In December 2014, Classic Rock magazine published “Fallen Angel: The Life and Death of Chris Whitley” [see online edition here]. In preparation for that article, the author, Paul Rees, contacted Jeff Lang via email to solicit some of Jeff’s comments and memories. Only a few snippets of Jeff’s response were included in the article, but Jeff has graciously shared the full set of questions and his responses, which are provided below.
Many thanks to Jeff for his generous spirit and for his beautiful statements about Chris.
[W]hen he started singing, you could hear the air suck out of the room ….
When did you first become aware of Chris’ music and what attracted you to it?
I was living in Sydney in 1993 and Chris was about to tour here. His album Living With the Law had received a bit of attention in Australia, but I was basically living in a van at the time and hadn’t heard of him until a friend of mine who knew my taste in music told me that I should try and see him. Said “I think you’ll like this guy.” So I went along to a Tuesday night show at a club called The Basement and this ultra-thin, wiry guy in a singlet with an incredibly beat-up looking National guitar slung super-low walked out. He had a sort of twitchy intensity about him, but when he started singing you could hear the air suck out of the room. It was just incredibly intense, raw but not low-brow, with an identifiable blues element and a Dylanesque way with lyrics but put together in a way that was hard to put your finger on. I remember processing the gig the next day and saying to my mate who’d recommended I go along that I didn’t know what I’d call that music. That he was solo and created such a strong-yet-hushed mood made quite an impression.
Can you recall first meeting him and what your impressions were?
Sure can – it was the very next night after I saw him. I was playing a Wednesday night graveyard shift from 2-5 am in Kings Cross, Sydney’s red-light district, when between sets a lady came up and said there’s a guy who likes what you’re doing and wants to say hi. “Have you heard of Chris Whitley?” I replied that he’d just knocked me sideways the night before. “Well he’s just over at that table”. He was really sweet and complimented my sound, encouraged me with my singing. I mentioned that I was thinking of driving down to Wollongong (1 1/2 hours away) to catch his next show as some mates of mine were opening for him. He said I should bring my guitar, which I did. We played Robert Johnson’s “Stones In My Passway” as the encore and stayed in touch ever since.
How did you get to know him better and what were the most vivid things you came to learn about him?
I just gave him a call from time to time, and caught up with him when I was in NYC if he was around. That’s the way with the criss-crossing intersections of musician friends: you catch up sporadically but you pick right up where you left off. I learned that Chris was at times his own harshest critic – a common trait amongst artists – and that he would swing between a sort of quiet determination to stay on his true course and a serious questioning of whether his music was of genuine worth to anyone else. Not easy things to get answers for.
He seemed very much a musician’s musician: would that be accurate?
It’s funny, Chris never saw what he did as very ‘musicianly’ you know? He described his guitar style as ‘clumsy’, his use of open tunings as ‘pragmatic’. I think he knew he was onto something with his poetic lyrics but musically he didn’t rate himself. I actually found the things he had reservations about in his sound to be very attractive – his guitar style was really raw-sounding, yet harmonically adventurous, he had such an alluring, hard-to-pin-down way of writing where his vocal melodies, guitar playing and songwriting were so inextricably tied together that it was hard to separate them. I think for some his sound was a little abstract possibly, but I know a LOT of musicians who adore Chris’ music, love how singular his approach was. I sure do. He had quite an effect on people who saw him out here on that first tour. I’ve spoken to many musicians who came to those shows and were blown away.
And also a gentle, but troubled soul: again, is that fair or too simplistic?
In some ways that is true. I certainly went through a few nights with Chris that I won’t forget in a hurry. It’s hard to watch a friend face down their demons in front of you and come off second-best, you know? But I’m glad I was there those times, I wouldn’t have liked him to be on his own going through those sort of things. It sounds corny but the road can be a very lonely place and it’s easy to think yourself into a dark corner in some hotel room with nothing but your own brace of daggers to knife yourself with. I only hope it helped him to have a buddy there. I’d hate people to think it was all darkness with him though. He wasn’t the most jokey guy I knew, but he was very sweet, good humoured, enjoyed a good laugh and was very intelligent company. Quite a deep thinker.
Straight after he finished Dirt Floor – which I rate as a masterpiece, I asked him how he felt about it, and he said he begged the producer Craig Street to destroy the tapes!
You made the Dislocation Blues record together in 2005: how would you describe the experience and what do you most recall about it?
