Musical Influences and Covers: Other Recordings

Also indicative of musicians Chris Whitley admired are those he chose to cover on Dirt Floor, War Crime Blues, and Reiter In, as well as his invited participation on three tribute compilations:

The Inner Flame: A Tribute to Rainer Ptacek

Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie.

Super Bad @ 65:  A Tribute to James Brown

On Dirt Floor

Kraftwerk: Das Model

But Dirt Floor’s European version did include a few tunes that redefined the notion of what blues can and can’t be — including a banjo version of German techno-band Kraftwerk’s “The Model.” “I was originally going to put that one on the American version, but then I figured everyone would think it was ironic, a joke,” he notes. [Marsha Barber, “Stripped Down and Dirty”]

But perhaps most illustrative of Whitley’s unique invention is his cover of Kraftwerk’s “The Model,” as he transforms the satiric electro-pop original into elegiac social commentary. [Billboard, 10 June 2000]

bn: Does that also go for “The Model,” another song that is a devastation of some women?

CW: I look at it as the opposite. I hear a lot of women and my mom complain about the media looking to models as icons. I am not attracted to that picture- perfect young woman at all, and that’s what the song is about. It is dark as hell, but I feel that this song, which [was written] 20 years ago, is more pertinent now.  “Poison Girl” has also been misunderstood. I grew up with a sculptor mom (a single mom), hearing her side of things a lot. I don’t want to approach songs intellectually. It’s hard to get away from the loneliness thing with a woman because it’s kind of a spiritual springboard. It’s also trying to be honest and get at something poetic. Aesthetically, the men-with-guitars image has been used up.  [Barnes & Noble interview]

Kraftwerk’s original: 

Chris’s cover:

 On War Crime Blues

Loosely conceptual, it includes a trio of seemingly disparate covers – Lou Reed’s “I Can’t Stand It,” the Clash’s “The Call Up” and the Nat King Cole standard “Nature Boy” – that provide narrative guideposts upon which Whitley hangs his own songs: There’s the seed of discontent in the misery, solitude and addiction of Reed’s composition, the Clash call for breaking destructive cycles, while “Nature Boy” finds the exchange of love as the fundamental lesson at the end of life’s travel.  [Andrew Dansby, “Heavy Mettle Guitarist,” The Houston Chronicle, 09 Jan 2005]

War Crime Blues features eight new cuts and three covers. There’s Lou Reed’s “I Can’t Stand It,” The Clash’s “The Call Up” from Sandinista and the jazz standard “Nature Boy.” If any lingering doubts existed as to Whitley’s abilities—as either a brilliant and original songwriter, or as a bona fide American bluesman in the tradition handed down from the American South—this disc should eliminate them. [Thom Jurek, Paste Magazine]

Whitley’s current release, ‘War Crime Blues,’ is a masterful, subtle meandering on how the wars in the Middle East have affected him as an artist, which is to say that you will not hear any grand political statements or anything of the sort. Instead, Whitley’s songwriting considers the possible deeper causes of war and aggression. …. There are things on that record that are trying to respond to war or that kind of ‘us against them’ aggressiveness…There seems like so much male aggression and frustration that’s trying to be expressed.” Whitley wonders if the underlying motivation for the war is not political after all. “I’m not trying to present answers or something with that record but I do feel that it’s bigger than just ‘Take their guns away’ or ‘Make their laws more reasonable’ or ‘Is it the heroin trade from Afghanistan?’ It’s not all politics. It’s something human underneath that motivates, that creates these politics.”  [Joy Sculnick, ”Whitley Waxes Philosophical on WAR CRIME BLUES,” The New York Times, March 12, 2004]

