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Chris Whitley: A Memory of a Genius

November 1, 2013


Lou Reed’s passing has been heavy on my heart but has led me down a wonderful musical journey this week. I have found myself spending a lot of time these last few days listening to the music that helped shape me: Velvet Underground, Reed’s solo work, early Bowie, Mott The Hoople, Roxy Music. And somehow my musical journey took me to Chris Whitley.

It’s not really shocking when you think about it. In fact, it makes perfect sense. While Whitley was far less obscure in his musical endeavors, he was no less a genius. He was a musician’s musician and shared that rawness that Reed was famous for.

I remember the first time I stumbled onto Whitley. It was not through some pure music related event or happenstance but certainly it was destined. After my grandfather passed, I spent a lot of time in Miami with my grandmother. She lived in a retirement community and we would stay up late watching the talk shows and Rockford Files re-runs.

On nights I would scamper off to discover the local music scene, she would wait up for me to come home and when I walked in there was always a plate of bar-b-q chicken wings and fresh iced tea waiting for me.

One night, I came home while grandma was watching David Letterman, so I joined her on the couch to watch the end of the show. About a minute after I sat down, he introduced Chris Whitley. I was hooked after the first cord was struck. I went the next day to get his debut Living With The Law and was a fan ever since.

A short time later, I was back in NYC and I was working at the Knitting Factory night club on Leonard Street (now the home of luxury condos, but then the home of some of the best music New York had to offer). I had been working there for a few months, doing admission, advance ticket sales, and then got more into production helping bands load in for sound-check and such.

Many great artists had performed here: John Zorn, Bernie Worrell, Steven Bernstein and Sex Mob, Cindy Blackman, Ravi Coltrane, Jeff Buckley to name a few. And, Chris Whitley!

I was young and it was perfect. I probably would have been a patron anyway, so getting paid to be there was a bonus.

For a while, I thought I wanted to do more than just work the production side or take tickets at the door. The only problem was that the owner of the club, Michael Dorf, and I had a relationship that bordered on rocky. I wanted a chance to book some shows, but I was a cocky and young and he wasn’t exactly eager to give me a shot until I proved my worth.

I saw my chance to earn my right to book a show when a band cancelled two weeks before their show and everyone in the offices was scrambling to fill the empty Friday night. I thought this is IT. MY moment.

In my time working at the club, one artist I became friendly with when he played the club was Chris Whitley. Like I said, he was a genius on the guitar, absolutely insane, and I had the chance to learn he was an awesome guy too. Quirky, humble, raw and real.

As timing and luck would have it, I happened to run into Chris and asked him if he’d be willing to fill in and let me promote a night of him playing. He signed his answer to me on the liner of his CD: YES. (I still have the insert!)

I then called his manager whom I had also befriended and tossed out the idea of an intimate evening with Chris Whitley and his music. What I envisioned was Chris, a mic, and a few guitars, but no band. It was revolutionary they thought but to me it was reminiscent of how I first encountered him on that Letterman show. We’d add tables and chairs like an old cabaret style show. He agreed and we settled on a price. Imagine my surprise when I got the friends and favor price! I was incredibly humbled and insanely stoked.

When I went to Dorf with the idea and the deal already sealed with Whitley, he said go for it and so I did.

Within a week it was half sold out, and when the doors opened, it had been sold out completely, In advance. It was a huge feat and it solidified my thoughts that this industry was my home. Not in booking per se, but the actual production of shows. The night was a success and I went on to book a few more shows there.

The greatest part of that evening was being there. Every note, every song, every story, every lyric was perfect. It was, in fact, one of the best nights of my life.

In 2005 when Chris Whitley passed away, I thought about that night and how my life had been touched by his artistry and his personality. It will forever be a part of my life, something he left behind. It was a time where everything was new, raw, and awesome for me and became part of my story.

While I am still saddened by the passing of Lou Reed, I love that this memory of Chris Whitley came back to me and is part of the banks of my mind.

It is comforting to be able to look back at my past to moments that made me proud and contributed to where I am and who I am now. I learned a lot from that experience and the music is forever a part of me.

Do you ever have yourself suddenly go back in time to a memory? Do you take a minute to not just enjoy the memory but also enjoy how it is part of your story?

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