Thursday, March 3, 2011

HEAD TONES: Chris Whitley

Music is an extremely important part of my life. Given the grim choice between losing my sight or my hearing, I would probably choose to keep my hearing even though I'm a visual artist.  My musical tastes run wide and deep, though I'm partial to (a.) singer-songwriters, (b.) guitar slingers who don't wear Spandex and (c.) real jazz.  When not attending a live music performance at Dan's Silver Leaf, I'm either looking forward to a show or regretting one I've missed.  If none of those things are commanding my attention, I'm going through some crisis or another.  Depression, I think it's called.

Sure, I could create a separate blog about music - or, for that matter, depression - but what's the point in segregating topics?  Oh, that's right.  Monetization.  How could I have forgotten. I'll just stick winging it and not maximizing profit [understatement].

Besides, this way, I'll reduce the number of times I'm required to break it anyone how weird I am.  That's not a self-pity trip.  See, people who either (a.) don't understand they are, in fact, weird as hell, or (b.) know very well they're weird as hell and use every lame ass trick in the book to act "normal" - those are the ones I advise backing away from ever so diplomatically.  They are, apart from natural disasters, responsible for the overwhelming degree of misery in this world, and, probably, most others.  In the words of Frank Zappa, You Are What You Is.

Maybe I'm just attempting to rationalize my appalling organizational skills, but I don't live in staggered rows of compartmentalized obsessions, and do not intend on starting now. My life is not a tapas bar.  It's a spaghetti bowl with a single 100-yard pasta strand and a dozen or so sauces.

If you don't like music, or you only like whatever atrocious or moderately atrocious music you were drawn to when you were young and not terribly bright (don't pat yourself on the back too much; everybody gets lucky), I will forgive you for not developing much affection for my Skyward musings. That doesn't mean I'll buy you a whiskey or pick up the check for our lovely Thai dinner at Andaman, but you can die having been forgiven for your music, and thus, character, deficiencies.  Forgiven only by me, but, still, it's something.

I'll kick off my HEAD TONES series with someone very near and dear to my calcified, semi-necrotic, underconditioned and somehow-still-beating (and let me check; yes, still bleeding) heart. Chris Whitley. A masterful artist who never got his due, and never needed acclaim as a precondition for revealing his greatness.

Fans have their favorites.  These are mine.

Blues purists and guitar slingers lean toward his earlier work.

Some musician friends - workmates, really - turned me on to Terra Incognita when it was released.  The cover art, with its rich jewel tones and wry humor, conveyed the passion, originality and authenticity of the music to come.

The greatest pleasures, for me, are most often acquired tastes.  Terra Incognita refused to go all the way on a first date.  Or the second.  Or the third.  The damn thing made me work for it, and, even then, seemed impervious to my attention.  I must have played it twenty times before I finally started getting it, and it me.  I'm crazy like that.

Soon thereafter, Chris played Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth.  I was violently ill that night and heartsick to have missed him.  I gave my ticket to one of the guys who introduced me to his music, and he ended up selling it to a stranger at face value (which is good, because I loathe ticket scalping) to a stranger.   I hope the stranger enjoyed the show as much as I would have. My workmates said it was magic.

If there exists a more beautiful album than Chris Whitley's final work, Rocket House, I'm not sure my heart could bear it.  It is impossible to listen to it without believing some part of Chris foresaw his premature mortality.  Everything I've read suggests he had no such conscious knowledge of his impending departure when the songs were written and recorded.  Five weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer, Chris Whitley died on November 20, 2005.

Terra Incognita
and Rocket House each carry overt and covert alien contact themes, with various degrees of ambiguity, complete with a deeply resonant spiritual context.  Each of these albums (yes, albums, as in a collection of songs released as a project; maybe you've heard of those?) have moved me to tears more than once.  (Real men human beings aren't afraid to cry, or admit it - even to heartless, soulless automatons. Not that you are.)  These two works, each of which I obtained well before embarking on the current marathon, are perfect soundtracks for my own Contact experiences and the spiritual perspective they yielded on this side of my new paradigm.

Go ahead and call it projection. I don't care. It isn't.

Rocket House is the single most indispensable album I hope never to live without, and I have a few.  Chris and DJ Logic created a wholly unique sound that is neither urban nor rural, is exotic yet familiar and emanates joy and melancholia simultaneously.  I had not heard such sounds before and never will again.  A floating, grooving, rhythmic masterpiece that soars, dives and ascends into the clouds like the hawks I watch from my backyard.  It is a work of timeless, breathtaking, soul-stirring beauty.

I've never anticipated a documentary so eagerly as Dust Radio: A Film About Chris Whitley. At the time of this writing, it is currently in post-production.

One of the things I enjoy about middle age - let's not quibble; I could live to see 98 - is knowing everything manifests in patterns and cycles. Discovery. Routine. Stasis. Loss. Familial engagement. Self-awareness. And so on. Discerning them is a life's work, and given the macrocosmic and microcosmic nature of every Life, it will forever be an incomplete study.

Given my affection for Chris Whitley, I've been waiting for his daughter, Trixie Whitley, to cross the threshold and become the artist I've long suspected - known, really, like many of her father's admirers - she would become.  That wait is over.

Today, I learned Trixie Whitley has teamed up with heavy-hitters Daniel Lanois, Brian Blade and Daryl Johnson to form Black Dub:

I so hope to get a chance to see them perform.   You never know how often those opportunities will come along.  Or if you'll get more than one.

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