end, her marriage was the enduring happiness and the good luck that came in her life. She earned it and knew how to live it well, only the way those who know the fickleness of fortuna can.

Mom, I salute your memory. Thanks for making us richer.

A tie is not just a tie

Recently, when picking out a tie for a formal event, I was overcome with sadness. So many of the ties are gifts from my mom. She always knew what I might need to look professional, and she kept at that for decades. She was mostly right all of the time. She knew my taste—basic but proper. Now, she can’t even remember a conversation that happened five minutes ago. I wasn’t ready for that. I still feel that well of feeling when I see my ties hanging in my closet. It’s not just a tie. It’s a connection to a relationship that has been disappearing now for years, and that journey is not over.

An Unhappy Birthday, Celebrated Apart

My sister and I, taken in August 2008 at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri

Today is my sister’s birthday. She is celebrating it in a sick bed, in a large hospital in St. Louis. I am 1,800 miles away in Portland. I wish I could be there with her.

It must be scary to be alone in a hospital, not knowing what may happen tomorrow, knowing that your health is bad. Maybe there will be a respite, but things could get far worse. That is a heavy weight to carry for my older sibling.

My sister and I have now shared more than five decades of birthdays. This was the saddest I can remember. We perhaps had six happy years together, until that tumultuous time when my parents divorced and our worlds turned upside down.

After that things never were quite the same. There were good times, yes. But I never saw my sister smile the way she used to when we were young and far more innocent. She still smiled, but it was not a child’s carefree smile of joy. It was a little different. I changed a lot too. I don’t really talk about that stuff.

There were times in my life when she was the only person who had my back, particularly after the divorce. We were alone, in situations I refuse to share as stories with others. They are my secrets. They were terrifying moments, and not in a “make you stronger” way, but in a “wow, this is pretty damn bad” way.  Because we were a team, we pulled through, many times. I can’t ever forget those days. I guard them as treasures.

Those memories have kept me invested in the bond we have shared over the years. It hasn’t been the gentlest of rides. In the end, the journey was not as easy on my sister, I think. A series of decisions led to forks in the road, and then other decisions, and then, finally, a visit to the hospital.

My sister and I, when we laughed and had few worries as kids

I wished her a happy birthday today. I had sent her a card. It probably didn’t arrive before she was admitted. It was a way I expressed love, as much as I can in a card. It was a strange feeling, wishing your sibling the best as they faced uncertainty over the days ahead.

While we were talking, I could still hear her laugh with the hospital staff. Machines and monitors attached to her made noises in the background. Nurses popped in her room to check on her. I asked if she was aware she could contact a hospital chaplain if needed. She said she was. That comforted me. I don’t know if she would do that.

I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, the day after, or the weeks ahead.

I tried to remember our youth, and all I could find were a few pictures of our innocence. That seemed like a different life. We are different now, and we lost our innocence a long time ago.

I realized that I too will one day face the end. I realized that I too may not be ready. I realized that I too need to change while there is still time. This felt like a paltry consolation prize, and nothing compared to my sister’s experience on a cold, February day.

Confronting the void, with a friend

In the more than the three decades since I graduated from college in Portland, I have maintained a good friendship with classmate of mine. He now lives in southern California. I have been visiting him periodically in Utah and there now for nearly 30 years.

Rudy Owens, on the far left, and my friend are among this group of Reed College students shown here in 1987, in front of the Reed College Library.

As we have aged together, we have encountered different and also similar challenges. I stayed single. I moved to more locations. He got married,  got divorced, raised his daughter, became a river guide, succeeded professionally in a grander way than me, and always stayed true to his curious, creative self.

Though we were raised in very different circumstances—him in a Jewish family in the West, and me in a Lutheran family with a single mother in the Midwest—we had more in common than I would have thought possible when we first got to know each other at our college library steps on long evenings.

Last night we caught up on the phone. I was sharing my feelings of loss concerning people I am close too, including my mother. She is still mostly well, but her issues are ones I will not share in detail here. My friend also shared stories of his mother, who has passed away.

