Chris Whitley: Cultural Asylum
The American expatriate of the quintessential Henry James kind is in flight from one reality to another, engaged in a hejira that may transcendentally alter the conditions of his or her life. Often the handcuffs are golden, a suffocating surfeit of material comfort: an unearned inheritance, betrothal to a wealthy suitor. Vulgar American currency buys entrée to high culture, but in the end the European sojourn creates conflict.
Chris Whitley’s new release, Hotel Vast Horizon, is an expatriate record. A concatenation of events more prosaic than an Edwardian story’s brought Whitley to Dresden, Germany, where he now resides, and where Hotel was made. He had been living on Morton Street, occupying, as it happens, the last apartment of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, but his flight to the former Eastern Bloc was asylum-seeking not for political, but for economic, cultural, and emotional purposes. Touring constantly for a decade had led him to feel that, to quote one of his lyrics, “anywhere I am is home.” After losing a court battle with a gentrifying landlord, Whitley looked around at the changed West Village, counted his pocket change, and upped anchor for Berlin. A chance encounter soon led him to Dresden, however. Site of the oldest art school in Europe, the Baroque city on the Elbe (some views of which can be seen on Hotel’s cover) has emerged from the ashes of the infamous Anglo-American bombing that killed 30,000 and leveled one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.
Still, according to Whitley, Dresden retains its bohemian feel, benefits from “conscientious government” with a socialist heritage, and doesn’t pulse with the capitalism and ambition that are so central to the energy of New York. “One of the reasons I like living here is that there is a mad sophisticated mix of cultural influences,” Whitley says. “People will listen to Johnny Cash’s first or last album or go to see some crazy Goth Americana band that you would never hear about in the U.S. I don’t feel distracted here by cultural popularity contests. I don’t like paint-by-numbers culture.”
Hotel Vast Horizon and its provenance invite comparison to David Bowie’s mid-’70s Berlin trilogy, the most famous album of which is Heroes. Both were created in what was once East Germany and have a taut, urban sound in high contrast to each artist’s earlier work: Bowie had been into Philadelphia R&B, while Whitley’s sound was deeply American, grounded in finger-picking and slide-playing on his 70-year-old National steel guitars. Both artists fled one zeitgeist—in Bowie’s case, decadent Los Angeles—for another, looking to shed a skin and find a place to be differently inspired.
For Whitley, the last straw may have been his 2001 album, Rocket House. Produced by Tony Mangurian on Dave Matthews’s ATO label, it wrapped a bigger, more commercial sound around Whitley’s songs than did the records on indie label Messenger that had come before. You could view that album and Matthews’s sponsorship as a bid to recapture some mainstream attention, but one gets the feeling Whitley sees those bells and whistles as so much window-dressing. The relationship didn’t last. And, if you consider that his leaving the States also coincided with a low point for American popular music—the Britney/Christina/boy-band years—you get a sense of Whitley’s values. He has always held to a course internally driven. His albums have slipped in and out of categories almost perversely as he has broadened his own skills and interests and changed musicians and management.
After being discovered in 1989 by Daniel Lanois (producer of artists ranging from U2 to Bob Dylan), Whitley, a former Washington Square Park busker now walking Sony’s hallowed halls, found himself with a three-record contract, more production apparatus, and less control than he was used to or liked. In 1991, when I first interviewed him on the occasion of his breakthrough album for Sony, Living With the Law, he mentioned his dissatisfaction with its lushness and added that his ideal band would be a trio. I remind Whitley of this and he remembers, adding, “I have a picture in my head that is more about what that album means to me than what it actually sounds like… I haven’t heard it in a long time, but I know what attracts me to it is the picture it gives me of black-and-white minimalism…What inspires me still is the Berlin table and chair by Gerrit Rietveld [a Dutch architect and designer of radically simple planar furniture and houses]. I have no idea if they are comfortable, but they are so beautiful.”
The troika of guitar, bass, and drums to which Whitley’s songs are harnessed on this record may finally pull off this synaesthetic transformation from visual to aural. The sound on Hotel is balanced, cool, and somehow monochrome. Whitley’s guitar is tuned so low that it takes on a sonorous gravitas far removed from the familiar and, although most songs have been stripped of the falsetto and guitar flourishes with which Whitley can be so gifted, they retain a romantic aura. The lyrics seem couched in the parlance of world events. The title song is inspired by the name of the hotel where Man Ray, poet Paul Eluard, and Picasso stayed in the south of France working together on their last movie before the Nazi occupation. “New Lost World” speaks of dissidents, the underground, empires, and nations, but like “Assassin Song,” is metaphorical rather than literal, a way of talking about the personal. “Blues for Andre” races along on the jazzy brushed drums of Matthias Macht and acoustic bass of Heiko Schramm. The best song on the disc, the sexy “Frontier,” is an intricate and funky tune.
It’s taken 12 years for Chris Whitley to approach his ideal. His musical meanderings have led from the rootsy and gorgeous Living With the Law, through the electric Din of Ecstacy, to Dirt Floor, a solo acoustic album recorded in his father’s Vermont barn. Dirt Floor is more minimal by far than Whitley’s latest record, featuring only Whitley’s voice, guitar, banjo, and foot stomp, but its minimalism is sepia-toned, echoing simple hymns and ballads. Whether living in Dresden has been causal or coincidental in facilitating Whitley’s new stripped-down sound is hard to say.
The one question I didn’t ask Whitley this time was the one I wasn’t sure would get a positive response: “What would it take to bring you back?” He will, of course, continue playing throughout the U.S. and in New York, and will pass through the city on a solo tour this season. To Whitley, “it feels really questionable in New York right now. Every time I’ve been through there, it’s like, is everyone going to eat themselves or are people really in a good mood? I can’t tell.”
His most recent show in New York was at the Village Underground in April shortly after the citywide smoking ban took effect. For Whitley, this new proscription is probably as alienating as anything. While patrons queued on the sidewalk to get their fixes, Whitley lit up on stage as he always has and leaned into the mike saying, “How about that, Mayor?”
KK KOZIK is an artist and writer who lives and works in Sharon, Conn. and Brooklyn, N.Y.