John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Two Paranoid Masterpieces

Bill Withers and George Jones each wrote and performed the two greatest songs of romantic paranoia.

By - Mar 28th, 2014 04:23 pm
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George Jones

George Jones

A common songwriting misstep is to always visit the dark side for inspiration. It might make a writer feel like a kind of authenticity has been achieved but, in many cases, it adds heaviness but not much else. If irony can be cheap, then the dark stuff can be too easy. You automatically get respect when your default mode is minor key murder ballads, but if you master the very difficult art of writing songs that spread a little joy, you are subject to dismissal and dropped into the lightweight bin.

A recent survey, aided by some software algorithm I can’t even pretend to understand, showed that Billboard’s charts have come to be dominated by minor keys over the last 50 years. The human brain is wired to hear that tonality as sad, so draw your own conclusions. Personally, I would rather see more songs like Happy by Pharrell Williams on the charts.

My gripe isn’t that people do so many downbeat, mood songs, it’s just that so many seem to get it wrong. For there are few pleasures in life that compare with a nicely put together tale of romantic paranoia.

When the next critics’ darling is putting pen to paper to create a dark masterpiece, I hope they take time to listen to two artists who get it so right that you have trouble separating the story from the story teller. George Jones and Bill Withers are forever joined in my mind for the way they got inside the heads of a couple wounded lovers, one who has certain suspicions and the the other who, in a most unfortunate way, has had his confirmed.

The Window Up Above is one of the few songs written by Jones, the greatest interpreter of country weepers ever. In it the narrator is a voyeur looking down with misty possum eyes on his sweetheart as she dallies with an unknown rival. Edward Hopper, with his chilly light, would be my pick to paint this sad masterpiece. (I discovered, in the course of my Youtube research, that Jones recorded this song more than once. If you want the definitive, goose flesh-inducing version, see below.)

The first line, so odd and so country at the same time, is perfect, but what really, REALLY kills me is the last verse. Somehow he is not only watching, but is close enough to hear his sweetheart whisper to her new flame that, “our marriage was all wrong!” The super powers of paranoia at work. It defies logic, but he’s not in logical place and it delivers a punch in the gut to a guy who has already absorbed a few too many.

The Window Up Above

I’ve been living a new way
Of life that I love so
But I can see the clouds are gathering
And the storm will wreck our home

For last night he held you tightly
And you didn’t even show
This is true for I’ve been watching
From the window up above

You must have thought that I was sleeping
And I wish that I had been
But I guess it’s best to know you
And the way your heart can sin

I thought we belonged together
And our hearts fit like a glove
I was wrong for I’ve been watching
From the window up above

From my eyes the teardrops started
As I listened on and on
I heard you whisper to him softly
That our marriage was all wrong

But I hope he makes you happy
And you will never lose his love
I was wrong for I was watching
From the window up above

How I wish I could be dreaming
And wake up to an honest love
I was wrong for I was watching
From the window up above


There isn’t much that hasn’t been said about George Jones, but I bet he’s never been compared to Randy Newman. As Jones inhabits this disturbed man in The Window Up Above, thoughts of a detached narrator (ala Newman) or an artist seeking credibility through a choice of subject are not what come to your mind. Far from it. Jones is either a natural genius of an actor or the sad, broken victim in this song who is somehow able to still sing about it. Either way, a deep bow must go in his direction.

You might as well maintain that posture, for now we contemplate Bill Withers and one of his most unforgettable songs, Who Is He And What Is He To You?  The crazy tension in this track is there even before he starts to sing. A master of brilliant understatement, Withers has banished all chord changes and creates a minor key riff that will throb in your head like the obsessive thoughts of romantic betrayal he sings about. Strings sneak in under the second verse, along with some subtle reinforcement on the backbeat. It becomes what you might call insistent.

A man pretty much out of step with his time, Withers was a small combo guy, often seen cradling an acoustic, at a time when over-orchestrated disco extravaganzas ruled the airwaves. (His fight against record company pressure to be part of this silliness is well documented in the moving documentary Still Bill). If there was a warmer voice or a more approachable seeming guy around that time, I’m not coming up with any names. So the spot he’s in, wracked with doubt and confronting his tormentor, gets to you. A small bit of comic relief comes at the end of every verse — “Dadgummit, who is he and what is he to you?” Did anyone other than Roger Miller use words like “dadgummit?” Why this doesn’t torpedo the song for me, I don’t know.

There is no chorus, no solo, he just keeps telling the story. The wrong producer or A&R rep might have called for a bridge, chorus or a tricky solo of some sort and broken the spell. Luckily that didn’t happen — just try to stop yourself from playing it more than once.

A man we passed just tried to stare me down

And when I looked at you, you looked at the ground
I don’t know who he is but I think that you do
Dadgummit, who is he and what is he to you?

Ahh, somethin’ in my heart and in your eye
Tells me, he’s not someone just passin’ by
Ahh, and when you cleared your throat, was that your cue?
Dadgummit, who is he and what is he to you?

And now, when I add the sum of you and me
I get confused and I keep comin’ up with three
You’re too much for one man but not enough for two
Dadgummit, who is he and what is he to you?

Well, you tell me men don’t have much intuition
Is that what you really thinkin’ girl or are you wishing?
Before you wreck your old home please search another new
Dadgummit duh, who is he and what is he to you?

Dadgummit, who is he and what is he to you?
Dadgummit, who is he and what is he to you?
Dadgummit, who is he and what is he to you?

MCKENNEY, STANLEY WAYNE / WITHERS, BILL © Universal Music Publishing Group

I recently taught “Lean On Me”  to a student — another gem of  a song that deserves a whole essay. As big as he was, Withers seems somehow forgotten and under-appreciated. The decency and humanity in everything he created, makes me wish he hadn’t walked away from the music business when he did. It also makes it hard to believe he could write and perform such a marvelously paranoid song as “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?” It seem wildly out of character, like Jimmy Stewart playing a villain.

Past Sieger on Songs Columns: 

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