One of my favorite musicians and childhood heroes, Chris Whitley, died Sunday night. He was always an over-intense performer and individual, and he always seemed to have the deep melancholy and self-loathing of someone who (to paraphrase Neil Young) would burn out instead of fade away. . . But I’m still stunned. At the very least, I thought it would be a heroin overdose instead of lung cancer, but I suppose both are at some level self-inflicted.
I should point out, my whole identity as a musician is based on the idea that our gifted musicians and idols needn’t be crazed and depressed geniuses, destined to put a gun to their head. I’m convinced that Thom Yorke (Radiohead), Elliott Smith, Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) — even Kurt Cobain — are/were, despite their talent, pretty normal guys dealing with the unique and considerable pressures of music stardom. And Chris, while his drug binging and feverish intensity belie my theory, was more importantly one of the most genuine and authentic artists and people I ever encountered.
In high school, my buddy Eric and I went to see him at the old Antone’s (now a laundromat). It was shortly after the release of his utterly brilliant debut record, Living With the Law, and we stood only inches from his gnarled chording fingers and writhing skeletal frame. It was scary and exhilarating. When I later met Joe, he described him as a second coming of Hendrix. That’s certainly what it felt like.
Until Joe, Brendan and I saw him at SXSW in 2003. The 40 minute set consisted of 20 minutes of tuning, 10 minutes of asking to turn the monitor up, and 5 minutes of “Steve” playing weird noodling shit on a slide guitar. It was awful. And embarrassing, as we’d brought all our friends (and our lawyer, oddly enough) to see the debacle.
But that didn’t diminish my adoration. His more recent albums are actually much better, while not visionary. And my real memories of Chris come from the artist and person I knew him to be. A few years and a few critical and popular failures after my first Whitley show, Eric and I saw him again (along with our pal Carl) at the same venue, having won tickets through a fan-club promotion. Our fan-status had also earned us a chance to talk with him backstage after the show. I was giddy, having prepared a bevy of questions to ask him: why had he departed so markedly from his first record, which had undoubtedly poised him for a successful AAA career on radio? Why had he sabotaged his own marketability? Why had his albums gotten so dark, so much more aggressive? Most important, was his august debut the record he wanted to make, or was it a product of record company coercion? Were these latter records, which had been so disappointing to me, the “true” Whitley?
He had the softest voice… We all leaned in so closely to hear him that I could’ve kissed his sleeve. He patiently and graciously — almost obsequiously — answered my questions. He was one of those people that made you feel a deep connection, even if you could barely hear a word he was saying. (Again: intense. That’s really the word to describe Chris Whitley.) He said he was just doing what came naturally. That the record company had been pretty good about letting him go in the direction he needed to go.
And I should’ve known. Because in all his anguish, he was always first and foremost authentic.
Sigh. . .