A few years ago, I launched an ATCW post to document song inspirations that (primarily) Hiroshi Suda and I had gleaned from reading articles and listening to bootlegs. Given that Facebook is a black hole into which old posts disappear, I’m using this blog post to catalog our efforts (including a few ATCW members’ aspirations re what may have inspired Chris).
No doubt, as Matt Keating said when I asked him about the lyrics to his tribute to CW “They Came in May,” a song is never about ONE thing. But, in his introductions to songs in his live sets and in interviews, Chris sometimes provided insights into what/who inspired a song.
Inspirations for Full Albums
Dirt Floor: “It’s kind of an isolated guy afraid of the modern world, displaced in urban stuff and trying to find his way in a disposable culture,” explains Whitley of the resulting album.
Din of Ecstasy: “From a musical vantage point, it was me going back to my roots. I felt Living with the Law didn’t have an edge that I always felt. With Din of Ecstasy, I went back to my teenage thinking of louder, aggressive and visceral. It was a power trio album. I was trying to articulate some edginess I grew up with like Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Cream, and The Doors. Also, I was breaking up with my wife of 13 years and dealing with my own morality issues. I realized that maybe a lightning bolt wouldn’t strike me if I split up with her. I was also madly in love with someone else at the time. I was asking myself a lot of questions like “What is my dogma about relationships? Why do people stay together when they’re not happy? Why is it called love when it’s a need? Why is it called sexual fulfillment when it’s just fucking?” That’s where the content for the album came from. It was a social response to a personal, intimate thing. I was trying to articulate all of that stuff, but I think I lost some people with that album because it wasn’t just a guy screaming out loud. The sound of the record itself resonated more with people than the impetus that motivated the writing. That might have resulted from my own musical indulgences. [Anil Prasad, Innerviews, p. 278]
Perfect Day: A friend of Chris notes that he spoke about wanting to do something to get away from the “Marlboro man image” he felt he was stuck with.
Rocket House: “I really wanted it to be gospel music from outer space.” [Whitley ‘Rockets’ to Outer Space By: Simmonsen, Derek | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 7, 2001 ]
Since the release of his still-revered postmodern blues debut, 1991’s Living With the Law, the onetime dirt-road traditionalist has trodden a sometimes-troubled career path. More interested in trying new sounds than delivering what his record label and fans seemed to expect, Whitley left Columbia/Sony Records in 1997, feeling “very frightened” and unsure about his future in the music business.
“I’m not very confident, so feeling doubted really affected me,” Whitley, who now lives in Dresden, Germany, recalls. “No one seemed interested in my GOSPEL FROM ANOTHER PLANET [emphasis added]. I didn’t fit in, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.” [http://archives.citypaper.net/art…/110101/mus.chrisw.shtml ]
War Crime Blues: “I actually put out War Crime Blues more than a year ago in Europe,” Whitley says. “It wasn’t written around these elections at all. Really, I didn’t even know what was inspiring it. Looking at it now, a lot of it was living in Dresden and being an American and feeling my own awareness of — or lack of — history. At the same time, the World Trade Center came down, and I guess I started to ask questions. I woke up one morning in Dresden — which we bombed the shit out of (in WWII), remember — and looked out the window on September 12th at this empty lot with an American flag at half-mast and all these candles around it. I thought it was Martin Luther King Day or something…we bombed the shit out of this city, and there’s this American flag at half-mast for the World Trade Center! It kind of shocked me — my own sort of American isolatedness, if you will. A lot of that went into the record. I can’t really write that sort of thing well, that topical shit. I mean, I can’t do it honestly. Bob Marley could do it. Sting does it and it sounds ridiculous — like rhetoric. And it’s way too important to sound like rhetoric. You can’t turn it into jive or sloganeering.” [from Expatriate Act]
Soft Dangerous Shores: From an interview with the Bellingham Herald, “What Whitley says he’s really excited about is “Soft Dangerous Shores,” another new CD due in February. It couldn’t be more different from the red-dirt sounds that made the Texas-born singer a name for himself. How he describes it: “melancholic,” “electronic,” “like a 1960s British romance movie,” “recorded with a German trip-hop group.” “Not at all rock.” “Pretty.”
