Because “straight from the horse’s mouth” is my preferred way of understanding Chris and his music, I’ve gathered some of Chris’s musings about each of these albums below. I’ve also included excerpts from some of my favorite reviews. To read the full articles, reviews, and interviews from which these excerpts were taken, go here.
War Crime Blues
I feel like all of my records have a little conceptual value. Every record I’ve made has a landscape, atmosphere, place, or specific melancholic feeling I’m trying to relate. I always have a slant and on this one it’s the personal as political. I started War Crime Blues about a year after September 11th. I actually flew into New York City on September 13th that year. I saw a negative grace develop out of the attacks that’s mostly related to fear and ignorance because we had no previous reference point to someone hating us that physically.
The record came out of me wanting to respond honestly to the situation, rather than having a big message. It all goes back to Albert Camus and his book The Rebel. There are much deeper issues at work here. War just never fucking ends. Is it something about us Americans? Well, who made America? All of those European motivations.
Living in Dresden, Germany as I do, I can tell you that war crimes are still something people don’t want to admit to. They don’t want to admit that with Nazism, civilians were involved in perpetrating these crimes. They don’t want to admit that people were machine-gunned down while running through the streets. The Germans are completely ashamed of Nazism but don’t want to remember that it was a crime. That’s just my own feeling. The U.S. is also guilty of a lot of shit we never talk about, namely the wiping out of Native Americans and the extinction of thousands of their languages. That’s genocide and it was only 200 years ago.
War Crime Blues also relates to my feelings of becoming aware of my own apathy and ignorance as an American. It’s not that Americans have things so cushy. The fact is people are working so fucking hard in America. But it’s sort of like Nazi Germany in that people let themselves be led around by whatever the fuck they’re told, just because they’re so tired. There’s a level of ignorance and naïveté that’s just so apparent. Opinions are mostly being formed by a drugged culture created by capitalism and money-driven media. How can those forces ever want to positively affect things like peace or balance in the world?
Chris discussing WCB in Anil Prasad’s Innerviews
“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.”
Whitley points to French philosopher Albert Camus’ 1951 essay ‘The Rebel’ and suggests, “It’s not idealisms and this and that. It can be existential frustrations. We overlook that. You turn on the TV and if it’s guys burning American flags or if it’s Bush people, they all seem like frustrated men. Something that they need to get out but they don’t know what it is.”
Having spent the last three years in Germany has given the singer-songwriter an international perspective on the horrors of war. He says, “Living in Dresden, there’s a major history of these things there from Nazism but also from the crime of bombing… It’s a really sick story and almost nobody knows it. It was twice as many people killed as in Hiroshima.” (During World War Two, the Allies dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing approximately 70 000. By comparison, the Allied bombing of Dresden six months before resulted in 135 000 deaths.)
In discussing war, Whitley often returns to the same idea – that we are all, no matter the race or ethnicity, joined together in the pursuit of life. “Living in Europe and going back and forth (between the U.S and Europe), you know, I feel kind of like, it’s not ‘us and them.’ It’s all of us.”
Whitley, now 43, remarks that we have all been affected by war, whether it’s World War Two, Vietnam, the Gulf War, or now Iraq. “My parents were young in the sixties. I remember as a little kid thinking I would be drafted for the Vietnam War. You know, like it’ll go on forever. It seemed like that. I remember feeling that way as a little kid because all the people around me were young hipsters like my parents. It seemed like that to them, like ‘When’s this going to end?’”
from “Whitley Waxes Philosophical,” NY Times 2004-03-12
Looking at it [War Crime Blues] 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”
One of the more interesting bits (to me and perhaps to you) about Weed is Chris’s motivation – or, at least, one of his motivations – for making it: “My last two Sony records didn’t come out in Europe, and I was offered this little bit of money — like $2,000 or something — by a French label [Fargo], and it was an opportunity to look back through something and make a little dough and also play some songs people never heard in Europe” [from Expatriate Act]. Criminal that Sony didn’t bother to release Din and Terra in Europe!
On Weed, Whitley revisits many songs from his 1991 solo debut, Living with the Law (Columbia), in extraordinarily intimate performances captured at home on MiniDisc with a single condenser mike. Where Living with the Law introduced Whitley in front of an inspired, Crazy Horse-esque rock band, the bare-bones setting of Weed spotlights the cinematic poetry of songs like “Living with the Law,” “Big Sky Country,” and “Bordertown.” “For me, that title, Weed, is like taking out stuff, sifting through stuff,” says Whitley. “I tried to choose the things that stood up the most with no production at all.”
from Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, Acoustic Guitar, February 2005
A Whitley “greatest hits” mix would befuddle a newcomer as his muse is prone to frequent relocation. But of his nine studio sets, Weed might be the best Chris Whitley primer, featuring 16 re-recorded songs that he wrote between 1986 and 1996. …. Whitley has again locked himself in a room with just a resonator guitar and his stomping foot like he did on Dirt Floor. He pulls the sun-dried skin from these familiar songs and plays around with the bones.
“Kick the Stones” is perhaps the best example of how Whitley makes the familiar new. On Law, the song was full of spit and menace. Here that fiery grit is replaced with measured contemplation and quiet resignation. Law’s title cut gets the same treatment, while the feedback-washed drone of “Narcotic Prayer” has been whittled to a similarly rudimentary state. [Houston Chronicle]
Weed features acoustic recordings of material from Whitley’s previously issued catalog. It’s revelatory, primarily because it captures the depth and breadth of Whitley’s songwriting. When Living With the Law was issued, fans identified with the record’s sound as well as its material. Over a decade later, the songs, naked and alone, continue to haunt with their spectral power and desert-blues ethos. Alternately, selections from Din of Ecstasy, Terra Incognita and Rocket House can be re-evaluated as the work of a master songwriter. Apart from their overdriven beat consciousness and razored guitar scree, they come off as vulnerable, yet still insistent and lyrically sophisticated. They’re anchored to American roots music despite their rhythmic adventurousness. [Paste Magazine]
You can listen to/download bootlegs from the WCB/Weed tour here.
My favorite video of Chris playing “Dead Boyfriend” – intermixed with “To Joy” – at a sound check at Musiques en Stock in 2002:
Photos from the WCB/Weed tour