Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Chris Whitley

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.

6 comments:

Scott Sloan said...

Andy, the cigarrettes that killed Chris is a awful "wake up call" for most of us. Cigarrettes, high-blood pressure, are silent killers that sneak up on us when we don't suspect stuff.

He was probably closer to God than most of us, as most addicts are. He was probably crying out for the hand of God to reach in and pick him out of his hole.

Likewise, the Late Layne Stanley, formerly of Alice in Chains did die of a heroin overdose.

All of this can be summed up in one statement from Metallica, It's "Sad but True".

conover said...

my wife bought me two whitley albums a few years ago. never had heard him but glad that i now listen to him. i was unaware of his many other (presumabley blilliant) tunes — and his problems — until i read a column in this months esquire. john mayer mentioned his death and also suggested picking up "serve you" from rocket house. i'll have to find that one, and re-listen to him again; this time really, really closely.

conover said...

my wife bought me two whitley albums a few years ago. never had heard him but glad that i now listen to him. i was unaware of his many other (presumabley brilliant) tunes — and his problems — until i read a column in this months esquire. john mayer mentioned his death and also suggested picking up "serve you" from rocket house. i'll have to find that one, and re-listen to him again; this time really, really closely.

Anonymous said...

Heard Chris play at Wetlands a year or two after the first album. One of the best ever recorded. Just heard about his death. Huge loss. Huge loss that so few heard his music.

Anonymous said...

i loved what you said about "din of ecstacy".....to me it is one of my all time favorite records of such amazing, soaring, sonic beauty, that i find it amazing that it got mostly bad reviews. it truly baffles me how anyone with a speck of soul could hear that record and just sort of go," uhhhh...i think i'll pass...". as for me, i remember stumbling onto it in a record store and just out of curiosity giving it a listen. I knew within the first 30 seconds of "narcotic prayer" that i had lucked into something amazing. i get goosebumps all through that record.....and that's always a good sign.

ZOE said...

I saw him play at a small venue in Portland, Oregon in the late 90's, and talked to him backstage. Amazing talent, gracious, humble man. So much a genius, and so kind to a random fan. I am in tears again, reading this. I cannot understand the loss of one such as he. As a sometime musician-singer myself, i strive only to be able to express so much soul and honesty as he did, or even half as much. I will never forget him, and miss him always as a kindred spirit. Hope to see him on the other side.