Solon
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BY DAVID BOWMAN
April 10, 1998


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 hammer. 

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 "Din" did. 

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
naiveté 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 f*** 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. 
SALON | April 10, 1998