Chris Whitley is an odd character in the musical narrative of my life. His blues/rock album Living with the Law came out in the middle of 1991 when I was still feeling my way around my new Northeastern surrounds and wide open for something new and significant in my life. The track "Big Sky Country" got some level of video play on MTV, as I recall. Then one day he was doing an in-store appearance at the Newbury Street Tower Records and I just happened to be in there during one of my between-class lulls. It was just him and his National with a mic'ed and sanded board on the floor so he could do rhythm with his left foot.
And he blew me away. The song "Phone Call from Leavenworth" in particular drove me to buy the CD right then and there (in-store appearances work -- if you're good).
After that, I kind of followed his arc through the music biz. He never went mainstream again, though he was very popular in places like Amsterdam and Germany. I would pick up his CDs whenever they popped onto the radar (Dirt Floor is excellent, Rocket House has some great moments, and Perfect Day is worth it for the cover of that Lou Reed song alone - never mind the fantastic input from Billy Martin and Chris Wood of Medeski, Martin and Wood).
Each album cover that featured a photo of Chris caused me great concern, as he seemed to be wasting away with each release. I assumed he was on the junk (and her certainly did have his run-ins with heroin at various points in his life). Now, though, I find out through a former coworker and fellow music aficionado that Chris passed at the age of 45 from lung cancer.
A bit of sad news, did you hear Chris Whitley died? You were the first person I thought of when I heard the news since you are one of the few people I know who knows who he was. I've been checking your blog for a few days to see if you'd mention it, and you haven't, so I'm not sure if you heard.
What a loss. I'm really bummed about this. Chris' brother Dan says it best, though:
Whitley is survived by his daughter Trixie, his brother Dan and his girlfriend Susanne, whom he was planning to marry. "I hope you all will mourn my brother's death but more important celebrate his life as Chris was all about life and living," Dan wrote on Chris' official Web site. "I started the celebration by cranking up [the 1998 album] 'Dirt Floor' in his honor ... crying still."
So long, Chris.
"Like the feather we blow away, in the thoughtlessness of words others say."