Some of these things you just can’t help taking personally, logic and reason be damned.
No critic has ever been so objective as to fully avoid having a favorite, an artist who so fully encapsulates and expresses what that critic feels to be the zeitgeist, the tenor of the times, or at least, who so clearly represents a potential way forward, as to become internalized in a subjective fashion.
Some artists just stand above and beyond the pale, and speak to us in a way we interpret as deeply personal. For me, Chris Whitley was one of these artists.
On Nov. 20, Whitley passed away at age 45, after a battle with lung cancer. He died surrounded by loved ones, including his 18-year-old daughter, Trixie, and brother, Daniel. And though Whitley, after the warm critical reception granted his 1991 debut, “Living With the Law,” was never really a commercial force, there is, in the wake of his death, a distinct feeling that something has been lost, that the music world has been robbed of a rare and precious talent.
I was lucky enough to spend time with Whitley on a few occasions — during his trips to Buffalo to perform for his small but loyal fan base here, and a number of times on the phone, to conduct interviews related to his recording projects. I found him to be a humble, thoughtful, intelligent and giving man. His talent, as made plain by the startlingly original, visceral and soulful body of work he leaves behind, was prodigious, but unlike so many in “the business,” he never acted like he thought he was hot stuff, never seemed to be seeking the spotlight, always behaved as if he felt that playing music was its own reward.
Of course, a fan’s relationship is never really with the artist himself, but always with that artist’s work, despite whatever illusions we may foster. And so it is that what fans of Whitley’s consistently sublime art have left following his passing is the music. And what a gift that is to those who’ve taken the time to befriend it.
A dear friend gave me Whitley’s debut as a birthday gift in 1991, shortly after the album’s release, with the caveat “It seems like something you’d love — like a cross between downbeat Springsteen and Bono.” He was right. I was instantly hooked on “Living With the Law,” a strikingly original collection of 21st century blues-informed songs rich in character, sketched with a literary bent that reminded me of the way Cormac McCarthy writes and informed by an eloquent language of the soul. You couldn’t quite put your finger on its blend of ethereality and stark, dusty, world-weary — if not downright bereft — realism. But it was immediately addictive.
Whitley released 10 albums after “Living With the Law,” to various degrees of commercial acceptance. I purchased every one on the day of release and studied them. This was necessary, because Whitley never did the same thing twice, even though sticking with the slightly roots-oriented style that brought “Living With the Law” so much praise would’ve pretty much guaranteed him more success, more money.
That was never his plan, though. In fact, the accolades heaped upon his debut seemed to really bother him, as if he was being lauded for an image that wasn’t really him. His second album, “Din of Ecstasy,” drove this point home. It was dense, loud, completely raw. And the National Steel guitar licks that encouraged some folks to label his debut “alt-country” or “nouveau-blues” had been replaced with blistering electric six-strings. It sounded like Johnny Winter fronting the Velvet Underground or Jimi Hendrix sitting in with King Crimson — take your pick. Columbia had no idea what to do with the record, since it fit no niche and was unlikely to appeal to the fans Whitley had picked up with “Living.”
“Din” disappeared, but Whitley had managed to deflate the hype, and now he was ready to release a string of records that would broaden his considerable musical vistas, would embrace everything from folk, blues, pop, ambient music, electronica and country, to German minimalism and some sort of hybrid outer-space blues. Every one of these records is worth owning. Most of them are full-on brilliant. One of them, the recently released “Soft Dangerous Shores,” will sadly be interpreted as a swan song. But it wasn’t really one. Whitley was just getting warmed up.
It’s easy to be angry about Whitley’s death, because it’s so clear he had so much more to give. But perhaps it’s fitting that Whitley’s songs were always populated by angels, by disembodied spirits whose presence was as real to him as that of any corporeal being. This ensures that his music will endure long after he’s gone to join their ranks.