How Bill Withers Saved My Life by Matt Powell

“Bill Withers!” I yelled, finally.

“Winters?” one of them yelled back.

“WiTHers!” I yelled again.

It was the third time they had asked. There were only four of us in the place, including the bartender, and I wasn’t feeling much like conversation.

The Red Garter was one of the last holdouts of the classic Angeleno corner bar. A lost art. A poor man’s paradise. A place where everybody knows your name; a place where nobody knows your name. Your call. A place to sit and think. A place to not be found for a while.

The neighborhood was full of them — The Alibi Room, Babe Brandelli’s Brig, The Townhouse, Fireside — falling one by one, being made over in modern man’s own image. Name changes, bullshit renovations, DJ booths where the jukebox used to be, doormen checking IDs — usurping the refuges of the L.A. working class. Erasing their existence from the city’s story.

Before they destroyed it, The Red Garter was a perfect bar: jukebox, pool tables, red velvet wallpaper out of an old Western brothel, swinging doors, good people. That day I didn’t care about the people. Fortunately, there weren’t many.

I went there that day for all the reasons men go to bars like The Red Garter on rainy Sunday afternoons. I was sitting at the bar nursing my beer and trying to ignore the two drunk frat kids from LMU playing Golden Tee. When one of them went for the jukebox, I decided to leave.

“Hey, who did ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’?” he yelled out to his friend.

No response.

“Dude! Who did that ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’?” he asked again, louder. He looked at the bartender. The bartender shrugged. The frat kid kept flipping through the box looking for the song.

“Come on dude, who did … ”

“Bill Withers!” I yelled finally, without turning in my stool.

“Winters?” one of them yelled back.

“WiTHers!” I yelled again.

“Thanks, man.”

I decided to stay. I sat there and drank my beer and stared at myself in the long mirror behind the bar and listened to the song, hearing it as if for the first time. It sounded like rain. It was gray. It was wet. It was comforting. A rainy night in Venice Beach feels like it’s raining all over the world. March 31 in California — what time is it in Casablanca? My watch stopped a long time ago. I’d ask the bartender but he was eating his Double-Double and not giving a shit.

It didn’t matter. For the first time in a long time I felt connected to something. Connected to every other lost soul, every Sunday barfly, every schmuck caught out in the rain, every cabbie waiting at LAX, every downtown shoeshine man guarding his kit waiting out the rain in an abandoned storefront doorway.

Los Angeles is a frontier town, a place where people come to reinvent themselves. When you’re born here you have to go away for a while to come back and reinvent yourself again. I had been back almost a year that day, lured by the pretense of a love we both knew was a lie, landing on the edge of the last vestiges of a bohemian Venice.

Change was in the air. It could be seen in the falling corner bars, in the demolition of the Craftsman cottages making way for tall, minimalist concrete boxes. It could be felt in the silence of two people in the same apartment with nothing to say. It could be heard in the blue static sparks of electricity buzzing off the telephone wires in the humid night air.

Southern and Midwestern migrants once flooded the Southland to build better lives for themselves in the boomtown factories. Men like my grandfather, winning pot games for rent money in the Lynwood bowling alleys. The modest stucco homes with grass yards and detached garages. The corner bar at the end of the block. The jukebox. The dignity of it all.

The bowling alleys were going the way of the corner bar — recast into fatuous playgrounds for the hipster class. There weren’t any more pot games.

Men like Bill Withers, working on the line at the Weber Aircraft Factory in Burbank after arriving in Los Angeles from West Virginia by way of the U.S. Navy, writing songs in between shifts. He was in his early 30s when he recorded his first album at Sunset Sound. They took the photo for the album cover while he was on his lunch break at Weber. He is holding his lunch pail in the photo. His coworkers teased him.

“Ain’t No Sunshine” was his big break. He wrote it after seeing “Days of Wine and Roses,” a film about a couple of alcoholics who realize their relationship is empty in the sober light of day. They destroy each other until one summons the strength to break free.

Barroom epiphanies on rainy Sunday afternoons are sobering. They are elephants. I had just turned 30 and was in a relationship I had no business being in, and for which there seemed no way out. Truth was, despite the rain, there was sunshine when she was gone. Truth be told, that was the only time lately when there was sunshine.

I sat there in that empty little corner bar and listened to Bill Withers croon “I know, I know, I know” over and over until it sounded like the record was skipping, thinking I knew nothing, for inadequacy had been instilled in me lately. For two minutes and four seconds, thoughts flashed, realizations surfaced, behavior became explained, patterns became clear and telling. I realized I was surviving on isolation, wounded and harboring, and that that does not make for very good love. Sometime after the bridge, I began to realize that, in fact, I already knew everything I needed to know. I knew that it was time to stop hovering around the world, and to start living in it again. Time to shed all the parasitic negativity in my life, and time to start loving myself again.

After the song played, an eerie silence fell over the bar. No song followed. What song could? No one had come, no one had gone. The frat boys continued their video game. The bartender blundered over his crossword and gave no indication that he’d noticed any of what just went down.

These kinds of breakthroughs can take months of therapy and thousands of dollars. I got out of there for the price of a beer, and the song was free.

I stood, turned and walked through the swinging doors and out into the beach rain. As I let it soak into me, I knew exactly what I had to do. And so I started heading home.

Please read Matt Powell’s “Pale Blue Eyes” from our debut “love/hate” issue.


Matt Powell is a writer, songwriter and musician. His work has been featured at, No Depression online and Humor in America, where he is contributing music editor. His short story “Valley Dick” was published in Temporary Detective, an anthology of modern noir. Matt plays lead guitar in surf-punk trio The Incredible Heavies. He lives in Venice Beach.