Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Chris Whitley, Dying Of Lung Cancer

Back on April 11, 1992, my dad, my friend Boxset, and I drove up to Cincinnati. Boxset and I attended a show while we were there. At the legendary Bogart's on Vine Street, blues phenom Chris Whitley played a show with Toad The Wet Sprocket opening for him. Working at Turtle's Records at the time, I was very familiar with Chris Whitley. I had listened to his debut album, Living With The Law, over and over, loving the sound of that National Steel guitar coupled with that voice that resonated with all parts pain, desperation, and hope.

With that love for the music he created, Boxset and I were giddy to catch the show. It was our first and only time to catch a show at Bogart's, but I still feel that I was at a very important club in the history of music. The floor filled up quickly and so we went to the upstairs balcony where there were tables set up overlooking the stage. Each table was covered by glass and between the glass and the wood were ticket stubs from so many of the bands and artists who had played there over the years. The one that I remember was not a ticket but a reference to the rehearsal show that Prince had performed before going out on his Purple Rain tour. Boxset and I sat through the Toad show, and watched as hundreds of Toad fans below bounced up and down with a youthful exuberance that made us laugh.

After Toad finished their opening set though, we were dismayed at what we saw. Those hundreds of music lovers filed out of the venue. They were happy and they were sated. But they had no idea what they were about to miss. Boxset and I watched what was a soldout hall become a sparse crowd at best waiting to hear Chris Whitley play his music for us. And sure enough, here came Chris onstage, playing and singing and emoting with a feral ferocity only found in the rarest of earthly moments.

Boxset and I looked at each other and one of us exclaimed that the poor bastards who had left had done themselves a serious disservice. After all, they could have been within five feet of this masterful musician. And then the other one of us decided that the foolish ones were we, sitting far away and high in this balcony, when we now had the opportunity to be within five feet of this creator of sonic and aural knockout punches.

And with that, we were soon down in front, looking up at that National Steel guitar, reflecting stage lights and blinding us temporarily of sight and context. We were owned by the music.

A decade or so passed and I saw Chris Whitley again at 3rd & Lindsley on April 28, 2002, in my hometown of Nashville. This time he was without a band. It was just he and that famous guitar and some kind of kick drum pedal thing at his feet. And, as before, he was phenomenal. I remember thinking how lucky the world was to have an artist like this to listen to. We had already lost two other brilliant guitarists and tortured souls in recent years, Danny Gatton and John Campbell. But here was Chris Whitley before my eyes and for my ears, the last man standing if you will.

Tonight, I read this:

Chris Whitley dying of lung cancer

NEW YORK, Nov. 21 (UPI) --
Singer/songwriter Chris Whitley is reportedly dying of lung cancer.

On Whitley's official message board, his brother Dan said the recording artist is
receiving home hospice care in New York as he lives out his final days, Billboard.com reported Monday.

"As I type this Chris is resting peacefully and is in little physical pain," Dan Whitley posted. "At one point today he grabbed my hand firmly as I spoke to him, looked at me and smiled his usual knowing smile but that is all and that was quite enough."

Whitley canceled his fall tour dates in October citing illness, but did not give any
further details. His latest album "Reiter In," is due in mid-December on
vinyl and will appear on CD sometime next year.

Billboard said Whitley was a heavy smoker.

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