Listen to this track by singer-songwriter-soulman extraordinaire Bill Withers. It’s “Use Me”, a story of dysfunctional, one-sided, and yet sexually charged love as it appears on Withers’ 1972 album Still Bill, his second album. That album also features another big hit, “Lean On Me”, which is arguably more celebrated as one of the most life-affirming songs ever written.
But, “Use Me” is the photo opposite; a story of darkness, lust, and that even features a bona fide family intervention. That’s pop music all over, with one song on a record exploring the enlightened side to the human experience, while another is better understood in the dark, shadowy corners of human impulse.
The accoustic funk of this song is absolutely gripping, with accoustic guitars playing dirty rhythm, while the keyboards hold down the malevolent riff. And Withers’ voice is characteristically controlled, yet with enough bluesy flavour to communicate the abject sexiness of the material. Yet balanced against the sexual thrills being alluded to, we get something else, too; a family worried about a situation their loved one has fallen into. It’s this grey area, this tension, that makes this song pack the punch it does.
In terms of the songwriting, even that is disorienting on a cultural level. In songs about being used, about being trodden on by a lover, usually this has been the province of a female vocalist, dealing with a dominant male lover. But, with Withers singing it, we get the portrait of a callous-yet-powerful woman, disdainful of her lover in public, yet a tigress behind closed doors. In this, Withers has created something of an inversion of the tomcatting male, the bad boy that many women celebrate and damn.
But, ultimately, Withers’ dynamic here goes beyond gender roles, making it pretty ripe for cover versions by artists as disparate as Aaron Neville, to Liza Minelli, to Mick Jagger, to Fiona Apple. What we’re getting here is about how complex sexual attraction can be, no matter who’s involved. Is love like this good or bad? Well, often it’s both. It can be the most life-giving force in the world, or it can be the road to being used up.
Sometimes, it really is bigger than both of you.
Bill Withers, who has been largely inactive as a recording artist since the ’80s, has recently been the subject of a documentary named after the record off of which “Use Me” is featured, Still Bill. Check it out!