Chris Whitley (1960-2005)
Chris is survived by his daughter, Trixie Whitley, 18, of Belgium,
whose voice could occasionally be heard in the background of Chris's
records over the years, as well as on stage with him. He is also
survived by his brother, singer/guitarist Daniel Whitley (who contributed
guitar to several of Chris's albums); his sister, Bridget Whitley
Anderson, of Vermont; his ex-wife, Hélène Gevaert,
of Belgium; and his father, Jerry Whitley, of New Jersey.
A man of rare poetic honesty, Chris maintained a resolute musical
integrity throughout his career. His 12 albums, ranging from raw-boned
folk-rock to lush electro-blues, had the thread of intense emotion
and constant invention running through them.
Chris's hit debut LP, Living With the Law, came out on Columbia
in 1991. His final album, Soft Dangerous Shores, came out in June
2005 via Messenger Records, the independent label he worked with
most. The discs now seem like spiritual/aesthetic book-ends. Both
mix roots-rock grit with heat-haze atmospherics and were produced/engineered
by Malcolm Burn. If his beloved debut still contains some of his
best-known songs, Soft Dangerous Shores has the elusive intertwining
of organic and synthetic that Chris often held as an ideal.
Christopher Becker Whitley was born Aug. 31, 1960,
in Houston, to a restless, artistic couple: His mother was a sculptress
and painter; his father worked as an art director in a series of
advertising jobs. As a family, they traveled through the Southwest,
with many of the images the young boy absorbed finding their way
later into songs. He once described his parents' music taste as
formed "by race radio in the South." The real deal --
Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf -- seeped into their son's soul, eventually
leading to Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix.
Chris's parents divorced when he was 11 years old,
and he moved with his mother to a small cabin in Vermont. It was
there that he learned to play guitar. Hearing Johnny Winter's "Dallas"
was the seed for what would develop as Chris's keening instrumental
style. Inspired by the naked, crying sound of the acoustic dobro
in "Dallas," Chris bought a National steel dobro and taught
himself how to play the blues with a bottleneck slide. He quit high
school not long after, moving to New York City.
In Manhattan, Chris worked odd jobs and played on street corners
in the West Village. Then, the owner of a travel agency who had
long loved his playing offered Chris a free ticket to Belgium. During
his sojourn there, he scored some minor success by playing dance
music in a group called Oh No Rodeo (with Hélène and
Alan Gevaert), even covering Prince tunes. The European experience
was seminal in many ways, including his developing an abiding taste
for Kraftwerk and other Euro-avatars. Belgium is also where his
daughter was born.
Back in New York, Chris Whitley was working in
a picture-frame factory when a photographer friend invited him along
for an outdoor shoot. It was in a park that Chris was introduced
to Daniel Lanois, producer of such top acts as U2 and Peter Gabriel.
Lanois was a fellow guitarist, and his eclectic tastes mirrored
Chris's own. Lanois helped Chris get his initial deal with Columbia
to record his debut in the producer's New Orleans studio with Malcolm
Burn (a Lanois protégé, who went on to work with Emmylou
Harris and the Neville Brothers).
One of the all-time classic debuts, Living With
the Law mines romance and regret, beauty and brooding in a vein
of archetypal Americana. Cinematically produced, the album features
fine detail players from the Lanois circle, but the focus rests
firmly on Whitley's fallen-angel falsetto and his rustic virtuosity
on National steel. "I Forget You Every Day" and the title
song are aching dust-bowl ballads. "Make the Dirt Stick"
whines and moans like a forlorn train whistle through the dark woods.
"Big Sky Country" is a yearning plea for wider horizons,
borne along by the virtual call-and-response of gospel harmonies.
Regarding his state-of-affairs when writing these
initial songs, Chris once said: "The songs on Living With the
Law were fatalistic, hopeless. My marriage was breaking up. I was
working in a factory in my late 20s. But desperation can be a good
impetus for writing songs." Those songs struck a chord. Rolling
Stone magazine praised Chris as "a visionary. . . a bona-fide
poet." Another admirer described Chris's songs as "haunting,
like a Robert Frank photograph." Director Ridley Scott chose
a song from the album, "Kick the Stones," for the "Thelma
and Louise" soundtrack.
A long lull kept Chris from capitalizing completely
on the success of his debut. Moreover, the four-year gap between
Living With the Law and his sophomore disc sounds more like 40,
as he sought to break free of any business-as-usual restrictions.
