A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 19, 2007
Call it “deathbed rock.”
Warren Zevon is the master of it, having crafted his farewell album, The Wind, as he was dying of cancer. The album was released shortly before he died in late 2003. It starts with the lines, “Sometimes I feel like my shadow’s casting me/Some days the sun don’t shine” (in the song “Dirty Life & Times”), and ends with a tear-jerker called “Keep Me in Your Heart,” in which he sings, “Shadows are falling, and I’m running out of breath ...”
Then there was Joey Ramone, who recorded Don’t Worry About Me as he was dying of cancer in 2001. Most of the album doesn’t really deal with his impending departure. But the song “I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Up)” expresses a resolve to recover (“Sitting in a hospital bed/I, I want life/I want my life”), and his cover of “What a Wonderful World” — for my money the finest cover of that corny chestnut in the history of the world — can only be seen as a glorious, life-affirming goodbye letter to those of us who loved him.
Neil Young reportedly was thinking in that direction, writing most of his songs for Prairie Wind (2005) as he was undergoing treatment for a brain aneurysm. Fortunately, however, Young did us all a favor and didn’t die.
Bob Dylan had already beaten the Reaper when he recorded the melancholic Time Out of Mind (1997). But many of the songs there are melancholic meditations on mortality, so it could be considered an honorary deathbed rock album.
Lee Hazlewood — the crusty-voiced cowpoke who wrote most of Nancy Sinatra’s ’60s hits and costarred on several Lee-and-Nancy classics — late last year released Cake or Death, advertised as his last album because he’s dying of kidney cancer.
And now comes Chris Whitley, whose last album, Reiter In, apparently was meant as a defiant middle finger in the face of smiling Sgt. Death. Whitley, a Texas guitar slinger who died of cancer in November 2005, didn’t give up the ghost until after making one final recording with a group of friends he dubbed The Bastard Club.
Whitley basically was a “cult artist” who had several influential friends — among them, Daniel Lanois and Malcolm Burn — and won lots of critical praise during his 15-year recording career, though, as is the case with most of the people I listen to these days, he never achieved much commercial success.
I never was a true devotee of the Whitley cult. A friend gave me a couple of his ’90s albums a few years ago (his Burn-produced debut Living With the Law and the dark, acoustical, and superior Dirt Floor), which I enjoy, though neither really twisted my head off.
But the new one does twist my head off. And it’s not because of any sentimentality over Whitley’s death. It’s just a strong album, indeed a tough album, that’s more about his life than his leaving.
By the very first song, you know Reiter In isn’t going to be any maudlin affair. With grungy, rumbling guitars and a proud thud-thud-thud of the drums, Chris and his Bastards roar though a spirited take on the Stooges’ classic “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” (This song also has been covered by Whitley’s fellow Texas roots rocker Alejandro Escovedo. Escovedo does a baroque version, with violin and cello, that he usually introduces with an obscene story about Iggy Pop and Béla Bartók in a cheap motel room. But Whitley’s “Dog” has more metallic bite.)
From Iggy, Whitley goes straight to Willie — Dixon, that is — with “Bring It on Home,” a rough-edged, swaggering electric blues. Whitley seems on top of his game here. His vocals are raspy, but he sings with the confidence of a voodoo priest.
Though many have sung the praises of Whitley’s blues-guitar talents, “Bring It on Home,” “I Go Evil” (“Come on, man! It’s cornball but cool,” Whitley proclaims at the end of this one), and the seven-minute “All Beauty Taken From You in This Life Remains Forever” aren’t hotshot Stevie Ray-wannabe, ax-man workouts. They sound more like Mudhoney reincarnated as a blues band.
“All Beauty” (whose title would look great on a tombstone) is groove infested and mainly acoustic with a call-and-response harmonica, tasty fiddle flourishes, and mysterioso Angelo Badalamenti-like vibes.
Reiter In features several covers from surprising sources. Whitley does an intense, slow-burning, and — yes — bluesy take on an old Flaming Lips song called “Mountain Side.” And he does a bouncy, snarling-guitars version of “Are Friends Electric?” written by New Wave “Cars” salesman Gary Numan.
Though the strongest tunes here are electric, there are examples of Whitley’s acoustic side. The sadly beautiful instrumental “Inn,” featuring interplay between guitar and violin, sounds as if Whitley spent some time in the motel room with Bartók.
And there’s the lo-fi country waltz “Cut the Cards,” written around a poem by Pierre Reverdy. It’s one of the few places on the album where Whitley deals with his impending fate. “Death could happen/What I hold within my arms could slip away,” he recites.
And, in a more vague and symbolic manner, there’s the title song in which Whitley’s longtime companion, Susann Buerger, reads an unknown poem in both German and English. “As the one who sits on the horse, the rider is the ghost that leaves the body,” she says as the band plays a slow, menacing instrumental behind her.
In short, this is deathbed rock at its finest. Whitley’s ghost can ride in pride.