When a previously unreleased version of the late Chris Whitley’s Din of Ecstasy came to my attention, it was like accidentally unearthing a manuscript from the Dead Sea Scrolls of my personal narrative. Hyperbolic as that may sound, I’ve clutched nearly every one of those songs like a pillow at some crucial point in my life. It’s a potent companion to longing, sexual frustration, betrayal, repressed anger, isolation, and the vast congregation of our unconscious. Which is where Chris was always living and working. In the liner notes to Din, he characterized the record as a collection of “psychosexual, socio-spiritual love songs …” I’m not sure he ever stopped writing those—until he himself stopped, that is.
As a songwriter, Whitley often remarked and even sang of his disinterest in the literal, the apparent, the peripheral. “I never cared about your politics/ or your dumb-ass semantics/ all them other fucked side-effects/ of course if I could touch you there, sister/ if I could reach you there …” This arc toward minimalism, this relentless pursuit of the essential, was born out in a variety of ways. Whitley began on major labels backed by session players and ended, at least in one instance, by revisiting those same songs with a single guitar and mic in his bathroom. It was a satisfying “fuck you” to label abandonment and a gift to fans who longed for what many regarded as the definitive versions. The excitement of a new Chris Whitley record was, at least in part, the anticipation of how he would whittle a complex band recording like Rocket House down to a solo guitar performance, to be given access to the primal pulse of those songs. Even in the solo live context, his arrangements became increasingly skeletal and elliptical, flirting with their collapse into incoherence, exploring just how many notes “Big Sky Country” needed to stand on its own. And, finally, there was Chris Whitley’s relationship to his own body. His final shows in 2005 revealed a fatigue and fragility seldom if ever seen from him on stage. The austerity of his art had, perhaps inevitably, achieved a dangerous embodiment.
While often expressed in tortured ways, Chris Whitley embodied more vitality than austerity. Poet Jack Gilbert called it “greed for what’s inside yourself.” And if cultivating that greed, as Whitley did, isn’t a central human calling, then I don’t know what is. But for that reason, it is a perilous enterprise. Do anything else—invent amazing stuff, solve epic problems, start a new religion. Just don’t relate to yourself with fascination. Don’t think there’s anything to discover in there. Don’t embark on what Walker Percy called “the search.” Because once you reach that critical mass, you start vanishing from the grid of spiritual death. And then you are really its enemy.
In spite of what many closest to him witnessed firsthand and the rest of us absorbed anecdotally through the press, I am convinced that it was not the filter-less cigarettes and booze that killed Chris Whitley. Not strictly speaking. And if we want to speak of Chris Whitley, the man who compulsively interrupted his own songs mid-performance to request an impossibly nuanced sonic tweak (“Ken, could you make the vocals a little thinner”), then a certain strictness and precision is appropriate. No, these so-called vices—of which Whitley had more than a few—are moralized decoys for the deeper machinations of death to which we are all subject. “The New Machine is all around,” he warned us, speaking of perhaps the one enemy he ever made. To speak truth to power and to live and perform as dissidents in an empire of market assimilation, as Whitley did, is tantamount to sitting in the crosshairs. It will provoke fatal hostility, whether it’s a single shot or systematic starvation the likes of which Whitley endured for more than 20 years in an industry molesting artistic integrity in every way imaginable. Most days I don’t even pretend to have the courage and fortitude to be alive in that way. But I do try to bear witness to the difference.
Chris Whitley may have hastened his own death. That much I can concede. It is a difficult part of my remembrance of him and abiding grief a decade hence. But it is truer still that he has hastened my living. How very much I want him to know that.