Sunday, August 4, 2013

On "Immortal Blues"

In the Abhidharma of Whitley, it seems as though some of his more obscure songs have ended up as his purest expressions of spiritual truth and artistic vision. 'Immortal Blues' surely got little if any airplay anywhere, ever. It is inconspicuously tucked into 'Terra Incognita' between 'On Cue' (another one of my favorites from this album) and 'Cool Wooden Crosses'. 

I found out through the excellent folks on the Whitley Facebook page that this song was actually planned for release on the earlier 'Din of Ecstasy', which would have had a very different effect on the character of that album if it had been released there (it probably would have warmed me up to 'Din' a lot faster if it had been). You can hear the totally amazing original mix for 'Din' here (thanks so much, Danny), it is the 4th song. 

The first time i heard this song, i actually didn't realize that musically, it is the exact same phrase played over and over again. There is something about the feeling of the lyrics that just makes the whole song sound much more complicated. I wasn't sure exactly what it was at the time, but now -- having listened to it many, many times over the years -- feel like i have a better grip on this precious gem of a song.

A big part of that understanding came when i was introduced to Hill Country Blues via the great Mississippi Fred McDowell. I had performed some Whitley songs at a party for my sangha and one of my friends told me about MFM, that i needed to listen to him and play his music. 

As soon as i heard 'Freight Train Blues', 'Immortal Blues' fell squarely into place. McDowell was a total badass player in what came to be known as the Hill Country Blues style, described by wikipedia as having "few chord changes, unconventional song structures, and an emphasis on the "groove" or a steady, driving rhythm (sometimes referred to as a "drone" style)." Given Chris' love of Bukka White and other blues contemporaries, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that some amount of Hill Country Blues and MFM hit CW's musical awareness and is manifest in 'Immortal Blues'.

So musically, we get the same phrase, repeated in 'drone style', played with the tuning: 

C G C G C D 

Or, the "Whitley Cipher System" C75752 (ie, 6th string to C and the 5th string is tuned to the 7th fret of the 6th string, etc. on down to the 1st string ... huge thanks to Hiroshi for figuring this system out). 

Musically, i am not aware of any other CW song in this style, making it extremely rare in the Whitley canon.

Lyrically, i feel like -- with one possible exception in the form of 'To Joy' -- this is Chris at his most profound. And from that perspective, the simplicity of the musical structure of the song makes sense -- it is almost as though he was putting a simple frame around an incredibly important picture.  

I didn't know a love could sanctify
All of them losses in my eye

I wonder if these losses point at CW's divorce. As i listened to the lyrics (and compared to my own life situation), it started to occur to me that this song is actually about Trixie, his beautiful -- and incredibly talented -- daughter. 

So the love for one's child can consecrate even the dissolution of the relationship of the parents. As a single dad with a daughter, i can't imagine a more beautiful way of expressing this feeling. It brings tears to my eyes.

And I give her the things she would never lose
But I weighed her down with immortal blues

This takes my breath away. Listen to Trixie sing or watch her technique while she plays guitar and you can see the transmission from father to daughter (watch at 1:20). But of course, these are the small things compared to the love that a father has for his daughter, the thing that can never be lost.

We are all weighed down by immortal blues. We are born into this life, we get old, we get sick, we die. The people we love do the same. And so we "pass it on", this death sentence, to our children, and their children, over and over (this is Hill Country Blues, after all! :-). 

Which all sounds very morose, but really is not at all. In giving our kids the things they would never lose, we are actually passing on an awareness of how precious life is. We are giving them the ability to receive and give love, which they will in turn give their own children (or others in their life).

So looked at from this perspective, 'Immortal Blues' is really another Whitley teaching on impermanence and karma ('it goes round and round and round').

I also think that being 'weighed down' with immortal blues has to be looked at from the perspective of the child -- ie, the wish/fantasy that the omnipotent father/parent is indestructible and will live forever. Until a parent dies, it is very difficult to get past the simple, intellectual understanding that our parents are mortal beings. These fantasies of immortality run deep in the unconscious. 