Chris Whitley is alone with his guitar and his stamping foot on “War Crime Blues” (Messenger) …. With his slurred voice and the lurching propulsion of his bluesy slide guitar, Mr. Whitley has come to sound like a haggard, desolate wraith, carrying tidings from some private inferno. The album is not a manifesto; it’s a meditation on mortality that occasionally touches on day-to-day concerns, as when Mr. Whitley sings a stark, subdued version of “The Call Up” by the Clash. His own songs, like “Invisible Day” and “War Crime Blues,” envision an endless, open-ended war without victors, and they are simply harrowing. [Jon Pareles, NY Times. September 9, 2004]

War Crime Blues is solo acoustic as well, but it makes a hell of a racket. Recorded completely live without overdubs of any kind, Whitley accompanies himself on bottleneck guitar and stomping board. There are eight new cuts here, and three covers: Lou Reed’s “I Can’t Stand It,” the Clash’s “The Call Up From Sandinista,” and the jazz standard “Nature Boy.” If there were any lingering doubts as to Whitley’s abilities as either a brilliant and original songwriter, or as a bona fide American bluesman in the tradition handed down from the American South, this disc should eliminate them for all but the most ignorant. [Thom Jurek, All Music Guide]

With War Crime Blues, keynoted by a cover of The Clash’s “The Call-Up,” you hear Chris Whitley more like you are used to him, as if possessed by his music; you might argue the album would benefit by some more focused production, but Whitley’s music thrives on suggestion in both lyric, melody and performance; to make it more literal might well destroy much of its attraction. As he commented early on February 18th, there were wars going on that render Grammy awards meaningless. The impact of his music on this album, whether an original like the stark “Made From Dirt” or Lou Reed’s “I Can’t Stand It,” becomes magnified upon repeated listenings, but especially when rendered live by the man himself, a somewhat spectral figure who creates charisma through his songs rather than by the way he dresses. [Doug Collette, All About Jazz]

It would seem impossible to capture on tape the determined genius that Chris Whitley has displayed in his recent solo performances. Yet this album — akin to a field recording — nails the Zen-like flow of improvisation, introspection, social perspective, and poetic and instrumental virtuosity he’s been detonating with uncanny regularity on stage. It’s subtle and outrageous. Subtle in that its images of ghosts and scarred romantics begin stacking up like flash cards of protest against the current wave of inhumanity cutting deep into the heart of the world, from Iraq and the Middle East, from Afghanistan, from Bosnia, and from Washington. Outrageous in the wicked flash of his resonator-guitar playing in numbers like “Dead Cowboy Song,” which walks the line between deep blues and modernist dissonance with edgy power, and in the relentless whispering intonations and wraith-like moaning he uses to deliver his messages. [Ted Drozdowski, Boston Phoenix]

Lou Reed (Velvet Underground):  I Can’t Stand It

Whitley’s cover of Reed’s “I Can’t Stand It” is ragged, switchblade rock done on a distorted solo acoustic guitar with organic foot-stomping percussion that shudders through the speakers. [Thom Jurek, All Music Guide]

Velvet Underground’s original: 

Chris’s cover: 

The Clash:  The Call Up

“[W]ith its hunted witness to ghosts, and evil and loss-saturated shadows, those left alive are the lost, and those who have returned from conquests have experienced victory as emptiness and grief, which is underscored by his devastating cover of “The Call Up,” an anti-conscription song written by the Clash in response to the Falklands War: the track takes on even more critical focus in light of the current involvement of the United States in Iraq. [Thom Jurek, All Music Guide]

The Clash original: 

Chris’s cover: 

Nat King Cole:  Nature Boy

The closing cover of “Nature Boy” is a recording of singular resonance, revelation and perfection. Whitley delivers the standard a capella in a deep voice that hardly sounds like his own. It’s haunting and hopeful and timeless, and not only does the cover make good on his promise to meddle with stereotypes, it also shuns any peg to style or genre, blues or otherwise. It also disappears in a flash, a whispered urge to start this fantastic album over again and have it lull you into thinking you know where Whitley’s creative spirit is today, when he’s already taken steps toward tomorrow. [Andrew Dansby]

