Bill Withers is on the radio

Bill WithersBill Withers is on the radio.

There is nothing too out of the ordinary about that. Bill Withers is often on the radio, one of those era-agnostic artists whose appeal supersedes generation and genre. Everybody knows “Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lovely Day.” Everybody knows those songs and if somebody don’t like at least one of them you can feel safe in not wanting to know that somebody.

It isn’t one of those songs on the radio now, though. It’s “Grandma’s Hands,” Bill Withers’ sweet, spare, spooky ode to his late grandmother. It isn’t unheard of for this song to be played on the radio, but I also can’t think of another time I’ve heard it happen.

I remember when I first heard “Grandma’s Hands.” We were working together at the coffee shop on Tchoupitoulas, a few doors down from Wherehouse Music. On my breaks I would take my tip money and scour the used CD racks for gems that we could play during our shifts. One of those gems was a Bill Withers “Best Of” compilation. I slipped it in the CD player that morning and the world looked different. There were the oldies radio songs we knew and loved already, of course, but there was so much more. “Use Me.” “Who Is He? (And What is He to You?)” “Watching You, Watching Me.” And “Grandma’s Hands.”

I remember when I first heard “Grandma’s Hands.” It was a Sunday morning, the customer traffic was slow. We both stopped what little we were doing and just listened, that slow, sparse snare beat, the low gurgle of the organ, Bill’s voice so warm and welcoming but also whispery and almost haunted. Those lyrics speaking both to a personal and cultural relationship we could never fully understand but also to a universal kind of love and mourning that cut straight to the core of anyone who had ever loved and lost, all of it told in two perfect minutes.

I remember when I first heard “Grandma’s Hands.” It was instantly one of Those Songs, the songs that mattered, the holy texts that sustain me through life as surely as any religion. And it would be forever tied to you, woven inextricably into the fabric of our friendship. There are a lot of songs threaded through that friendship, many of them shared discoveries from those quiet Sunday mornings at the coffee shop on Tchoupitoulas when we’d listen to music and talk about nothing and everything and gripe about life the way only a couple of overly secure twentysomethings can. You couldn’t have convinced me of it then, but those were some of my finest hours.

And now Bill Withers is on the radio.

And I’m back in that coffee shop on Tchoupitoulas. And you are not. There are four of us here, four of us who knew you and miss you, returning to the scene of our mutual glory days to talk about you. I want to tell the kids behind the counter why we’re here, who you were, to cherish everything they’re getting from this stupid day job without even knowing it. But they don’t want to hear that. We certainly wouldn’t have when we were them.

And so we order five coffees, one for each of us and one to pour out by the pillar where you liked to go to smoke. And as we sit down to drink our coffees, Bill Withers comes on the radio. Not one of the biggest hits, but “Grandma’s Hands.” And we recognize it one by one and we’re silent, shaken.

And I don’t believe in an afterlife or a spirit world or messages from beyond the grave, and I’m fairly certain you never did either. But in this moment I almost believe in something. I believe in Bill Withers. I believe in Sunday mornings at a nondescript coffee shop on Tchoupitoulas. I believe in you.

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