Leave it to the genius of Chris Whitley to bring it right up to the surface to poke at.

Well I get so tired from blissed out death
You know that all that hang on a single breath

This creates an image of a precarious drug overdose, like heroin or alcohol and sleeping pills or something along those lines. We all have our addictions, our little ways of avoiding our own immortal blues. We can drink to the point that we are a single breath away from the edge. 

Something about this lyric reminds me of 'Narcotic Prayer':

I copped and caught a movie
But you know it can't last
Lights come up
And I just crashed

The attempt to escape our suffering -- the effort itself -- at some point becomes too exhausting. We keep coming back to the same place, again and again.

This lyric more than any others helped me wrap my head around this song:
Well I'm up in the morning, and she bring me rest
From the longings of a lethal jest

This is an incredibly deep sutra. Life itself is a lethal jest. We are born into it -- longings and all -- and uniquely provided the capacity to understand that it is finite. We ask ourselves: is this a joke? What's the point? La Commedia รจ finita!

Again, the same love that sanctifies loss also permeates immortal blues, letting some light in.

And it's so damn hard it's so hard to choose
Well i weighed her down with immortal blues

I wonder if this wasn't Chris struggling with being both an artist and a father. 

Damn this is an incredible song.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Immortal Blues

I didn't know a love could sanctify
All of them losses in my eye
And I give her the things she would never lose
But I weighed her down with immortal blues
Yes, I weighed her down with immortal blues
I weighed her down with immortal blues

Well I get so tired from blissed out death
You know that all that hang on a single breath
Well I'm up in the morning, and she bring me rest
From the longings of a lethal jest
From the longings of a lethal jest
From the longings of a lethal jest

I didn't know a love won't you bring me round
From a light blue room on the edge of town
And it's so damn hard it's so hard to choose
Well i weighed her down with immortal blues

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Phone Call from Leavenworth

They hold me here much longer
Probably go mad all by myself
Now I really need somebody
Said I really need somebody's help
Why does a man up in the judgement chair
Got his ass and God's right arm in some double pair - alright

Walkin' a frozen line
A western winter be hail and rain
Way back in New York this mornin'
There ain't no one there who ever gonna remember my name
Now when the sun comes up
Mama you should know
That now I just don't care no more - alright

Three o'clock this morning
When I thought I saw Jesus coming down
He came through the concrete baby
He came through them walls without no sound
Now I mean concrete walls that ain't no clay
I closed my eyes and he slipped away - alright

They look at you sideways
They call no man by his Christian name
All you got is your backbone to lean on
You can expect no help from your brain
Now when a man wants reason
He best be willin' to pay
I'm down in Leavenworth prison now
I do not count no days 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

On "Bliss to Breakdown"

Long Way Around was an anthology CD that came out in 2002, covering Whitley's music from 1991 - 2001. For me it was like discovering your dad's baseball card collection and finding a Jackie Robinson. 

In this case, Jackie Robinson was two demo tracks that i had never heard before: "A Pint of Lotion" and "Bliss to Breakdown". As far as i know, these were never before released total jewels. I had heard that Chris played these live though i never heard either of them in the three live shows of his that i caught. Pint of Lotion, fortunately, you can find live versions of on the web like this piece of solid gold. And while your at it, listen to this guy's rawkin' cover of the same.

Bliss to Breakdown, though, seems exceptionally rare. I also imagine it must be a very high fidelity expression of Chris' perspective on his spiritual and emotional life. And perhaps a metaphor for his musical career itself -- moving from the spotlight of David Letterman to battling with addiction and near-eviction from his NY apartment towards the end of his life.

Musically, it is unlike any of his other songs. It opens like a punch in the face, with no delay in the vocal intro.  

You hear another arpeggiated signature Whitley chord at 9 seconds in, characteristically disconsonant  and suggestive of the theme of the song itself (listen for a similar chord structure in "As Flat as the Earth"). 

The chord progression at 48 seconds that transitions back into the base melody also fits thematically, as it seems to tie back into the cycle of moving back and forth between ecstasy and suffering.