The set ends on a haunting note with an a cappella rendition of “Nature Boy,” and Whitley surprises us again, this time as an effective, nuanced, interpretive ballad singer. Whitley is a bluesman, pure and simple, and the evidence lies in his songs. [Thom Jurek, Paste Magazine]

Whitley, however, had not heard the story of Eden Ahbez [see photos here with Nat King Cole and here], the proto-hippie who wrote the huge Nat King Cole hit, ‘Nature Boy,’ which Whitley covers on ‘War Crime Blues.’ In the 1940s, Ahbez espoused hippie philosophy years before the term was coined. He shunned a traditional lifestyle, choosing instead to live in a Los Angeles park and lecture on mysticism on street corners. ‘Nature Boy’ is the sweet, innocent tale of “a very strange enchanted boy” who muses that the “fairest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” For various reasons, Cole sat on the song for a few months before recording it. When he did decide to go ahead, the rights for the song had to be secured first. A search began to locate the homeless Ahbez, who, so the legend goes, was finally found camping out under the first ‘L’ in the Hollywood sign.

Whitley laughs out loud, saying numerous times, “That’s a great story…I loved that song. I’ve always loved it…And the last day of recording, I woke up in the morning, and the first thought was, ‘I have to do ‘Nature Boy.’ …. Sung a cappella, Whitley’s version of ‘Nature Boy’ is stunning in its simplicity and beauty. Completed in two takes, Whitley says, “I’d never sung it before. I had no idea.” He says he is not fully happy with the result. “I still feel like I would love to do it again…I know I could sing it better because I didn’t try. It was the second take. The engineer said, ‘Great.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, ok.’ If I didn’t have the engineer’s perspective at the moment, I would have kept trying to make it better and it probably would have gotten less resonant with my technical limitations.” …. Whitley describes his interpretation of ‘Nature Boy’ as “just purely a naïve innocent response.” In the end, Whitley feels it is this ‘naïve innocent response’ that yields the greatest music. Whether it’s Nirvana or Iggy Pop or the early Mississippi blues of Robert Johnson, Whitley says that what these artists all share is a raw feeling, a need for self-expression that runs deeper than our intellect, down to a primitive place where we are most human.  [Joy Sculnick-NYTimes]

The biggest surprise is an a cappella reading of the Nat King Cole hit “Nature Boy,” which leaves the realm of fantasy under Whitley’s control and becomes a prayer for love and innocence. [Ted Drozdowski, Boston Phoenix]

Nature Boy” …, presented as a brief a cappella rendering, closes the set in the guise of a human-scaled prayer. [No Depression]

Nat King Cole’s original: 

Chris’s cover: 

On Reiter In

If you never visited Chris’ work while he was with us, this is a great starting point. In addition to a few originals, there are a few more covers that help give you a taste of how deep and wide his roots were. There aren’t many people that can cover the Stooges, Willie Dixon (”Bring It On Home”), the Flaming Lips (”Mountain Side”) and the Passions (”I’m In Love With A German Film Star”) in the same record so well. In fact, I wonder if we’ve seen the last of the guys who could really do it. [Steve Ciabattoni, Country Music Journal]

Flaming Lips:  Mountain Side

Thanks to Maarten Demetter, we know that Chris highly recommended The Flaming Lips’ In a Priest Driven Ambulance, on which this track appeared.   Thom Jurek [All Music Guide] could barely contain his enthusiasm for Chris’ cover:  “The cover of the Flaming Lips’ “Mountain Side” is just F***in’ awesome. It many ways it tops the original with Whitley’s screaming electric slide playing tearing up the tune from the inside, it sounds like the voice of the mountain calling out of itself. This track just roars, and Whitley’s voice holds authority over the din.”