Inspirations for Individual Songs
Alien: The song “Alien” came out of a session of people-watching in New York over coffee one morning. “(I was) watching people go to work – and I relate to this – how vulnerable people seem to feel and how much defenses are up, how uncool it is to be yourself. You notice it a lot in the city – big boots and black leather jackets – it’s so much like, `defend yourself.’ Anytime I’m in New York, I fall right into it. You get alienated from yourself, from your base.” [source]
Serve You & Breaking Your Fall: In live sets, Chris often introduced these songs as being “for Trixie.”
From a Photograph: Chris’s brother Dan provided the definitive inspiration for this one, at least for the “baby’s got a gun” lyric:
Well, the thing which actually prompted that line is an actual photo/picture which is in a restaurant in NYC [later identified as Shopsin’s, a NYC institution], in the photograph is Chris’ then ex-girlfriend holding a pistol pointed sorta towards the camera, it’s a framed black and white …they were breaking up at the time. Anyway, she was sorta making a statement when they split by giving this picture to the restaurant owner to put up on the wall so everyone could see it, sorta funny but sad, Chris had a hard time staying faithful, he was a total free spirit. Anyway, this deli/restaurant owner was like one of the family and his lil restaurant on the corner (off Morton St at the time) was a special spot since both I and Chris worked there as teenagers and it was like a home away from home whenever either one of us were in the city. So that’s basically how that came about.
Loco Girl: I can’t trace the exact source, but Chris introduced this song as having been written “for the barmaids at CBGB’s.” [Update: Thanks to Pat’s comment, I now know the exact source is 2005-03-30 Heritage Hotel (intro to track 11)]
Little Torch: for Valerie Stabenow (Sp? He notes this in the 2003 PBS broadcast)
Accordingly – “song for a cynical world” [Quasimodo show 1998-09-18]
LWTL,: Living in a basement apartment in a less-than-ideal neighborhood in NYC inspired that song. That his lyrics conjure up rural desert landscapes and lawless family members makes the metaphor pure Chris. During gigs, Chris sometimes introduced LWTL as an “urban folk song.” In another interview, Chris said, “With “Living With the Law”, my wife then, we’re divorced now, she was telling me the rules, and I came up with it. But I also saw the drug dealers on our block, and I was empathizing with immigrants who move to the city, and have to sell drugs to support their children. I relate to it on a spiritual level.”
Weightless: At the Snow Goose (Anchorage, AL) show, Chris introduced this song as written for a young woman he knew in Vermont who was having father issues.
Dirt Floor: In the Dust Radio doc, Chris discusses the song and the album and seems to say that “death” was not the theme. He says that, having been cut from Sony, he needed to keep moving and that he wanted to get back to fundamentals – that the production afforded by a record label had in some way made him lose sight of what was elemental and organic in his music. Thus, “there’s a dirt floor underneath here” can be seen as referring to his desire to cut through the crap and to return to a more basic kind of songwriting and recording.
From One Island to Another: In the Rock Troubadours interview, Chris compares Island to Din and says Island is one of his favorites: “It’s a jazz thing that I really like that’s hard. … I wanted to write something like a Nat King Cole song, like a jazz ballad…. I was scared a little bit when I first wrote it that I was being a little too colorful or something. I hear those kind of changes, the half steps and this kind of thing, a lot, but I try to avoid them because I think I might alienate people or be too guitar-indulgent.” “If I played those same voicings [in “Island”] in standard tuning or on an electric guitar, they’d get Holiday Inn-ish to me.”
- I forgot to include an Island anecdote from Donna M. Miller: Chris told her that, flying from NYC to a gig, his girlfriend/merch girl commented as they were landing at their destination, “We flew from one island to another.”
- David Biedny hears Chris channeling Hendrix.
Big Sky Country: “To me, “Big Sky Country,” was a Big Fake Prince Song.” [Poet Maudit interview 2004] “Big Sky Country” was somewhat inspired by the last frame of Wuthering Heights in which Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh’ ghosts romp through the heather [Vagabond Heart – Melody Maker]
Rocket House: An ATCW group member, Timothy J. Lane shared his aspiration that the inspiration for this song was a Simpsons reference — “Dear Lord, protect this rocket house and all who dwell within the rocket house.”
