Oh... Such Sad, Sad, News... Chris Whitley Has Died...
Following that show, Chris played there again, and I dragged the head of the label I worked at to the show, not even knowing that it was a 2-night showcase for every label in town; we walked in, and there were all the other heads of labels.
I stood about 6 feet away, directly in front of him, and I went back the next night and stood about 6 feet away, directly in front of him. I was absolutely mesmerised, and I insisted his manager introduce us. He was sweet, unassuming, humble... I invited him (pleaded with him) to come up to the label to talk to us, and he agreed.
He showed up, and met with us, and let us know that he had pretty much decided to go with Columbia before he had come to see us. When I asked him why he was still willing to come and see me even so, he said "Well, you came to see me, so I thought I should come to see you."
We stayed friends for quite a long time...I got to go to the studio when he was recording, and I went to virtually every show he played in NYC for the next couple of years, and got to see him in a couple of other places as well.
This writer, David Bowman, wrote some great stuff about Chris in 1998:
Chris Whitley once sung about "Secret Jesus" on his "blood antenna ... coming through the concrete, baby." It sounded like he was singing about an extraterrestial Satan, not Jesus. But then there's a record industry rumor that Whitley actually met the devil out on some crossroads, just like Robert Johnson. ...
Whitley's first three records were released by Sony. He had hours of studio time. Big limos. Champagne for breakfast. But no more. Last year, Sony dumped him. Out in the cold, Whitley had zero budget to make a new album. So last December, he recorded one in a single day -- not in a studio, but in a barn on his daddy's farm in Vermont. And now "Dirt Floor" is being released on Messenger Records, a little label so tiny it's run by a 24-year-old kid out of his one-room Chelsea apartment in Manhattan.
How could Whitley fall so far? And what did he get from the devil in return? Before you learn the answers, know that "Dirt Floor" is a little album the way Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" was little -- which is to say it's not little at all, just incredibly ambitious in its modesty. Like Springsteen on "Nebraska," Whitley is the only player on his album, strumming his solitary guitar and singing. His voice is reedy, but good. Some of his songs are good as well. Others are striking. All of them are a little peculiar, borrowing imagery from William Faulkner and Mexican Day of the Dead festivals. He sings about someone called Loco Girl. He sings about a ball-peen hammer.
But "Dirt Floor" doesn't sound like "Nebraska" -- or Robert Johnson, or early Bob Dylan, or anyone else. There's something simultaneously medieval and funky about Whitley's sound. His National guitar has a brittle, otherworldly twang to it. "I think the guys that originally designed them 70 years ago were auto-body guys trying to make Hawaiian guitars that were louder," Whitley says. He spends the next 10 minutes discussing the National the way motorcycle enthusiasts go on about Vincent Black Lightnings.
Whitley introduced his National on his first Sony album, "Living With the Law" (1991), produced by Daniel Lanois cohort Malcolm Burn. It was a great album about Big Sky country and someone called Poison Girl and something that was said on a phone call from Leavenworth. It was an album Cormac McCarthy would make if he were a guitarist instead of a novelist. The record had solid sales. His second Sony release, "Din of Ecstasy" (1995), was the mother of all flops. What happened? Whitley traded his career for an electric guitar. Satan's unholy ax was Whitley's undoing.
"What's with this devil business, man?" Whitley laughs. "I grew up on electric guitar. Psychedelic blues: Hendrix, Cream. Early Muddy. Early Wolf. When I was a kid, I loved Johnny Winter and loved his first Columbia record. He used a thumb pick, not even a flat pick. Just plugged in." The lanky guitarist now closes his eyes as if he's remembering a girl. "Johnny sounded so fluid. He wasn't really playing any scale or riffs. He was just blowing it out." He opens his eyes. "The devil had nothing to do with 'Din of Ecstasy.' With that record it was, 'I can afford a band now.'"
Whitley's electric "Din" was a psychedelic masterpiece that bashed and screeched, even as it fell like a stone in the marketplace. The suits at Sony wrung their hands, but gave him another chance. But rather than return to the rootsy purity of "Living With the Law," Whitley clung to the devil's ax and redefined his psychedelic sound, releasing yet another quirky, unclassifiably brilliant electric album, "Terra Incognita" (1997). It went nowhere quicker than "Din" did.
Sony pulled his plug.
But if this was Satan's intention, the angels of art saved Whitley from hell. The guitarist didn't have the patience to do demos and shop around for another label. He wouldn't even wait for the schedule of his old mentor, Lanois, to get clear so that they could record together. Whitley had written new, simpler songs. So he took his beloved National up to Vermont and recorded nine songs in a day with Cassandra Wilson's Grammy-winning producer, Craig Street. The next day, they mixed the tracks. And a few weeks later, "Dirt Floor" was ready to be released on Messenger Records.