Taken in 2014 in southern California during one of the greatest trips of my life.

During that call, we experienced a moment of understanding that transcended our distance of nearly 1,500 miles and the time we have spent not seeing each other in person the past few years. I learned things about him I did not know. I also shared things about myself I seldom share with others.

I am by nature private and stoic, and I have learned how to control my negative emotions and also my public displays of sadness or anger. I also realized during our talk about life and its inevitable end with death that my embrace of existentialism has given me the ability to confront these challenges I face more clearly.

I told my friend that in suffering, we really can find purpose and meaning. And whatever I did as a result of these circumstances, I would be making choices to respond to the challenges before me.  Those actions would be mine alone, and freely chosen. I was mostly telling myself these points, as I considered those actions yet to come with my mum.

That is pure Viktor Frankl. But it is also how I can face up to what is inevitable on the road ahead. I shared these thoughts with my friend, and he listened in the right way. He did not need to do much other than let me know he listened.

Mostly, I felt relieved to know I could unload to a friend and share my fears and also my resolve. Facing the world alone is not easy for anyone. Maybe it will be easier because I will have friends there to listen when the moment of the void arrives in full force.

Me, Mum, and the Wisdom of Time

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Regret is not an emotion that we like to speak of. Speaking of it is an admission of failure and lost chances. By saying one regrets something, we diminish our standing in the eyes of others and ourselves.

But I do have regrets. They are sharp as hornet bites on a hot, muggy day. For me they stemmed from my foolish pride and my familial disagreements I should have risen above.

These thoughts accompany me now whenever I visit and speak with my mother.

Because of her illness, she cannot remember the past in its full richness. There are fleeting, diaphanous moments that she can recall good and bad moments. But these are fragments, not fully formed memories.

I feel this loss especially now, as I get older, and I want to hunt down stories of my past that only my mom would have. But they are now lost forever, because she cannot recall them.

Me and Mum, the Good Days:

Mom at the Wooden Boat Festival, July 2004.

My mom and I have had our fierce challenges. I do not intend to share them here. I always did my best to not let them cloud the possibilities for the future, even if the bargain may not have been a fair one, from my perpective. But as we both grew older, so did our friendship.

Between 2010 and 2012, when I was in graduate school earning my MPH, we hit an impasse. We once went more than six months without talking. The rifts between me and my stepfamily and my mom widened during the rough time, when I was not in a good place.

When we did talk, it was not pleasant. I was, in essence, estranged from my “unique” family when I probably needed them the most. It was not until I finished my imperfect masters program at the University of Washington—quite drained fiscally and likely spiritually—that we made amends.

My mom flew out to see me in July 2012, and we found our old routine.

At that time I was living in Seattle, and I was doing contract work while still looking for full-time employment right out of graduate school.

Mom at a Shakespeare performance in Seward Park, July 2012, Seattle.

So we had time. We visited the Ballard Locks, where I took one of the best pictures ever of my mom. I brought her to Discovery Park on a glorious sunset, where we could see the sun slip behind the Olympic Mountains and light up Puget Sound in the soft summer light. We rubbed our toes in the sand at Golden Gardens Beach. We ate out for dinner and laughed. We saw Shakespeare in the Park, outdoors, in Seward Park at Lake Washington.

These reminded me of our other precious times we spent together, without my step-dad or others around. We could confide in each other. I could hear stories about her first husband, my father, that she seemed to hide inside for years, and for good reason. That 2012 trip was a lot like one she made in 2004, the summer before I went to Alaska.

She also flew out in July that year, and we spent great days walking around Greenlake  Park, attending a Wooden Boat Festival, and being happy-go-lucky tourists in Seattle. Both times were transition periods for me. In 2004, I was getting ready to leave Seattle for a job in Alaska, unsure what living in the True North would be like. I needed to know we were still connected.

