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Three degrees of Lean On Me

Bill Withers died just last month at 81. You may think, “I don’t know who that is.”

Yes you do.

Bill Withers was a blues singer and songwriter who penned, honestly, some of the most iconic popular music ever. Why is it we never have an appreciation of some artists until they die and then, in hindsight, we inevitably admit, “Wait a minute – he did that? And that one? And that was his, too??”

I have always been a fan, but then I like the genre. In particular, Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone is one of the best blues numbers to break the popular music ceiling ever, and Lovely Day  (which, sadly, has been acquired for use in at least one national TV ad campaign) is infectious.

But he is best known for Lean On Me, a monster hit that can accurately be described as an anthem. It’s one of those songs that doesn’t ever seem to lose its shine. And while it has been remade and re-interpreted, the original has not suffered as a result. It is timeless.

Here are three touchpoints in my evolution that intersected with the song and, by association, the man:

Chapter One
It’s 1972 and I’m nine – but almost 10! I have a toddler sister with whom I share nothing in common, and a miniature schnauzer named Puffy who has to wear a doggy diaper once a month – which is gross. (“Fixing” your pets wasn’t big in the 70s, I’m not even sure if it was widely an option.)

My two most prized possessions are my bike, a rust-colored Schwinn with a banana seat and LOW handlebars because I’m not a girl and I’m not a douche; and my reel to reel tape recorder. I won the plastic tape recorder on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, and it is awesome. I listen to Top 40 radio, WFIL and WIBG in Philadelphia, and record the songs, then record myself as the DJ in between. I label my tapes WDBG, a play on the station name using my initials.

I’m in love with my tape recorder and what it lets me do, but today I can’t remember one single quip or snippet of anything I ever narrated. What I remember is the music, and the feeling of complete satisfaction when I was able to connect myself to the music somehow. Lean On Me was on the radio, and would eventually win a Grammy, but not until 15 years later! I remember thinking, “I love this song. Wouldn’t it be great to be connected to everyone, everywhere, who loves this song?”

Chapter Two
It’s 2010 and I am married, with two kids. The last two years have been cataclysmic but also ultimately transformational. My wife, who works in special education, finds herself directing the Spring Musical at her middle school: Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. A former dancer and choreographer, she had helped with prior musicals but never really aspired to helm one. Still, she grabbed the reins and grabbed a handful of friends and put her mark on the shows.

There are more than 100 students in the cast and crew, because it’s middle school and the brutality of cutting someone because “you’re not good enough” is not tolerated. But that’s not my wife’s take on it. In her mind, middle school is probably the last time you can realistically even hope to feel safe and able to take some risks in the journey toward becoming yourself. Once high school starts, you need to toughen up and whittle down your priorities and get serious. But in middle school, she believes, you should feed every spark of interest you have, fan every ember, because you don’t know which ones will ignite.

Because she works in Special Ed she is surrounded by children who are not encouraged, not protected, seldom told they are “good enough” let alone good. My wife creates an environment where, not only can you feel safe actually trying the musical if you want to, but you can find a place there. You can help, and you can belong. There are many things to do in a stage musical, even if all you can reasonably do is stand in costume in the background of a production number and sway.

It’s opening night and the cast and crew huddle onstage one last time before the auditorium doors open for the parents, siblings and neighbors to begin filing in. My wife calls it “circle time.” Everyone gathers around, arms around shoulders, and she plays Lean On Me on a boom box on stage. Every middle school student in the huge 100-plus circle of voices knows the words. They sing, and they sway, and they experience what it feels like to be part of something much larger than themselves and more magical than they ever dared to dream.

It becomes a ritual, defined as follows: Eleven years later, when my wife finally gets down off the horse and passes the directing torch, on opening night the cast and crew assemble onstage – because this is what you do – and sing their song. Not because a teacher said so; it was never about that. The song came from inside them, and it outlasted the director, every director. The song survives.

Chapter Three
It’s 2020 and something called “the novel coronavirus” has destroyed convention as we know it. It’s called novel even though no one knew it existed before, and it’s renamed COVID-19 for precision and – oddly – to avoid making it a racist slur. My son is a college junior, a percussion performance major who is suddenly ejected from campus and forced to continue his studies from home.

Like the rest of us, there are logistical challenges: For example, imagine cramming a drumset, microphones, recording equipment and a vibraphone (think xylophone cross-bred with a Volkswagen) into your bedroom without removing the bed. Like that. And his studies now require daily, exclusive, exhaustive use of teleconferencing technology and video/audio recording. Lessons are conducted via laptop and webcam. Assignments are recorded and submitted for credit.

When it first happened, my wife and I thought, “Well how is that going to work?” But, in a process we have all become acquainted with – maybe even approaching comfort – the new normal took hold and, strangely, it all seemed to work pretty well, all things considered.

At school Nathan is the drummer for Criterions Jazz Ensemble which is, I am told, the oldest collegiate big band jazz ensemble in the United States. We typically look forward to performances because my wife and I a) like jazz a lot; and b) are awesome parents with nothing much else going on so we like to support our kids whenever possible. But there are no performances in COVID-Land. Until someone in the group comes up with an idea, posed and posted on an internet social media platform for musicians, to create and post a rendition of Lean On Me on April 30, 2020, as a Day of Gratitude for all the frontline essential workers who are putting their lives and health on the line to keep us safe, healthy, fed and so on.

It’s obviously a grass-roots movement that nonetheless gains some support and if you go to You Tube and search Lean On Me, Day of Gratitude, you will find some great music and be reminded how it feels to see an inspiration grow into something tangible. I flash back to my nine (almost 10!) year-old self, and that desire to know what it feels like to be connected to people all over the world who love that song. I remember watching middle schoolers who can barely make eye contact in real life singing their hearts out, part of a supportive stage family. For many of them, it’s the only supportive family they’ve ever had.

And I think about how far we’ve come. Not as people, because I think people change rarely and slowly. But with the technology afforded to us, we have an awareness of our sameness, our unity: irrefutable evidence that we are not alone, we are not forgotten.

If only we let that sink in, embrace that reality; how much better we will be.

Here is the Criterions’ Lean On Me. Enjoy it, and be well.

Rest in peace, Bill Withers. You made a difference.


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