Thursday, November 18, 2010

Still Bill

Was reading something about Bill Withers the other day, and came across this great interview with the man in the UK Telegraph from August this year. It's a fantastic read.

"... So why has Bill Withers not released any new music since 1985? A fascinating new documentary, Still Bill, offers clues without quite getting under his skin. In one of the film’s candid moments, he plays a few sombre chords on the piano, turns to the camera and says, ‘Thoreau said most men live lives of quiet desperation. I would like to know how it feels for my desperation to get louder.’

"... Songs like Grandma’s Hands brought warmth, intimacy and simplicity to a bombastic music scene. Withers recalls A&R men telling him he should copy James Brown, and use some horns, female singers and a driving backbeat. In short, they were telling him to sound more ‘black’ if he wanted to sell records. ‘Blaxperts, I call ’em. That’s the white guys who are supposed to have some kind of tap into your black psyche.’

Equally, he is under no illusion about the Back-to-Africa pose certain artists adopted during the same period. Withers was part of the star-studded cast that travelled to Kinshasa, Zaire, in October 1974 to give a pre-fight concert for the Ali-Foreman ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. His performance is one of the standouts of the resulting documentary, Soul Power. Did it feel like a historic event? ‘No. It was two big guys going to fight each other at four o’clock in the morning. It wasn’t this great intellectual pursuit. And there’s a certain reality to going someplace where there’s a dictator. You notice the disparity in the wealth.’

Well, I say, at the time there was a lot of hype about African-American artists discovering their roots. He chuckles. ‘Awwww, come on, man. It wasn’t a great historical moment. Interesting, but that was that. No great spiritual experience. Mostly what everybody found out was: we had been shaped and transformed by American culture and the history we had here, and they had been shaped by whoever colonised their place. They weren’t speaking any African languages. We were speaking English and they were speaking French. How African is that?’

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