I heard sad news earlier today that singer/songwriter and guitarist Chris Whitley died over the weekend. To put it mildly, Whitley lived hard. I expected him to die a lot sooner than he did, but I'm still startled and dismayed when I realize that it’s actually happened.
Chris Whitley wasn't exactly a household name, but I loved his music, followed his career through a few ups and a lot of downs, and was consistently impressed by his ability to re-invent himself and his sound. He never stood still long enough to attract a dedicated following, and that was both his greatest talent and his curse.
His 1991 debut album Living With the Law was a mindblower, a creepy, dark, atmospheric collection of songs produced by Daniel Lanois that was part Delta blues, part alternative rock, and all endlessly creative, mixing Robert Johnson and U2 and snippets of ranting televangelists and radio static. For a collection so willfully weird and difficult, it amazingly spawned a couple of minor FM radio hits in “Poison Girl” and “Big Sky Country” and earned Whitley a Grammy nomination.
But that was the commercial pinnacle. Whitley waited four years to deliver a followup album, struggled with sundry addiction issues, and eventually emerged with Din of Ecstasy, a curious grunge/blues concoction that alienated his old blues and roots music fans with its dissonant electric guitar feedback, and failed to win new fans of the grunge revolution. It was a critical and commercial flop.
But oh, what an album. "Love" probably isn't the right word for an album that was grisly, stark, angry, profane, and at times intensely harrowing. But Din of Ecstasy may be the most charged album in my rather large collection, a seething tug of war between the forces of death, numbness, and escape, and a life-affirming desire to matter, to make a difference, to retain one’s humanity. It is music about addiction, about God, about numbing yourself to make the pain go away, about blaspheming in rage and impotence, and then calling out for help in the midst of misery. Whitley’s guitar work is searing, Jimi Hendrix rockets bursting in air and Eric Clapton blues runs and Kurt Cobain sonic shredding. In short, it is stunning, and it is a loud, abrasive 911 emergency call to the divine.
But it didn’t matter. Nobody bought the album, just as nobody bought the ten albums that followed, all of them distinct, each different from its predecessor, all of them restlessly creative and innovative, weird and wonderful. And now he is gone.
Chris Whitley was an amazingly inventive guitarist, a songwriter of brutal and sometimes beautiful honesty, and, by all accounts, a screwed-up, addicted, mentally unstable, humble, nice guy. He could be a terror, and he could be the sweetest man in the world. I will miss him, and I will miss his music.
Ironically, it wasn't one of the illegal addictions that killed him. It was cigarettes. He was 45 years old.