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.