The disc’s highlight is a magnificently raw version of the Flaming Lips’ “Mountain Side” that finds Whitley’s blistering guitar licks and raucous vocals at their most urgent.  [Anil Prasad, Guitar Player]

And then a quick whirr of tape and they launch into a monumental cover of the Flaming Lips’ “Mountain Side,” which sounds more like they’re adapting Zeppelin circa “When the Levee Breaks” at first than the Lips. Everything thus far has been entertaining, but “Mountain Side” is essential, the band powering in around Whitley’s guitar and voice. [Stylus]

The Flaming Lips original: 

Chris & the Bastard Club’s cover: 

 The Stooges:  I Wanna Be Your Dog

Opening with the Stooges classic “I Wanna Be Your Dog” with a distorted, plodding, raucous, so-loose-it-almost-falls-apart in the beginning as Whitley’s electric guitar playing is over the damn edge. The vocals aren’t spectacular — they don’t have to be — but the vibe is. The track is pure sexual darkness in overdrive. That kind of libertine darkness, held close in so many of his own songs, is let out of the bag here and it makes no apologies and takes no prisoners. Restraint is cast to the dustbin, but the tune just sort of ends, falls apart as if the band is completely spent after playing it. [Thom Jurek, All Music Guide]

There’s also a fascinating remake of the Stooges’ classic “I Wanna Be Your Dog” – dissonant, grungy, and crunchy by the end. Rock and roll for the apocalypse. [Vintage Guitar]

Reiter In opens with a thunderous take on the Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog.  He stirs up a murky cloud of feedback not heard since his bridge-burning 1995 album, Din of Ecstasy. [Andrew Dansby, Houston Chronicle, 03 September 2006]

The Stooges original: 

Chris & the Bastard Club’s cover: 

Willie Dixon:  Bring It on Home

It’s followed by a too-loose reading of Willie Dixon’s “Bring It On Home.” Whitley was first and foremost a blues player; though it’s true he invented his own kind of rusted American desert blues. Here, he tries to play it straight, and his thin, raspy voice is no match for the drunken slippage of the guitars. [Thom Jurek, All Music Guide]

Willie Dixon’s original: 

The Bastard  Club’s cover doesn’t sound remotely like Willie Dixon, so I went searching for a cover that might be closer to what the BC produced.  It seems that Chris’s early affection for Led Zepellin came through in the BC cover – thus, a cover of LZ’s cover of Willie Dixon.

Led Zepellin’s cover: 

Chris & the Bastard Club’s cover: 

The Passions:  I’m in Love with a German Film Star

“a messed-up thudding, nightmarish rock version of the Passions’ “I’m in Love with a German Film Star,” with spooky vocals by Whitley and Gwen Snyder.”  [Thom Jurek, All Music Guide]

The Passions original: 

Chris & the Bastard Club’s cover: 

Gary Numan: Are Friends Electric?

Also here is a freakish, beautifully paranoid, electric guitar blaze-out version of Gary Numan’s “Are Friends Electric” that turns the tune into something else entirely. Whitley’s take on the lyric is so startling it’s as if the words had never been heard before; like he uncovers a hidden meaning in them as he stares into the void. But there is no morbidity in them at all. It’s life looking through the portal at its other side. [Thom Jurek, All Music Guide]

Gary Numan’s original:

Chris and the Bastard Club’s cover: 

Tribute Albums

Rainer Ptacek: Powder Keg

Howe Gelb produced the 2012 re-release of The Inner Flame: A Tribute to Rainer Ptacek on which Chris’ track appears and the earlier 1997 CD to help cover medical bills related to Rainer’s brain cancer:

But there is that missing track from [the first] Rainer’s ‘Inner Flame’ tribute cd, with Chris Whitley and Warren Zevon in a hotel room jamming to “Powder Keg”. You could hear the mini-bar depletion in that track, but it was a stunning vibe as you can imagine. At the last minute David Pirner put the kabash on the use of it since he had partaken in that on-the-fly recording as well and figured that maybe it might have been a take too hammered. There was no time to get him to check it out; the record was literally being mastered at that moment. We had to leave it off.

