Chris Whitley, enigmatic and confounding blues/rock genius from America by way of Belgium, would have been 58 today. I’ll drink a beer to his shade tonight.
I first heard Chris’ unique brand of music (and it is unique, its really, over his whole discography, really quite unlike anybody else’s- a tortured mix of blues, roots, jazz and rock) back around 1990/1991, sometime around when Thelma & Louise was released- the film prominently featured one of Chris’ songs. I think I already knew of his music before then though. I remember reading glowing reviews of his debut album ‘Living With The Law’ in the music press. Back then we didn’t have the internet to throw all sorts of music at us, we had to discover it for ourselves or via recommendations in music magazines or from DJs on the radio. I remember actually hearing the album at a listening booth in the Virgin Megastore in Birmingham; anybody remember those? Hell, even the Megastore seems like a prehistoric artifact looking back on it – three stories of massive music departments that on trips to the city I’d spend hours exploring, where I’d bought my soundtrack imports for years- never-mind such archaic objects like listening booth units dotted around in the store where you could listen to albums on headphones. I used to spend so much time back then at the booths listening to so many different kinds of music. I discovered all kinds of artists old and new- Mary Chapin Carpenter, Buddy Guy, Lyle Lovett, and buy their albums. I’m pretty sure I fell in love with Chris’ stuff there at one of those listening booths.
Chris was a rare talent. He was the Real Deal. The music industry loves to parade before us poets and troubled souls who are really just charlatans, rock and roll heroes in torn and tatty jeans who away from the day job of musicians are millionaires living in mansions wearing clothes and jewelry worth more than I’ll ever earn in a lifetime. Chris was authentic. After his suddenly popular first album he went off making strange and unpopular albums of music that he wanted to make even though it wasn’t commercial (fame to obscurity in two albums- major label Sony dropped him like a stone after his third album failed to halt the slide). He went to rehab a few times, drank too much and smoked too much, finally dying of lung cancer at just 45 years old, leaving about a dozen albums of his life’s’ work for fans to ponder over like a mystery for the years to follow. I still don’t understand many of his lyrics. I just know I love how it sounds, how real they feel.
2005. I remember being so shocked at reading of Chris’ death in the obituaries in the press. On the one hand, it surprised me to see the news even making the major newspapers over here, as I hadn’t realised Chris was deemed popular or important enough that his death would even register outside the music press. He always seemed to be under the radar, a best-kept-secret unknown to the mainstream (I suppose he was, really, but those that loved his work really loved it hence the recognition was duly given). On the other hand, how odd, looking back on it, reading it in a newspaper in this internet age when we seem to be alerted to everything almost immediately.
Well, here’s to Chris. He’d be 58 today. That’s both sad and scary at the same time. Find it hard to imagine him being 58 years old and still making that sad, tortured music with those mysterious agonized lyrics but I’m sure he’d have found a way, given the chance. Our loss.