We lost the great Bill Withers this week, and it’s not easy to pick a song to represent his oeuvre. The man wrote “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me,” “Lovely Day,” just for starters… but for the nonce let’s go with something a little less known, a love song of heartbreaking simplicity.
And, hell, while we’re at it, here’s one more, kind of the flip side — this is a love song too, of sorts, but dark and driving:
We’ll miss you, Bill, but you shan’t be forgotten, that’s for sure.
In New Orleans last week we walked into a random club on Frenchmen St. just as the band was finishing a song. As the applause died away I heard the guitarist noodling through his wah-wah pedal with a familiar-sounding riff and my ears perked up. “Are they about to do ‘Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley?’” I asked.
Indeed they were.
“Sally” was written by Allen Toussaint and originally recorded by Lee Dorsey in 1970:
But probably the most famous version, and the one the bar band was clearly drawing its arrangement from, was the one Robert Palmer did — with the Meters as his backing band — in 1974:
Confusingly enough, “Sally” was also recorded by New Orleans musician Robert Parker:
Apologies in advance if that last one is preceded — as it was for me — by a Mike Bloomberg ad. Fucking Bloomberg.
I can say now in all honesty that in my time I have seen Courtney Barnett perform in a barn. Said barn is on the grounds of the Gundlach Bundschu winery in Sonoma, and is equipped with a stage and a sound system; but still.
The whole thing was really rather strange. It was the coldest day I’d ever experienced in Sonoma County, with an icy wind whipping through the vineyards; fortunately the barn was walled in on three sides, at least. After an opening set by a charming little German who calls herself Hachiku, Courtney turned up with her electric guitar looking fresh-faced and chipper. She did some old songs, some new songs, some covers — including “I’m So Lonesome Could Cry” and a set-closing version of Gillian Welch’s “Everything Is Free,” which she said was “one of the best songs ever written.” I can’t disagree.
Amazingly enough this song, which I learned about when it was used in Killing Eve, was written by the same guy who wrote “Seasons in the Sun.” That would be Canadian Terry Jacks, who at this time (1971) was playing with a unit called the Poppy Family with his future wife, Susan. Darkness seems to be his métier — this is just a fucking great, chills-down-the-spine banger.
As we count down to Halloween and impeachment, this song from CCR’s 1969 album Green River seems appropriate to the moment, both chronologically and politically. With its dark subject matter and top-quality riffage, it’s every bit the equal of “Bad Moon Rising,” only a lot less overexposed.
It’s also fun to imagine that it’s actually called “Sinister Porpoise,” and go with the mental pictures prompted thereby. Try it, you’ll like it.