Thanks to Anders Halvorsen, here’s Rainer’s performance:

Here’s Chris jamming all-so-happily with Warren and Dave: 

Woody Guthrie: On the High Lonesome

I still recall when I first came across a “new” Chris Whitley track, six years after his passing.  What a thrill to find Chris doing a stunning song, “On the High Lonesome” on Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie.

Unable to find audio of Woody Guthrie singing this track, I searched for articles about the album.  Lo and behold, the reason I couldn’t find a Guthrie recording is that Guthrie NEVER recorded it!  All of the songs on Note of Hope feature Guthrie’s words – poems, essays, and diary entries that were never intended to be sung – but each musician composed his/her own sound to accompany the lyrics:

On The High Lonesome
Words by Woody Guthrie, text edit by Nora Guthrie, Music by Rob Wasserman and Chris Whitley
Excerpts from On The High Lonesome, 12/27/1943

Sometimes, just sometimes,
I seem to get on the high lonesome and if you don’t
Know what that old high lonesome is
Just take my advice
Don’t ever get on it.

High lonesome eats at you
All the time
All the time
The old high lonesome
Eats at you all the time

Now living with a woman
Can nags at you all the time
We keep tossing
It back and forth
Back and forth
Me one night
With the high lonesome
Her the next
With the high lonesome

I always wondered what
The high lonesome was
Till it caught me up side of the head then I knew
Then I knew

How does the high
Lonesome work :
Well I tell you
When she gets to wanting to make love to me then I get sore
Then when I want to hug her up a little
She’s gets a sore at me
When one of us felt like loving it up a little
It made the
Other one sore.

Now this is called getting
Hung up
Between a rock and a hard place

When I do she dont
When she will I wont
When I can she cant
When I shall she shan’t
It makes one
Sore as hell if the other one don’t
You know what I’m talking about
Just a hell of a dam shape,
And the way you feel
Is like you’re on
High lonesome.

Rob Wasserman, with whom Chris previously collaborated on Trios, worked with Guthrie’s daughter Nora to produce the album.  Wasserman noted that Chris’ track was “really a raw jam” [HuffPost] and that it was very “spontaneous”:  “We had just been playing with Bob Weir back in the day.  I introduced him to that whole world. So we’re just jamming and we did a tune that was a real improv thing, and basically after that we just jammed. It came out very raw and spontaneous” [American Songwriter].  One reviewer transformed his review of the album into a brief Chris Whitley tribute:  “[Among] the most haunting tracks … [is] the late Chris Whitley’s ‘On the High Lonesome.’ That star-crossed Southern man never really found his rightful place in the musical landscape before dying semi-young, but the luminous light he often cast onstage comes through loud and clear here”  [full article here].  In a news release announcing the forthcoming album release, the author commented that “Chris Whitley examines the jagged edges of a relationship in the breathtaking talking blues number On The High Lonesome,” recorded shortly before his death.”  More articles about this compilation can be found here.

Super Bad @ 65 – A Tribute to James Brown:  I Can’t Stand Myself

The brief review of this tribute album on AllMusic isn’t fond of Chris’s cover, noting that “the vast majority [of the covers], like … Chris Whitley’s ‘I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me),’ miss the target entirely.”  Chris seemed to think this cover represented a new direction:

Between shows, Whitley has been working up demos in New York for his next album, to be shopped around after it’s finished. The results will be different from anything he’s done thus far, he says. “It won’t be strictly solo, and I’m over male guitar bands. Right now, it’s National, drum loops, and vocal, like with ‘I Can’t Stand Myself,’ which I’m recording for a James Brown tribute record on Zero Hour. But who knows? I’m trying to establish a new vocabulary for myself, without any nostalgia.” [Billboard]

But the drum loops on this cover also point back to Chris’s years in Belgium, when he “quit playing slide guitar for about four years. Instead, I was spending my time working with a guitar synthesizer and a drum machine.” [Rolling Stone]

James Brown’s original: 

Chris’s cover: 




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