Lyrically, this is another of Whitley's dharma teachings, on being caught in the cycle of happiness and suffering that the Buddha called samsara. It was a strong theme in a lot of Chris' music ("Angels even devils too / all await to show how far we come to joy" [To Joy]).

i'm up on the edge, i love to ride
i'm up on the edge where worlds collide

This was surely how Whitley experienced life, on the edge and towards collision. This lyric reminds of the "Dust Radio" lyric:

Mama said open up yourself when worlds collide

In many of Whitley's songs there is both solace and suffering through woman: 

well if you look at her closely 
maybe find some mistake 
well i know every woman is perfect 
while i'm lying in her wake

At some level the attempt to find imperfection in another is the projection of one's own imperfection. This recognition is beautifully captured:

well i try to look at her closely 
try to look at her well 
from way down here on the bottom 
well there's no one around to tell

We are all down here on the bottom, and there's no one around to tell. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bliss to Breakdown

i got burns on my shoulder
burns on my skin
i'm walking down by the water
with them waves rolling in

don't look like no river
don't look like no lake
the greatest body of water
that you ever did awake

i'm up on the edge, i love to ride
i'm up on the edge where worlds collide
i cannot tell child, i can't say when
i'll go from bliss to breakdown again

rain can fall in the morning
spread that seed around
you don't even know that it's up there
until it hits the ground

well if you look at her closely
maybe find some mistake
well i know every woman is perfect
while i'm lying in her wake


rain can fall in the morning
spread that seed around
you don't even know what is up there
until it hits the ground

well i try to look at her closely
try to look at her well
from way down here on the bottom
well there's no one around to tell


Friday, July 20, 2012

Discovering Chris

Death Margaritas are not for lightweight, ivy league pussies. When the student is ready, the teacher will present. In my case, the teacher showed up, and i curled up into a fetal position on the floor of David's Kappa Alpha frat dorm room, gently weeping what was surely the eternal passing of my sobriety and GI stability.

It was October 1991 and i was back in Texas for some kind of goofy fall break excuse to go party, and god knows you can do worse than UT if this is your mission. We had been out drinking for some time, and ended up on the outdoor porch of some incredibly ratty excuse for a Tex Mex restaurant which was really a front for the the most f*cked up pitchers of margaritas you have ever had.

The kind of pitchers that end up with you on the phone at 2:00 AM with a cheearleader from a rival high school that you met at Old Spaghetti Warehouse in Dallas' West End that resulted in a star-crossed, high school football unrequited love that somehow you thought warranted resuscitation 5 years later because, well, you just had a pitcher of Death Margaritas.

There was some vomiting later, and then the kind of love that only your best friend shows you when he cleans up after you, laughs off your ridiculous alcohol (in)tolerance in front of his frat buddies, and tucks you in bed. And then goes back out drinking.

I think i woke up the next day sometime in the early afternoon. David had been up for a while. I told him i needed some more time to lie in bed and feel sorry for myself. So David goes over to his stereo (this was a particularly ass kicking stereo system for 1991, i think it made the trip all the way from Dallas to Austin, and maybe countless other places), flips some switches, and says "dude, you have GOT to listen to this stuff. i will be back in a few hours".

David was playing Living With The Law, released just a few months before. I remember going in and out of consciousness listening to the CD, but all the while thinking: jesus christ, who in the hell is this blues guy and why is the picture on the cover some white dude? I knew the very first, hungover time i listened to Chris, that i was listening to something incredibly powerful. 

I remember thinking it felt like meeting a friend that you just knew you would have around for the rest of your life.

LWTL got quickly purchased and transferred to cassette tape and went everywhere i did, on almost every run, every trip i took. 

It was in the auspicious wake of Death Margaritas and David that i came across Chris Whitley. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

On "Indian Summer"

After the oral surgery i got to spend some quality time with Dirt Floor, all Vicodin-ed up. From the moment i first heard "Indian Summer", i knew i was listening to what would be one of my all-time favorite Whitley songs. In retrospect, it seems to epitomize Dirt Floor more than any other track (including the title track), deeply soulful and full-on, painful blues. I figure there are folks who would argue with me on this. 

