Everyone knows who discovered America, right? Good ol’ Christopher Columbus. Blaaaaaaaattt! goes the buzzer. Wrong answer! Correct answer – Amerigo Vespucci, which is why the continents are called North and South America.
The same sort of PR job has obscured who first ‘discovered’ Chris Whitley. Almost every article about Chris notes the role of Daniel Lanois, famed musician and U2 record producer, in Chris’s road to a musical career. Certainly, Lanois was a very important part of that journey — someone with contacts in the music industry who could make things happen and did. But most journalists overlooked or barely acknowledged (e.g., “a Belgian travel agent”) the person who helped set Chris out on that road. Dirk Vandewiele was that person, in addition to being a life-long friend.
As Dirk notes,
“I’m an amateur musician; professionally I got in the travel business by accident, which took me many times to New York City. On a trip in 1980, I saw and heard Chris Whitley playing in Washington Square Park. His voice and his sound blew me away: I was deeply touched by Chris’ very personal way of singing and playing guitar. So after his performance, I spoke to him and we had a beer together. After my return to Belgium, we kept in contact by phone and writing as this was before the internet. On my next trip to NYC, I got Chris an airline ticket to Belgium and he stayed in my house for 2 months.”
Chris lived with the Vandewieles (including Dirk’s wife, Lieve, and 3-year-old daughter, Melissa), while Dirk lined up solo appearances at local clubs and festivals and helped garner publicity for the young American. Dirk also introduced Chris to fellow musicians and helped him feel welcome in his new old world. One assumes that Chris was the adventurous sort, having struck out from a small town in Vermont for the streets of New York City. Nonetheless, anyone in a foreign country for the first time depends on the kindness of strangers to settle in. And Dirk and his family were very kind friends.
Over time, Dirk tried to interest Belgian music promoters in Chris’s unique sound. But most failed to recognize Chris’s talent or deemed it unmarketable until years later when Chris came back touring Europe under contract with Sony Music and playing major cities.
The Americas are not called the Columbias because Columbus didn’t know what he had found; he thought he had landed in Asia. It was Amerigo Vespucci who understood that he had found a “new world.” Just as Dirk Vandewiele knew, ten years before anyone else caught on, that he had discovered a new sound: not readily categorized, not easily marketed. Unique! And, as Chris Whitley fans, we celebrate that uniqueness and appreciate Dirk’s support of and belief in that talent.