Don’t Stay Still, Bill
I walked up the stairs to exit the station and emerged south of the Thames near the National Theatre. It was October in London, and I moved north back towards Waterloo Bridge. To its right, the Theatre. To its left, the British Film Institute’s Southbank building. It was 2009, and I was attending the premiere of Still Bill, a documentary about Bill Withers.
I’ve always loved his music (and maintain that if you don’t, you deserve a special place in hell), but what struck me most was how poetic Withers continued to be once off the stage and out of the spotlight. Lines like “stop cryin, start tryin” and “value the people who value you” are sprinkled throughout Still Bill, but to me one line stands out above the rest. It comes as Withers contemplates the fact that he hasn’t released an album since 1985. He’s clearly got plenty left in the tank, but he doesn’t quite seem sure how to use it.
Thoreau, I think, said the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. I would like to know how it feels for my desperation to get louder.
Set aside the fact that Withers quoted Thoreau (which is awesome), and consider how deep that desperation sits within all of us. When I walked up the stairs of Waterloo Station that day in 2009, I was a junior in college with no idea where my journalism degree would land me. I was over halfway done school and had begun to run out the clock; 18 months from what felt like the end of the world. What would I do with my time left? What trees did I still want to shake? What noise was there still to be made?
Now, I, like many of my friends, sit under a year out of college in a world that we have been told is ours for the taking. But in reality, it’s a process - settling into the first real job, a place to live, a routine - and to be honest, the backlash of that change sometimes leaves me feeling like I ran straight out of commencement into a brick wall with a big ACME logo on it. It can be tumultuous, confusing, and for some of my friends the time has also been disappointing. These bumps in the road, as we are always told, come with entering the territory of Change.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the hunger. It’s a stretch to call it desperation, but there’s a motivation to do that sits inside all of us and festers until we do something about it. For Withers, that desperation has been building for nearly 25 years. It’s been so long that now his children are grown and starting to make some noise of their own. (Quite literally in his daughter Kori’s case.) His quote reflects that knowledge, and also the knowledge that anyone can shake things up a bit if they put their mind to it.
But before we break out the noisemakers and bring down the house, consider the fact that we live in a time that has more noise than ever before, and that most of it falls on deaf ears. It is both easier and more difficult to stand out than it was back in 1971 when Ain’t No Sunshine was released. Easier, like how a YouTube video landed duo Karmin on Saturday Night Live last night. And more difficult, like the millions of others who are lost in the abyss of Adele covers and Family Guy clips. There is no special formula to cut through it, but it is comforting, to me at least, to know so many people are trying.
Feed your hunger. Face your desperation. Know your noise. We can’t all be the next internet sensation, but if we understand what makes our tune different, we’re one step closer to topping the charts.