Chris Whitley once sung about "Secret Jesus" on his "blood antenna ... coming through the concrete, baby." It sounded like he was singing about an
extraterrestial Satan, not Jesus. But then there's a record industry rumor
that Whitley actually met the devil out on some crossroads, just like Robert
Johnson. Only Whitley didn't sell Satan his soul -- he sold his career.
Whitley's first three records were released by Sony. He had hours of studio time. Big limos. Champagne for breakfast. But no more. Last year, Sony dumped him. Out in the cold,
Whitley had zero budget to make a new album. So last December, he recorded one
in a single day -- not in a studio, but in a barn on his daddy's farm in
Vermont. And now "Dirt Floor" is being released on Messenger Records, a little label so tiny it's run by a 24-year-old kid out of his one-room Chelsea
apartment in Manhattan.
How could Whitley fall so far? And what did he get from the devil in
return? Before you learn the answers, know that "Dirt Floor" is a little album the
way Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" was little -- which is to say it's not little at
all, just incredibly ambitious in its modesty. Like Springsteen on "Nebraska,"
Whitley is the only player on his album, strumming his solitary
guitar and singing. His voice is reedy, but good. Some of his songs are good as well. Others are striking. All of them are a little peculiar, borrowing imagery from William Faulkner and Mexican Day of the Dead festivals. He sings about someone called Loco Girl. He sings about a ball-peen
But "Dirt Floor" doesn't sound like "Nebraska" -- or Robert Johnson, or early
Bob Dylan, or anyone else. There's something simultaneously medieval and funky
about Whitley's sound. His National guitar has a brittle, otherworldly twang to it. "I think the guys that originally designed them 70 years ago were auto-body guys trying to make Hawaiian guitars that were louder," Whitley says. He spends the next 10 minutes discussing the National the way motorcycle enthusiasts go on about Vincent Black Lightnings.
Whitley introduced his National on his first Sony album, "Living With the Law"
(1991), produced by Daniel Lanois cohort Malcolm Burn. It was a great album
about Big Sky country and someone called Poison Girl and something that was said on a
phone call from Leavenworth. It was an album Cormac McCarthy would make if he
were a guitarist instead of a novelist. The record had solid sales. His second Sony release, "Din of Ecstasy" (1995), was the mother of all flops. What happened? Whitley traded his
career for an electric guitar. Satan's unholy ax was Whitley's undoing.
"What's with this devil business, man?" Whitley laughs. "I grew up on electric
guitar. Psychedelic blues: Hendrix, Cream. Early Muddy. Early Wolf. When I was a kid, I loved Johnny Winter and loved his first Columbia record. He used a thumb pick, not even a flat pick.
Just plugged in." The lanky guitarist now closes his eyes as if he's remembering a girl. "Johnny sounded so fluid. He wasn't really playing any scale or riffs. He was just blowing it out." He opens his eyes. "The devil had nothing to do with 'Din of Ecstasy.' With that record it was, 'I can afford a band now.'"
Whitley's electric "Din" was a psychedelic masterpiece that bashed and
screeched, even as it fell like a stone in the marketplace. The suits at Sony
wrung their hands, but gave him another chance. But rather than return to
the rootsy purity of "Living With the Law," Whitley clung to the devil's ax and
redefined his psychedelic sound, releasing yet another quirky, unclassifiably
brilliant electric album, "Terra Incognita" (1997). It went nowhere quicker than
Sony pulled his plug.
But if this was Satan's intention, the angels of art saved Whitley from hell.
The guitarist didn't have the patience to do demos and shop around for another
label. He wouldn't even wait for the schedule of his old mentor, Lanois, to
get clear so that they could record together. Whitley had written new,
simpler songs. So he took his beloved National up to Vermont and recorded
nine songs in a day with Cassandra Wilson's Grammy-winning producer, Craig Street. The next day, they mixed the tracks. And a few weeks later, "Dirt Floor" was ready to be released on Messenger Records.
"The thing with Brandon [Kessler, Messenger's founder] is, he is completely unjaded,"
Whitley says. "He doesn't listen to songs with an immediate criteria of, say,
what snare drums sound like on the radio and how many beats people are dancing
to." Whitley met Brandon when the latter was a gofer at Sony. Brandon once told him a story about rushing around Manhattan in the middle of a hot June night trying to find Christmas ornaments,
as well as a tree, so pop diva Mariah Carey would have the right inspiration to
sing two words for her Christmas album: "Bless you."
Hard to imagine Whitley needing anything more than a little weed to sing those
words. And "Dirt Floor" proves that it is possible for art to triumph over
corporate culture. Whitley's dinky Messenger Record's release has been
reviewed by everyone from Rolling Stone to Entertainment Weekly. All are raves. Whitley will also have a spread in Esquire. One wonders how many publicists (and Christmas trees) Sony hires to get the same results for Carey.
Whitley doesn't quite buy this "triumph of art" business, because he thinks his
work is commercial. Or at least listenable. "I'm not exactly high art and I'm
not pop. I look at my stuff now, it's very metaphoric to how I grew up.
There's my art director dad and my sculptor mom. Pure. And expressionist. I
never felt like there was a conflict between the art and commerce."
Yeah, OK. But anyone with a commercial bone in his body wouldn't have made
two albums of psychedelia. McCarthy was mentioned earlier -- Whitley
is like one of the author's kid cowboys down in Mexico. There's an innocence
and naiveti about him that's touching. And deceiving. This 37-year-old is
chronologically long-in-the-tooth, but he still looks about 23. Except in
brief moments, say in the neon light of a bar sign on Seventh Avenue, where you can
see what Whitley will look like when his age catches up with him. He'll look a
little like a criminal -- like he's getting away with something.
So now, with "Dirt Floor" a big success, will Whitley fuck it all up again by
recording Satan's electric guitar again with Daniel Lanois? Maybe not. And
it's our loss. Nowadays, Whitley complains about guitar-hero bands. He even
claims a banjo can thrash harder than any old Danelectro U1. "Banjo's are more
pointed," he claims, as earnest as a choir boy. "People actually get it with a
banjo. With a loud guitar, it's like just another rock band." Stephen Foster
heavy metal? He gives a dry laugh. "It's good to express your existential
anger on the banjo."
What does Whitley have to be getting existential about? It was the devil who suffered a loss, not Whitley. For just a moment, Satan lost control of his ax. And for just one blessed moment, true art has won a modest battle.