He had also delved deeply into the surrealist movement. He dedicated his album Perfect Day to the surrealists Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington.
“What I find exciting about writing songs is that they don’t feel like poems because they’re attached to music. I’m trying to articulate what is not rational. It’s not even conscious half the time. I feel a song can almost be so direct, like an old blues tune, that it can become the shadow of experience to me in a way the surrealists were trying to discover stuff like that.” [“Creator of evocative aural landscapes.” The Sunday Age, 2005-11-26]
“… the song has to define itself a bit in order for me to be able to weed out the abstractions. I don’t mean like surrealism or something, it’s more like poetics. I read a lot of Charles Simic, Pablo Neruda, and lately, Garcia Lorca.”
“A friend of mine, Charles Simic, who’s a Pulitzer prize winning poet, is very inspiring to me.”
“I’m looking for something more … abstract, I guess. Like the French poet Rene Char, who I love. There’s something so pure about it, so free of manipulation. …. I just need to have something else, you know? Some sort of existential framework for what I do. Or else I’m just bored.”
“The gray areas are what attract me when I’m writing. I don’t write well in an obvious, clear kind of way. I’m best in a more mysterious in-between-the-words area.”
“I don’t feel like a commodity. I feel like what I’m doing is supposed to be important. Otherwise, why am I doing it? That’s not the pop culture way at all. It’s probably a big reason for why I’m not more popular. I’ve made decisions that went against the grain. I guess I choose to be a little bit arrogant and think ‘They’ll get it?” It’s a trust thing with the audience. I just want to believe that somebody will get my records, pay attention to them and understand how strong the emotions are behind them. It’s not about pop crasftsmanship for me. It’s simply about expression.” [Innerviews, p. 275]
Surrealism, and romanticism, play a large part in his life. “I spent a year reading a lot of surrealism,” he says. He dedicated the album Perfect Day to the surrealists Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington. In the liner notes, Whitley wrote: “Why love songs? The complexities, irrationalities of the experience. I am stimulated and terrified by translations of the inexpressible, our secret lives beyond symbols ? the language of our mystery.”
“Mostly, it’s romanticism that inspires me,” he says. He also loves Picasso, writer Paul Eluard (he quotes a line from the Eluard poem The Castle on a song on Hotel Vast Horizon). Of Salvador Dali, he is more circumspect. “I can look at Dali and love that he existed.” [“The Vast Horizons of Chris Whitley.” The Sunday Age (Australia), 2003-08-03]
Art versus entertainment is a theme that weaves through so many interviews. Chris Whitley didn’t view himself as an entertainer; on stage, he seldom interacted with his audience and rarely “put on a show.” For many of us, the best Chris Whitley is the most stripped-down Chris Whitley: just his voice accompanied by his guitar and stomping boot. Too much showmanship would have obscured the expression, the “poetics,” which was all to him.
If you look closely at one of the stills from Dust Radio: A Movie about Chris Whitley, you’ll see a book of poems by Pierre Reverdy on the floor next to Chris’s guitars. Other books litter the room, on the chair and table.
Listen to a short series of interviews (on-line or as inserted below) in which Chris discusses the visceral feelings he tried to capture in his music. The interviews were a look back on his musical journey as Long Way Around: An Anthology 1991-2001 was released.
Below are two poems that Chris acknowledged as being the inspiration for two of his albums: “Terra Incognita” and “Soft Dangerous Shores.” If you want to learn more about these poets or to read more of their work, check out the links at the bottom of the page.
“Terra Incognita” — Charles Simic
[from Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Connell]
America still waits to be discovered. Its tramps and poets
resemble early navigators setting out on journeys of
exploration. Even in its cities there are still places left
blank by map makers.
This afternoon it’s a movie house, which, for some
reason, is showing two black-and-white horror films. In
them the night is always falling. Someone is all alone
someplace they shouldn’t be. If there’s a house, it must
be the only one for miles around. If there’s a road, it
must be deserted. The trees are bare, or if they have
leaves, they rustle darkly. The sky still has a little gray
light. It is the kind of light in which even one’s own
hands appear unfamiliar, a stranger’s hands.
On the street again, the man in a white suit turning
the corner could be the ghost of the dead poet Frank O’Hara.
“The Writings Depart” — Andre Breton
The satin of pages we turn in books bodies forth a
woman so beautiful
That when we aren’t reading we contemplate this
Without daring to speak to her without daring to tell
her that she’s
That what we’re going to find out is priceless
This woman passes imperceptibly in a rustling of
Sometimes she turns around in the printed seasons
And asks the time or even pretends to look jewels
straight in the eye
The way real creatures don’t
and the world dies a break appears in the rings of the
A rip in the surface of the heart
The morning papers bring women singers whose
voices are the color
of sand on soft dangerous shores
And sometimes the afternoon papers make way for
very young girls
who lead animals on chains
But most beautiful of all is the space between certain
Where hands whiter than dog-eared stars at noon
Ravage a nest of white swallows
To make it rain forever
So low so low that their wings can’t mingle with it any
Hands which lead us to arms so delicate that the
meadow mist in its
graceful interlacing above the pools is their imperfect
Arms joined to none other than the amazing danger
of a body made
Whose belly summons detached signs of bushes full of
And which has nothing early about it but the
immense icy truth of
the sleighs of glances on the totally white expanse
Of what I’ll never see again
Because of a marvelous bandage
My own in the blindman’s bluff of wounds
Other Allusions to Poems
In the title track of this posthumous album, Susann Buerger reads a poem which the ATCW group has discussed without identifying the poem’s title. I’ve compiled that discussion in my blog post Reiter In Media.
Cut the Cards
For this track on Reiter In, Chris reads the poem “Inn” by Pierre Reverdy (inserted below). Joyce Peters’ review of the album captures the allure of this song:
“Cut the Cards” has a haunting, sweet melody during which Whitley hums, sings, and reads a Pierre Reverdy poem: “Death could happen/What I hold within my arms could slip away/A dream.” It was recorded on a child’s tape recorder on an outdoor porch so the feeling is intimate. He continues, “There’s a field where we still could run/Unlimited stars/And your shadow where the avenue ends, vanishes.” The melancholic mood is intensified by the woeful sounds of the violin and Whitley’s vocalizations.
Hotel Vast Horizon
This album title song snatches the last lines from Paul Eluard’s “The Castle of the Poor”
A long chain of lovers
Went out of the prison we’re used to.
becoming in Chris’s lyrics
A long trail of lovers
came out of the prison
it becomes a matter of habit*
after the season
Blues for André
Another nod to André Breton.
Update 2022-10-12 Just noticed that, introducing Cool Wooden Crosses at La Maroquinerie, Paris, 2002-06-17, Chris dedicates the song to Paul Eluard: