April 20, 2005
The Soundtrack of a Long Silence
Some songs, I think, are meant to be heard after a long silence. I recently heard such a song probably for the first time in years: “Lean on Me.” I’m not talking about the “pump it up, homeboy” version of the 1980s; this was the classic, with Bill Withers singing over a slow, deliberate piano, with a soulful chorus joining him intermittently and the gradual fade “Call on me . . . Call on me . . . Call on me . . .”
Songs get overplayed these days. Pop radio formats require frequent repetition of the songs of the moment, so that even the most moving piece of music quickly starts to get on your nerves. Add to that the song-as-soundtrack phenomenon that means every time a movie ad or a truck ad or a shoe ad crosses your television or radio, so does that same mind-numbing song. It’s often taken completely out of context, so that it ceases to mean what it meant to you the first time you heard it. A song that once spoke to your soul now causes you to grimace.
But after a long silence, such a song can still reclaim its spot in your soul. Maybe it’s how I was feeling when I heard it, maybe it’s what the DJ said in the lead-up, maybe it’s the conversations I had the night before or the subconscious worries that plague me every day unawares, but that day when “Lean on Me” came on the radio, everything else came to a halt.
A song like that, in the right moment, reminds me of the friends and family who might just need to lean on me right now; I’m reminded of the people I know whose burdens are more than they can carry but whom I only occasionally help to carry on. I’m reminded of the weariness of the world, and I’m struck by how the weary world of 1972 must have reacted when the first four measures of “Lean on Me” hit the airwaves. After a decade of strife and turmoil, finally came three minutes of rest, and an offer of more where that came from.
Lots of songs can do that: “Everybody Hurts” by REM is one, I think, and even peppy songs like Billy Bragg’s “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward” will get my head nodding in reflective agreement. These are the types of songs that, at age eighteen, I would have fought to the death to have as prom themes or played ad nauseum on my record player alone in my room, to the point where their poignancy would be eclipsed by their nagginess. But after a long silence—when I’ve had time to learn more by experience than by declaration that everybody does occasionally hurt and that waiting for the great leap forward can be a devastatingly discouraging time and that there really are, if you’re lucky, people to lean on when you’re not strong—that’s when I’m ready to hear what they have to say to me.
Read a great review of Bill Withers at PopMatters.com.