Wild Country: “a metaphor for innocence.” [USA Today March 1999]
Indian Summer: “But there is subject matter in Whitley’s music as well. “It’s so hard to get warm out, it’s so easy to get burned,” he sings on a blues to the homeless, “Indian Summer.” “I guess I’ve always sided with the working class and the underdog,” Whitley explains. “The less-than-glamorous people. The thought of being homeless as winter approaches is pretty heavy. “Maybe I’m just a dramatic. I grew up in a strange dichotomy. My parents were from art backgrounds, but my dad had the attitude that you were a man if you make money. My mom, the commerce part of it she can’t relate to at all. I lived with my mom most of the time, below the poverty level. Then I’d go visit my dad every weekend, every other weekend, and he’s working on Madison Avenue.” [USA Today March 1999]
Vertical Desert and Solid Iron Heart: “In the last four or five years I’ve become a lot less inspired by the singer-songwriter thing,” Whitley said by phone from his West Village apartment. “It’s still important to me; I still listen to Dylan. But I feel like in narrative songwriting that there are so many amazing songs, that there’s got to be some sort of new form. I try to do that [get beyond narrative] with a couple of songs on this record, ‘Vertical Desert’ and ‘Solid Iron Heart. …. I approached them as if I didn’t know what I was writing about. I wanted them to be slightly free or surrealist, where there wasn’t a specific idea in mind but rather something deeper. I get tired of songs about things; they’re the least challenging. I want to get some other kind of resonance that is broader and deeper than narrative.”
Automatic: “The song “Automatic” just popped out one day when I was wondering why I couldn’t have it so easy. It’s cynical, sardonic commentary on disposability and the paradox surrounding people who are afraid to love. [Beer Melodies]
Clear Blue Sky: “[CBS] was written in Belgium during the ’80s while I was in bed crashing with my ex-wife. I had just broke up my band and was ready to move back to New York. It’s a blues song with a swing beat. I just wish it built up heavier on record. I tried to make it white noise with a repetitive riff emulating a hip-hop John Lee Hooker.” [Beer Melodies]
Gasket: “[O]riginally my take on Industrial country jug band blues, [Gasket] has an inverted Howlin’ Wolf riff. It’s a modern greasy blues tune originally about how I never used condoms as a teen.” [Beer Melodies]
Phone Call from Leavenworth: “As far as “Phone Call From Leavenworth”, I was living in Europe at the time, a couple of years before I got signed. And I was trying out of desperation to write hit radio music, and I put myself in this block. The title came from James Taylor’s “Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd”, actually. It’s a song about being in a creative jail, where certain values put me in this creative jail. People take it literally, though. I mean, they’ve written me from jail!” [no source interview].
Ghost Dance: ‘Ghost Dance,’ a real standout on ‘War Crime Blues,’ features a driving slide guitar and evokes the spirit of the Native American warrior Sitting Bull, who led the1890 Sioux resistance against the U.S Army. The Sioux believed that performing the Ghost Dance ritual would help them triumph over the military. Sitting Bull is never referred to in the song. It’s all about nuance for Whitley. A casual reference that is up to the listener to pursue. Or not. [Joy Sculnick, NYTimes, WHITLEY WAXES PHILOSOPHICAL ON “WAR CRIME BLUES”]
Narcotic Prayer: “‘Narcotic Prayer’ is about expecting something from a relationship, on any level, that it can’t give you. You can only get it yourself, and it’s the most lonely thing you finally come upon at some point. I’ve done it so many times in different relationships, and I do it now.” [Press of AtlCity, 8-7-95]
During a 3rd & Lindsey performance, Chris calls NP “an urban folk number.”
During a 9:30 Club performance, Chris notes that NP was “written in the Pacific Northwest under delusionary influence, I’m sure” [statement appears at the end of the previous track “Power Down”]
“I made the mistake of using all these metaphors of addiction,” he says now. “I drank too much. I quit drinking recently … I never did heroin or anything … ‘Narcotic Prayer’ is really about wishing for something that’s almost a drug. Like wishing for the perfect relationship. A culturally induced thing you see in movies. A happily-ever-after kind of thing.” [ http://newsok.com/chris-whitley-unsettled-and-unb…/…/1926116]
New Machine: “I’ve often felt misunderstood when I use a relationship as a kind of metaphor in writing. Really, this song is inspired by my feeling like the media is running our culture, and because I’m a guy, I’m using a woman as the highest thing that shouldn’t be messed with. I’m not really into political songs unless you really feel it, and I can sing it and mean it a lot of the time if it’s a “her”‘ or a “you.” It’s not about a woman. My imagery is abstract while most of the lyrics in pop and folk music are kind of literal.” [Barnes & Noble interview]
Vertical Desert: We know that Chris was into the French Surrealist poets and Charles Simic and a few others. I doubt he read Wordsworth, but this excerpt from a blog notes that, either Chris DID read Wordsworth or perhaps channeled Wordsworth’s spirit …. Whichever, both hit upon “the weight of pleasure.”
