News yesterday that singer-songwriter-guitarist extraordinaire Chris Whitley had died lof lung cancer was both shocking and not. While only 45, Whitley had more than his share of problems with drugs and alcohol and had famously flamed out on stage on more than one occasion (during a Jimi Hendrix tribute at BAM a few years ago he had to be led off stage as his cover of “Little Wing” wandered off the musical map). “Couldn’t exactly call it unexpected,” my friend Jeremy Epstein wrote in an email telling me of his death.
I got to know Chris when we moved to NY from San Francisco 15 years ago. We were living in the Meat Packing District and our neighbor Ann, a hardcore rocker from Athens, GA, kept telling me I had to meet this guy, he had the most incredible record. And she was right about that: Living with the Law was the kind of rock debut that makes people sit up and take notice. The songs were dark and sexual, filled with images of incarceration and lusted after liberation. “The border town it took my hand/It was the gateway to the promised land,” he sang and the border he was hoping to cross was not one between countries. He played a mean slide guitar and had the kind of lanky, hungry rocker look that most women find irresistible.
In person he was something else: shy, almost diffident, a good dad (he and his wife split about the time I got to know him though he continued to share custody of their daughter, Trixie) and modest about his musicianship. Except when he drank or drugged and then I guess you saw another side of Chris. The loathsome Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote a thinly disguised memoir of their love affair that included accusations of attempted physical abuse (sounds like he tried to hit her when he was in his cups but wasn’t so good at it) and on more than one occasion he slagged a suit from Sony when he should have been sucking up. The label was clearly hoping for something like his debut — bluesy, folky, understated — for a follow-up and the album he hit ’em with (Din of Ecstasy) was a dark wall of noise, a junkie’s lament.
I wrote about Chris for Vogue then, and a year later wrote a bio of him for the label. What I remember was how clearly he did not want to be put in a bag musically; he didn’t want to be a “long haired kid with a dobro,” he complained; the records he had cut his teeth on as a kid — living in a trailer, riding dirt bikes — were by Led Zeppelin and Johnny Winter. Sony soon dropped him and he recorded elsewhere, dabbling in electronica and psychedelia along the way. The last time I saw him was a few years ago; I was headed into the West 4th Street station, he was walking with his now-teenage daughter, attending to her words. I hardly recognized him: he had cut his long stringy hair and his face was haggard; his eyes seemed huge in his head, like the holes in a skull. He had passed me before I recognized him. I did not say hello.