Sunday, October 26, 2008

Who He Was (And Why His Song Was Good)

Unlike some people, I enjoy songs with parenthetical titles. Somehow, the combination of “This Thing (Plus Another Thing Over Here)” results in something more powerful and more attention-grabbing that some boring song title without parentheses. When I see a title like that, I imagine that the song was initially called one thing — usually the part of the song that lives outside the parentheses — and then somehow the song grew to take on a life of its own. Maybe, during the recording of the song, the people involved found themselves referring to it differently than how it was initially written. Or maybe the people who listened to the song picked up on something essential, something important, something that should have been featured prominently in the title but for some reason wasn’t. Either way, this second bit — paradoxically additional but also necessary — became tacked onto to the title in an effort to make it more complete, at least in someone’s eyes.

This week’s song, Bill Withers’s “Who Is He (And What Is He to You?),” happens to have a parenthetical title, but that’s not the reason I chose to write about it. No, this simple song, which I think I first heard on the Jackie Brown soundtrack, does exactly what a good song should: Take something small and relatable and put it to music with a suitable mood.

“Who Is He (And What Is He to You?)” — which first appeared on Withers’s third album, 1972’s Still Bill — manages to be catchy and dark at the same time. That latter quality came as a surprise to me, who had previously only heard two other Withers songs, both of them fairly upbeat: “Lovely Day” and “Lean on Me.” And while both these songs express an abstract emotion — joy in “Lovely Day” and devotion in “Lean on Me” — I feel like “Who Is He?” captures something smaller and more complex: a fleeting moment, and a painful one at that.

Here are the lyrics:
A man we passed just tried to stare me down
And when I looked at you, you looked at the ground
I don’t know who he is
But I think that you do
Dadgummit — who is he, and what is he to you?

Something in my heart and in your eye
Tells me he's not someone just passing by
And when you cleared your throat
Was that your cue?
Dadgummit — who is he, and what is he to you?

When I add the sum of you and me
I get confused when I keep coming up with three
You’re too much for one man
But not enough for two
Dadgummit — who is he and what is he to you?

You tell me men don’t have much intuition
Is that what you really thinking, girl, or are you wishing?
Before you wreck your old home
Be certain of the new
Dadgummit — who is he, and what is he to you?
Simple and heartbreaking and damn near perfect, if it wasn’t for the Yosemite Sam-style minced oath that precedes each statement of the song’s title. (In the sung version, it’s almost unintelligible, and I’ve actually always wondered what he was saying until today.)

A summary would be especially short, as much of what goes on in this song happens in the narrator’s mind. Basically, while the narrator is walking with his girlfriend, a man passes them. The narrator does not know the man, but the girlfriend has a strange reaction that the narrator reads as an indication that she has been unfaithful with this man.

I can’t think of many other songs that do so much with so little. (Though Dr. John’s “How Come My Dog Don't Bark (When You Come Around)?” manages to do quite a bit — in similar thematic territory and with a parenthetical title, no less.) What I mean by this is that the song literally makes a mountain out of a molehill. All of the lyrics exist as a reaction to what could have been a meaningless turn of the woman’s eyes. I actually wonder if we’re supposed to think that she actually had been unfaithful of if we’re supposed to look more at the strange reaction of a man who perhaps loves too strongly. Think about it: The woman doesn’t get to plead her case at all. Should we even believe this narrator? Is he insightful? Or just paranoid and territorial?

In a different sense of making a lot out of little, the song has almost no action. At most, the events being described would only take a few seconds — and that’s saying that anyone of this is actually being spoken out loud and not just echoing in the narrator’s head as he and the woman keep walking.

And the fact that I could have taken the song so far speaks well of it. At least I think so.

Previous songs of the week:

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