But i did call my brother James after i sent him a copy and asked him what his favorite track was and -- without hesitation -- he responded "Indian Summer". Other artists have done very cool covers of this song but not enough of them, i think. This has got to be one of Chris' best ever.

So the song is obviously about poverty and homelessness. If you have bootlegs of live Whitley shows -- or review the scant live recordings on YouTube of Chris performing this song (at last count n=1, sigh) -- you will always hear him introducing the song as about living in poverty. 

Musically, the first thing that strikes me is the raspy growl of the National Triolian that shows up in so many of Chris' songs, here tuned E-B-E-G#-B-E (also, incidentally, the tuning used in "As Flat As The Earth" and "Home is Where You Get Across").

What i love about this song (and really all of Whitley's slide tunes), is that he builds up to slide use, which has this feeling of releasing tension (e.g., at 37 seconds into the original track, everything before that point is fretted). The slide creates a sonic profile similar to the human voice in that it is not constrained to discrete fretted notes, but (like bending a note) covers a greater range. 

Some blues theorists claim that this is why it is so appropriate (e.g. in delta blues) for the style -- it most closely follows the human voice, and can create a sonic profile that provokes a very strong emotional response in listeners (i have been moved to tears on a number of occasions just listening to Chris' slide work, so anecdotally, i think the theorists are on to something).

Listen at :43 in to the bending of the note just before Chris brings his slide to the strings, it is a very Whitley nuance. I will have to start listening for precedents to this in the old blues recordings. It is extremely subtle but creates this nice rolling transition from fretted note to slide.

The very brief pause at 1:07 in the original, intentional or not, serves as a musical punctuation to me, as if to communicate that the next verse is particularly important, so pay attention. I love this pause.

I think of all the guitar solo slide work Chris does, the solo on "Indian Summer" is the most expressive (though certainly not the most technically complicated -- Whitley can get positively pyrotechnic at times, e.g. as on his live versions of "Pint of Lotion" and his cover of "Hellhound On My Trail"). The vibrato on the slide arpeggio at 2:10 gives me goosebumps every time i hear it. At 2:17 the punctuated slide up reminds me of a plaintive call to the listener ("are you paying attention?"), as though you might not have caught the message of the first bar of the solo. 

At 2:22 you hear a very distinctive arpeggiated chord that is pure Chris Whitley (you hear this chord pattern in many other Whitley songs) and then at 2:27 it is as though the solo just runs out of steam. This feels appropriate to me -- like running out of things to say (and the energy to say them) is fully in line with the theme of the song. 

The solo is the voice of impoverished subject of the song, and it pulls your heart out with it.

The lyrics present the plight of a homeless person. 

I pray into the distance
Let me out of these heavy clothes, I'm beggin'
creates an image that Whitley invokes in many of his songs, the wish to die rather than endure the suffering of this life ("Soon I'm gonna lose these rags and run ..." [Wild Country], "Just lay me out, in my birthday shirt" [Made From Dirt]). In fact, the image of being naked -- as a metaphor for authenticity and impermanence -- comes up again and again in Whitley's lyrics (more on Whitley and impermanence later).

So hard to get warm now
It's so easy to get burned
So an Indian Summer then is a reprieve from the cold, a temporary escape that inevitably yields to winter.

Communion at the station
For a million grinding gears

Love this lyric. I think of homeless people outside a train station. Gears and mechanical imagery run deep in Whitley's lyrics ("Gasket", "New Machine", "Border Town" etc.). They seem to represent what is impersonal, mechanical, not human, but present a fascinating order and capability that inspires both fear and awe.

This song also reminds me of "Dislocation Blues":
Where does a heretic call home?
I imagine Chris felt this way, like a heretic, in the sense that his lyrics pointed at a very unconventional spirituality (to say nothing of his unconventional musical style). 

So the heretic is homeless, too.