In Memoriam: Chris Whitley
I’ve been listening to Chris Whitley for more than 20 years. At first, I was resistant to enjoying his music — how ridiculous we can be. I was in my early 20s, and I met a lanky guy who had grown up in international schools, and had a penchant for open tunings. He spoke in a soft American accent, he played guitar brilliantly, and he was outrageously cool. He leant me a record called Living with the Law and I scoffed at it. The man on the cover looked trapped in that weird, out-of-touch crossroads hangover between the ’80s and the ’90s. At the time, I was discovering indie music — and this seemed the anathema to it. I mocked it, tossed it aside, and dug my heels with immature abandon.
However, I had listened to it. And after hearing it a few times, the hooks were in. The title track truly is one of the great openers of the ’90s — grudgingly, I could not deny the pockets of beauty in the space created by those soft, chalky chord changes. The voice sounds as if it comes from a wagon trail, a passenger exiting a taxi, a shortwave radio, a factory PA, or a campfire hidden in an unending canvas of pine trees. Chris Whitley sounds of the city and the country, and of any age.
Whitley never achieved much fame beyond that album; he always seemed a figure of mystery to me. It wasn’t even easy to get his records — I still feel a strange sense of gratitude when I stream one of the albums I couldn’t order back then. Accepting the unknowable about your favourite artists is probably a blessing, but recently I became aware that a documentary had been made about Whitley. So a few weeks ago I got to understand one of my musical icons a little better.
I’d known that Whitley was born to artistic parents — and that he had a restless spirit — but I think the footage and commentary brought home the weariness of his life: moving states constantly as a child, the divorce, the move to Mexico, the rootless existence of a teenage street musician in New York. It didn’t explain his long stay in Belgium, which I’d hoped it would, but the available material seemed to guide the hand of the filmmakers into talking about 1989 and the forging of the debut record. At the time, Whitley was working in factories, busking, and trying to be a father, and he happened to meet Daniel Lanois at a photoshoot. This piece of chance led him to New Orleans and meeting record producer Malcolm Burn. They put together one of the best, most enduring albums of the ’90s, and got Chris signed to a major label.
The documentary also confirmed my suspicion that major label life was not for Chris. You can hear it in his music, the rebellious sheen of noise from his difficult second album, borne out of his crumbling marriage, and the desolate sadness of his finest work, Dirt Floor. The video for “Wild Country” is included, Chris addressing the camera with his wide, trapped eyes, acknowledging his failures as a father and his inability to function in certain structures.
In the documentary, Chris talks about missing a sense of home. He couldn’t give up the road, but he wanted to learn how to. He could not give up drinking, and he couldn’t stop working as his prospects became thinner with each release. I realised this search for place and belonging was one of the major themes of his work. I welled up seeing the footage of him in 2005; emaciated, bitter, disheveled, coming apart, in a dirty New York room, obviously sick from the lung cancer that would claim his life that year. His friends, his brother, and his collaborators knew he was not meant for the industry, but he was cursed with the essential compulsion to make art. This was apparent to him as well; his mother had been a sculptor, and she, too, could not make her passion translate into basic comfort and stability. Chris was still making amazing music right up to the end, exemplified by the mystery of Hotel Vast Horizon. I sit motionless at songs like “Medicine Wheel”, a song which sounds as if your subconscious is bubbling like black water in the pit of your stomach, streaming from your eyes and mouth, immobilizing you in a pool of darkness.
It does not suffice to dwell only on the sadness. Chris inspired his brother and the people around him. Most importantly, despite his shortcomings as a father, his daughter Trixie generously said that whatever time he spent with her was more meaningful than some more traditional relationships. Perhaps, in some ways, his artistry and involvement of her in it provided an example for her to find her own method of communicating through music and dance. Trixie Whitley clearly carries her father’s talent, producing work as rich and beautiful as his.
Whitley died on November 20, 2005, at least surrounded by his loved ones. I hope, still, that a spark will catch flame, and his work will be discovered and loved universally, at the scale of Young or Springsteen or Dylan. I doubt that would ever happen; perhaps the sound of his unique steel guitar phrasing will be dampened by layers of time and dust. He is a luminary of Americana, of something older — someone who plays the blues but moved it forward, formed his own language. I guess, if I’m being honest, outside of the undeniable brilliance of Whitley’s work, I do hear the voice of my friend in these records. He has a lot in common with Whitley; he was also always looking for something a little beyond his grasp, despite all his obvious gifts. His story didn’t end in tragedy, though; there’s still years to find that missing piece or accept that maybe it doesn’t necessarily matter. Whitley sang:
“There’s a dirt floor underneath here
To receive us when changes fail
May this shovel loose your trouble
Let them fall away”
I hope we all find the moment when our cares drop away like loosed, frayed bindings; that we find that moment well before the ground receives us. Rest in peace, Chris. Your music means the world to me.