Hard to imagine Whitley needing anything more than a little weed to sing those words. And "Dirt Floor" proves that it is possible for art to triumph over corporate culture. ...
Whitley doesn't quite buy this "triumph of art" business, because he thinks his work is commercial. Or at least listenable. "I'm not exactly high art and I'm not pop. I look at my stuff now, it's very metaphoric to how I grew up. There's my art director dad and my sculptor mom. Pure. And expressionist. I never felt like there was a conflict between the art and commerce."
Yeah, OK. But anyone with a commercial bone in his body wouldn't have made two albums of psychedelia. McCarthy was mentioned earlier -- Whitley is like one of the author's kid cowboys down in Mexico. There's an innocence and naiveté about him that's touching. And deceiving. This 37-year-old is chronologically long-in-the-tooth, but he still looks about 23. Except in brief moments, say in the neon light of a bar sign on Seventh Avenue, where you can see what Whitley will look like when his age catches up with him. He'll look a little like a criminal -- like he's getting away with something.
So now, with "Dirt Floor" a big success, will Whitley fuck it all up again by recording Satan's electric guitar again with Daniel Lanois? Maybe not. And it's our loss. Nowadays, Whitley complains about guitar-hero bands. He even claims a banjo can thrash harder than any old Danelectro U1. "Banjo's are more pointed," he claims, as earnest as a choir boy. "People actually get it with a banjo. With a loud guitar, it's like just another rock band." Stephen Foster heavy metal? He gives a dry laugh. "It's good to express your existential anger on the banjo."What does Whitley have to be getting existential about? It was the devil who suffered a loss, not Whitley. For just a moment, Satan lost control of his ax. And for just one blessed moment, true art has won a modest battle.
The Sony Legacy site says:
The most compelling, communicative music resonates with a "cry," whether it embodies a wail of pain and despair or the not-so-dissimilar shouts of spiritual elation and sexual healing. From Brahms to Billie Holiday, Hank Williams to Howling Wolf, John Coltrane to John Lennon, Astor Piazzolla to Ali Akbar Khan - enduring music often echoes the real, remembered or empathetic cry of the listener. Chris Whitley's music - whether the dust-bowl balladry on Living With the Law, the keening hard-rock of Din of Ecstasy or the synthetic poetics that power Rocket House - is suffused with the deepest blues feeling. And feeling is the essence of form with Whitley, so that no matter the particular idiom of a recording, his music always sounds recognizably, immutably like him; moreover, it is in his personally authentic, emotive sound that the fortunate listener can hear a little bit of himself, herself or, at least, someone close.
Here's a link to his site:
There's lots of info as well as some mp3 files of a gig from this year.
There was a great little music scene going on in NYC when we all first met Chris... my friend David Pattillo hosted these unforgettable nights at Ludlow... David and his drummer Matt would play their dark, intense music, our friend David Poe would play his beautiful songs on acoustic, other folks would perform, and Chris would perform. At that time, he was the only one of the bunch with a record deal, but it made no difference. I think I heard music like I'll never hear again. We'd all sit around, just talkin ', smokin' and drinkin' ... Chris had a great laugh.
This is a time in my life I will never forget; one of those times that, if you had to be stuck somewhere in the past, well, this is where I'd pick; a funky little Salvadorian restaurant/club that served great food at 2AM, and closed the blackout curtains so that we'd walk out into the dawn, not even realising that the sun had started to rise, when the Lower East Side was all dark and dirty, and we were all in this special place in time - and Chris is a strong, definite part of this memory.
I still have the demos Chris gave me... I know I'll listen to all his music and cry for the next few weeks, but, as his brother says, we need to celebrate his life, too.
Whitley is survived by his daughter Trixie, his brother Dan and his fiancee Susann. "I hope you all will mourn my brother's death but more important celebrate his life as Chris was all about life and living," Dan wrote on Chris' official Web site. "I started the celebration by cranking up [the 1998 album] 'Dirt Floor' in his honor ... crying still."
"Chris is an example of one of those things that appalls me about the record industry - ATO co-founder Dave Matthews told Billboard in 2001. "That is, how could a talent like his go relatively unnoticed? So few singers have their own personality, and Chris is his own man to the bone. Honestly, I feel more passion for his music than I do for my own. My music I'm critical of. But I have a fervent, religious devotion to the magic that Chris makes." **