Charles City Press, 3-21-19
You might refer to it as the “I know” song.
I heard it on the radio on the way to work this morning. Any time I hear those first few notes, I have to crank it up. It’s pure ear candy, and it makes my heart seem warm.
The song is “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers. The song was released as a single in 1971, became a breakthrough hit for Withers, and reached No. 6 on the R&B chart and No. 3 on the pop/rock chart.
You might call it the “I know” song because right smack in the middle of it, the vocalist repeats “I know, I know, I know” a total of 26 times — and honestly, it seems like more than that — which can get annoying, especially to those who are adverse to repetitiveness.
To me, that block of “I knows” doesn’t hurt the song overall, and in many ways gives the song a uniqueness that helps it stand out.
Bill Withers was an unknown artist when he recorded the song, but there was some rock royalty among those who recorded the song with him.
On guitar was Stephen Stills, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member who’s best known for his work with Crosby, Stills and Nash and Buffalo Springfield.
And there’s Donald ‘Duck” Dunn on bass, another Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, who played with the likes of Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Booker T & the M.G.’s and, of course, with John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd in “The Blues Brothers.”
And speaking of Booker T & the M.G.’s, it was the great Booker T. Jones himself who initially produced “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
The song has been covered over the years by a young Michael Jackson, Nancy Sinatra, Paul McCartney, Tracy Chapman, John Mayer and many others — including a tastefully-restrained rendition by the metal band Black Label Society. My personal favorite is a old-school blues version by the great Buddy Guy, who has a way of making every song his own.
The original singer and songwriter, Bill Withers, is one of music’s overnight success stories. At the time he recorded the song, the then-unknown, 31-year-old musician was working at a factory that built toilet seats for 747s.
Which leads me to one strange thought — there is a distinct possibility that there are several people out there who listened to “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers in the bathroom of an airplane while sitting on a toilet seat that was built by Bill Withers. Don’t think about that for too long — your head might explode.
Anyway, legend has it that when the song went gold, the record company presented Withers with a gold-plated toilet seat to mark the start of his new career.
The song itself is a simple one. Most of the good songs usually are.
It’s little more than a low-tempo, A-minor blues riff played under a short, solemn poem about missing someone — or something — you care about.
“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone,” the song says. “It’s not warm when she’s away.”
You can feel the coldness inside, the inner darkness that comes when you’re alone, and away from someone special.
“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone, and she’s always gone too long, anytime she goes away,” the verse finishes.
And that puts something in my eye every time I hear it. It doesn’t matter if it’s five minutes or five years, when someone you need is missing, it seems like forever.
In the second verse, Withers “wonders where she’s gone,” and “wonders if she’s gone to stay.”
A desperate feeling of no control — it’s not up to me if that missing person is ever coming back to me. It’s totally up to her. I have no say in the matter.
On the surface, it seems like Withers is singing about a beloved girlfriend.
Or perhaps it’s a close friend, or family member, or even a pet that’s run away.
After the the block of 26 repeated “I knows,” Withers changes one line in the final verse — from “It’s not warm when she’s away” to “Only darkness every day.”
There’s a finality suggested there. It’s an absolute — only darkness, every day.
It’s a sad and lonesome ending — I’ve accepted the fact that she ain’t coming back, not now, not ever. I know, I know, I know she’s gone.
Ever lose something that you’ve come to rely on? Ever lose someone who you’ve seen every day?
It can leave you in a dark, cold, uncertain place — maybe for the rest of your life.
There are theories that the song isn’t about another person at all, but about drug or alcohol addiction. It’s said to be about withdrawal and co-dependency — you’ll never open another bottle again, you’ll never again get that fix you’ve relied on, you’ll never again be able hang out with the people you got drunk or high with.
That could be right, I don’t know. Maybe it can be about pretty much anything you want it to be about.
To me, it’s about dealing with the loss of someone you thought would be there with you forever.
I know, I know, I know how horribly hard that is.