Chris suggested us making a recording together when I played a few shows opening for him in Oregon, Washington and Alaska in late 2004. It surprised me at first because I never imagined he’d ask. I certainly didn’t listen to any of his albums and think “He should get ME to play with him!” Haha! But he meant it and in early 2005 his partner Susann and I started working out when it could happen and where. We decided on him coming to do a small tour to allay the costs of travel and recording in my home city of Melbourne.
He had a nice run of shows where Susann was with him before she went back to Germany. Then Chris came to Melbourne and stayed in a hotel while I was over in Western Australia playing at a festival. When I came back a couple of days before recording was due to start, I discovered to my concern that he’d been drinking wine for pretty much three days solid – not a good way to start! He came back to my home for the two days prior to recording and got himself back together, thankfully, before we commenced recording.
I had a couple of great, intuitive players come in to play as the rhythm section, and, once we started, the album took shape really easily. Chris and I had worked out many of the songs we were going to tackle beforehand, and had made some work tapes of some of the songs in hotel rooms in the States so we’d prepared a little. We’d also discussed the mixture of traditional songs, some cover tunes and reworkings of older material like Rocket House and Velocity Girl. The evening after the first day’s recording I was playing around with a fret-less banjo and Chris wrote the lyrics to Motion Bride as I played the riff. We also had a huge free-form jam on day two that became the song Underground.
I recall that, just before we started, he insisted that I produce the recording rather than the two of us, which surprised me as I’d assumed it would be a joint effort. But he said that he never had faith in his ability when he was recording, that he’d always doubt that what he’d done was any good. Straight after he finished Dirt Floor – which I rate as a masterpiece, I asked him how he felt about it, and he said he begged the producer Craig Street to destroy the tapes! So I agreed that perhaps it would be best if he didn’t helm the sessions after all. Haha! His only mixing comments were that his own voice be mixed lower and made to sound ‘thinner’ and ‘harsher’. I wasn’t keen on obscuring the beauty of his voice and he just chuckled and said “Okay Jeff, that’s what Craig Street says to me too…”
How close and in touch did you remain with each other after that?
We spoke a few times after that, just after I sent him the mixes was the final time. He was a bit drunk, at his apartment in New York City, and we spoke for a few hours with the album blaring on repeat in the background. He loved how it had come up, had convinced himself that me and the band had played great but that he had been awful and was really relieved and pleased that this wasn’t the case. It was the last time we spoke, but he was happy and loved the record we’d made. We spoke about the possibility of doing more in the future.
Do you know if he got increasingly frustrated or fatalistic about the music business and his place in it? Or did he ever find a state of grace that you know of?
I think he was a bit frustrated with where he’d ended up. Hell, I was frustrated for him; I felt he was one of the really great ones and that more people should know it. The way I see it is that he was torn somewhat between his discomfort at what he’d experienced when Sony was giving him a decent push with Living With the Law and his desire for his music to resonate with people, which can only happen of course if they HEAR it. He certainly wasn’t about to compromise on his vision and I admire him for that.
When did he most blow you away?
He always did. I guess that first time was a strong hit as I had zero preconceptions, but there were many times that his avant-blues songs took my breath away, The set he played with me in Anchorage Alaska in 2004 was a really beautiful, haunting, sad gig that I’ll never forget. [You can listen to Chris’ set here.]
And when did you see him most lit up and inspired?
In 1997 I saw him with his band at the Knitting Factory in NYC. Terra Incognita was the current album and the show started with his daughter Trixie dancing next to him, which she did for the entire set. He kept looking down with such immense love and pride at his little girl next to him – she was just going for it, really expressive and unself-consious. That was the happiest I saw him performing. He was glowing, and the music was amazing. [You can listen to the Knitting Factory set here.]
When did you first learn that he was ill and that he had passed?
I heard he was seriously ill five weeks before he died. It was horrible news, but with hindsight the signs were there that he was not well when we toured in late 2004 – he had a really dreadful, hacking cough all the time that was getting hard for him to control. By the time I heard he was gravely iIl, it was too late for me to talk to him, he was too far gone. Coincidentally I was playing a run of some of the last places we’d played together in Australia that weekend, so I just played out some songs for my friend and thought of him a lot from the other side of the world.
What did Chris mean to you?
He was and remains one of those people who are like a lighthouse, an artistic beacon for us all, true to himself, true to his art.
What do you think or hope that ultimately his legacy will be?
I would love to see his work get some belated recognition amongst the wider public. Good is good, great is great and his records will always sound great, so it’ll always be ripe for discovery. I hope it happens.
Listen to Jeff’s Salty Dog (Australian radio show) interview re Dislocation Blues:
Listen to Jeff’s podcast re Dislocation Blues: