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.