With a psychosexual caterwaul redolent of power trios from Cream
to Nirvana, Din of Ecstasy won Chris new hard-rock fans -- even
as its mix of existential pain and poetic noise put off some listeners
more attuned to the bucolic beauties of "Big Sky Country."
The album's brazen masterstroke was to drag urban blues screaming
into the late 20th century, conflating the spirits of Elmore James
and Kurt Cobain with such riveting standouts as "Narcotic Prayer."
Chris's Sony swansong, Terra Incognita, saw his
sound continuing to combust at the crossroads of Hendrixian drama
and Delta soul. The album's ghostly psalm "Cool Wooden Crosses"
would become a staple of his solo shows. Chris's departure from
Sony could've been a defeat, but it ended up the best sort of medicine,
as he stepped up to the indie challenge. The little New York label
Messenger ended up selling more copies of his next album, 1998's
Dirt Floor, than Sony had of Terra Incognita.
The folk-blues songs of Dirt Floor were recorded
in a single day at his father's Vermont barn-cum-bike shop with
producer Craig Street (known for his work with Cassandra Wilson,
for whom Whitley provided studio guitar). Such sepia-toned songs
as the title lament and "Scrapyard Lullabies" were powered
by just the time-honored tools of voice, guitar, banjo and rhythmic
boot. Recorded the next year in Chicago, Live at Martyrs' documents
a great night of solo Whitley, including his sharp-edged cover of
Kraftwerk's "The Model."
Around the same period, Chris also covered "I
Can't Stand Myself" for a James Brown tribute disc, setting
off sparks against a beat-box. But he painted a fully evocative
picture of his influences with the 2000 all-covers set Perfect Day.
Teamed with the earthy, empathetic rhythm duo from groove-jazz trio
Medeski, Martin & Wood, Chris not only beautifully reanimated
songs by Muddy Waters ("She's Alright"), Robert Johnson
("Stones in My Pathway") and Bob Dylan ("Fourth Time
Around"); he also cut to the poetic heart of the Doors' "Crystal
Ship" and Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" in a way that
rivals the originals.
Rocket House, a 2001 release on ATO, was perhaps
the most ambitious of Chris's career. Tony Mangurian's production
opened new sonic vistas, from the buzzing electro-rock of the opener
"To Joy (Revolution of the Innocents)" to the aching dreamscape
of the closing "Something Shines." A Sony Legacy compilation,
Long Way Around: An Anthology 1991-2001, not only traces Chris's
Columbia years; it includes the lyrical Rocket House single "Say
Goodbye" and highlights from Dirt Floor, as well as previously
unreleased demos and alternative mixes.
In recent years, Chris had found romance and inspiration in Dresden,
Germany. These days yielded some of his best work, with the albums
Hotel Vast Horizon and War Crime Blues, as well as Weed (a set of
solo remakes of early songs) and his only film score (for the German
film Pigs Will Fly). In particular, War Crime Blues is a solo electric
masterpiece of sympathy and antipathy by turns; such emotionally
acute song suites are notably few and far between in the post-Iraq
invasion era. The heartbroken title track, the raging desert storm
of "God Left Town" and the Clash cover "The Call
Up" serve as both salt and salve for collective wounds.
Chris recorded Soft Dangerous Shores last year
with a supple German rhythm duo, bassist Heiko Schramm and drummer
Matthias Macht. The album mixed deep-blues feel and rich jazz harmonies
with erotic rhythm beds and electronic ambience. The idiom was the
"universal blues," where the spirits of Robert Johnson
and Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards and Kraftwerk bond. "The blues
sound different in different places," Chris said just prior
to the disc's release. "But on a lonely, rainy night -- whether
you're in New Orleans or New York or Dresden -- they feel the same."
Like most bluesmen of any era, Chris had his share
of hellhounds on his trail. He chased a lot of them down in song
and on stage; other times, demons got the best of him. But whether
up or down in his career, Chris's sweet, generous nature and pure
sensibility earned him lifelong friends and, as he put it, "guardian
Although fully aware of his capabilities as a musician,
Chris was a humble man, always cognizant of the standards set by
his peers and predecessors. To sit with him backstage at a club
or at a street-side café in the West Village, it was soon
apparent that he considered each admirer and well-wisher who came
up, known or new, something of a gift.
Chris recorded an a cappella rendition of the
pop/jazz standard "Nature Boy" as the haunted close to
War Crime Blues. The words may not be his, but his voice reveals
wisdom hard-won over his time here: "The greatest thing you'll
ever learn/Is just to love and be loved in return."--