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. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Indian Summer

Summer is lost now
The frost is closing in
To the cold gospel dollar
The poor man walks in sin
I can't get no entrance

The doors all in rows
I pray into the distance

Let me out of these heavy clothes, I'm beggin'

Indian summer

I need some return
So hard to get warm now
It's so easy to get burned
Down on the pavement

The laws are learned
So hard to get warm where

It's so easy to get burned

One sister called up

Said the love have broken down
I said there too much ice around here

To find no solid ground
While I just squeeze a season 

From this paper bag
I pray to the burning tires

Wrap my feet in rags, beggin'

Now the sky is empty
The street is sweating tears
Communion at the station
For a million grinding gears
While I'm riding out this century
The harvest engine sing
From the church of mercenaries
To a naked virgin spring I'm singin'


When Dirt Floor was released, i was like a kid on Christmas Morning, waiting to bust into the living room and start unwrapping that present i had been eyeing for weeks.

Only, i was 27. And had just had four wisdom teeth removed that day. And i had been waiting for about a year. It was nothing like the wait from Living With the Law to Din of Ecstasy, that was basically an eternity for the hardcore Whitley fans waiting to see what the hell was going to happen next -- an insane 4+ years.

Terra Incognita had released the year before ('97) and had some simply incredible songs on it, including one of my all time favorites "Immortal Blues" (more on that one later). Still, i was waiting for more pure National style Chris, raw resonator stuff that left nothing to the imagination. Low to no effects, just the guitar, slide, boot board, and the growling falsetto.

So i had heard from David that there was a new release coming for the purists, put out on a label called Messenger Records by a college guy named Brandon Kessler, produced by Craig Street. About the album i heard descriptions like:

  • Two track analog
  • Single stereo ribbon mic
  • Recording in a barn in Vermont

and i just knew this was the one.

So the very day of the release i was having all four wisdom teeth extracted (as it turned out, the dentist botched the job and left a root fragment in there that just kept on going, causing an impaction-induced infection and follow-on oral surgery 14 years later).

(this is why you should [1] get your wisdom teeth extracted when you are 15 or so and [2] get it done by a bona fide oral surgeon)

Anyway, i was all drugged up and bleeding from the surgery but not even N202, Valium, and Vicodin were going to keep me from getting a hold of that CD. So i went to the music store -- slurring my speech with bloody gauze in my mouth like i had just gotten my ass kicked at Fight Club -- and demanded my copy of Dirt Floor

It was worth the wait.