On the last day of her 2012 trip, I realized something was not right. She was having trouble remembering things and feeling more anxious than normal. I was still able to get her safely to the airport and on her plane. Not long after I learned that the issues I let slide by were more pronounced. She was not going to be the same person when I saw her again.

I would no longer be able to have a conversations with someone who could listen to me and knew me. That new person would never be the confidant I once could share my stories with, in confidence.

Facing Tomorrow, Today

The loss from a half decade ago is more pronounced today. It is July. I think of our past summer walks, in Seattle, in the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, and in Forest Park in St Louis, where we spent many great hours together.

Mom and the Ballard Locks, July 2012, and one of my favorite portraits I took of her.

Today, my foolish pride for two years from 2010 through 2012 seems like my greatest squandered opportunity. Why did I allow that?

Perhaps the stress of doing my degree and spending my savings on an expensive and imperfect professional program clouded my thinking. They likely did. Now, at a more calm place in life, I can fool myself and say, I could have done better.

Maybe I really would not have been able to do things differently. But I still wish I could have those days back. I wish I could have spent my precious dollars and flown from Seattle to St. Louis on a short trip to have conversations that would have been more important than my money in my bank today.

I will fly off to St. Louis to see my mom again in two weeks.

When I visit her, I won’t be able to ask her about our brief time spent in Detroit, when I was a baby and we lived as a model middle-class American family, in a city just before it started sputtering to economic decline.

I can’t ask her about her life in college, when she struck out on her own and left New Jersey as a beautiful, smart young woman.

I can’t ask her how she and my father decided to adopt two children, or what it was like for my father and her to move from Saginaw to Detroit in the early 1960s.

I wish we could have back those past Julys, walking and talking and sharing stories about our lives. They were some of the best times I ever had. I wish I had known that when I was living those moments.

Who is that kid in the photo

I recently obtained a childhood picture of me, dating from the time I was about 1.5 to 2  years old. I do not really know when it was taken, but I know where it was done, just outside of Cleveland.

From Long Time Ago-3

I had never seen this photo before. I do not have many pictures of that period of my life. That is because technology for consumer cameras was note widely dispersed. My family used Polaroids and a crappy Kodak Instamatic. My adoptive parents also were lousy photographers with no storytelling sensibilities. Mainly I think there was so much going in their lives that was sucking their time and energy that capturing “happy times” on film was a waste of time.

Half of the pictures from this time of me are in black and white. None are well composed. They exist as an afterthought. There was no clear intent to capture the story of my family or my childhood.

They were more holiday and event pictures. They likely were meant to be put in an album and provide a mirror to lives of what a middle-class American life should be like, not what it was actually like.

This one picture, however, was different. I am engaging the camera. I am wearing overalls, something that my adoptive parents liked to dress me in, maybe because they were German-Americans.

I have an innocence in this picture that I have never seen in other pictures. I actually have a decent haircut. About five years later I would go somewhat feral and wear long, unkempt hair, particularly after my parents divorced and things went amazingly sidewise. I looked a bit like a heavy metal rocker in a tiny body.

However in this shot, the hair is tidy. My ears stick out. And you can see my nose is big and will soon grow bigger. I have the physical traits that I carry with me today. However, I became a skinny kid and stayed thin my whole life, when it appears I could have gone a little chubby.

The man in whose lap I am sitting on an outdoor lawn chair is my adoptive father’s father. I never knew we were photographed together. My adoptive grandfather died in my childhood, when I was less than 4, and I have almost no memory of the man. The dog is his Brittany spaniel, who I remember more, actually.

This was about three years before things went truly off the tracks for my family, with my father at the center of the storm—the storm itself. I am left to wonder, what did my adoptive grandfather think of this child in her arms. Did he know who his son was, and what he had in store for his adoptive grandson, me, and his adoptive granddaughter. Did he really care about me, someone who was not related to him biologically.

I will never know the answers to these questions. All I can do is wonder and think about a moment in time I never knew happened until a few days ago.