[from Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book Two]
oh then the calm
And dead still water lay upon my mind
Even with a weight of pleasure, and the sky,
Never before so beautiful, sank down
Into my heart and held me like a dream.
Gorgeous. And I absolutely have to stop and talk about a song here because of that phrase, “weight of pleasure.” I’d heard it before:
If I care enough I will break your heart
Under the weight of pleasure
Different kinds of pleasure, I guess. Any Chris Whitley song is going to have an erotic element that I just don’t see so far in Wordsworth. Wordsworth found inspiration and transcendence in nature. Whitley found it… elsewhere. But the need to transcend- I see it everywhere. That’s what it’s all about.
Ultraglide: Ron Cooke suggests that ‘Ultraglide’ is a type of Harley Davidson motorcycle – “I have always assumed that this was the inspiration for the song – one of my favorites of his btw. As he was an avid motorbike guy in his youth, the song’s lyrics, though rather cryptic, take me on a ride with him…” Another ATCW member wrote “I’ve always thought that the song was about freedom from a materialistic world, ‘the glamour of the commodity’ = purchase power, wants, needs but things that aren’t necessarily required. ‘Got my licence for the flat earth, everything is arranged’ may refer to death in the way that no one can ultimately avoid it. It is written and a certainty that we will all die. Again, as Ron says, “Ultraglide = motorcycle = the open road = freedom from all the junk in life. So, in a nutshell, we’re all gonna die so forget the crap in life and live free of it. Just my take on it.”
Cut the Cards: Below is an English translation of the poem by Pierre Reverdy – one of Chris’s esteemed French Surrealists – that provides the “lyrics” to this song.
Fireroad (For Two): “One of the album’s most beguiling songs, “Fireroad (for two)” may usher in the disc with a bumping drum intro and otherworldly melody, but it retails a shadowy vision. Whitley says, “I’ve heard people’s stories, or maybe dreamed them after hearing so many similar things, of women standing on the glowing roads that led to Dresden with babies in their arms, watching the city burn after the bombing in World War II.” He adds, “On a far more mundane level, part of the song also refers to the Village here, where I grew up and which has mostly disappeared; at least its old revolutionary ethos has gone. The roads may be all lit up, but the city will never be the same and sometimes you want to escape.” [SDS reviewed by Bambarger]
To Joy: Somewhere (haven’t tracked down the source) Chris says that he was thinking about the joy of beginning his relationship with Susann. Also possibly a reference to the Bergman movie (1950) of the same name – Chris cited his interest in Ingmar Bergman in many interviews.
Insurrection at Newtown: “Newtown” refers to Neustadt, an area of Dresden known for its avant-garde clubs, etc. Heiko Hesh Schramm, bassist on Rocket House and later albums, recalls being with Chris when he wrote the song lyrics. Fluffy Hays Centner, Chris’s tour manager for Rocket House, HVH, and others, provided the following:
While I was living in Dresden Chris told me that it was a bunch of locals in Neustadt who inspired parts of the song. They didn’t like “yuppies” coming in & there was this (I think) hip coffee shop right on the corner of the street Chris was living on that had just opened and regularly the locals would break out the windows as if to say “we don’t want you & your type here” in our beautiful bohemian community. Heiko Hesh can probably confirm the type of shop. We never went in. It was very disliked in the Neustadt. To end on a positive note, it was across the street from this. Part of what Chris liked about Neustadt and what the locals were trying to protect. BEAUTIFUL.
Dust Radio: Not an inspiration per se, but Chris introduces this song as “post-modern gospel music” in his 1997-05-23 Fine Line Music Cafe set (https://archive.org/details/cw1997-05-23.LMA).