Texas-born, Dresden-based singer-songwriter Chris Whitley is oddly hot. A doe-eyed late Chet Baker in a wife beater, Whitley’s music is a seductive amalgam of atmospheric alternative rock, funk, and blues. With a devoted fan base and the occasional deal with Columbia, or Messenger records, or Dave Matthews’ imprint, ATO Records, Whitley works the border, the demimonde, the liminal space between celebrity and anonymity. A maestro of the slide guitar, he is one of the most compelling musicians alive today. And that’s not just me with a wicked crush on the man: Bruce Springsteen said that Whitley’s “Dirt Floor” is one of the top ten best rock songs. Ever.
If you’ve ever heard Whitley, you’ll know what I mean when I say he can find the bottom of a steel guitar. Its abrasive twang becomes full and murmurous; he pulls melancholy dirges out of his instrument with as much improvisational abandon as he can muster —and all the while Whitley’s foot stomp remains constant in his atmospheric renderings, a soulful reminder of old time music.
In a concert world so over-produced audiences rarely fear for their idols, on-stage catastrophes have come to look more like Ashlee Simpson’s recent debacle on SNL. Watching Whitley can be risky. He can be uneven in concert. Diehard fans usually gather for him, and find themselves alternately mesmerized by his musicianship or dismayed by Whitley’s urgency and frustration—with acoustics, or feedback, or with his own need to bash out even the most melodious songs—he sometimes seems itchy in his own skin. “Man, it all hurts,” he’ll say, and the air and scratch of his voice etch into your memory, become the thing you’ll most recall.
But when his stars align, the man is a fierce and haunted guitar master. For most of his current tour he is alone on a bare stage. To close your eyes as he plays is to dip into a kind of sensory confusion—you’d think there were three people on stage each with a guitar in hand. But no, it’s just Whitley, in his signature wife-beater and jeans, head bowed slightly, leaning into the sound he shakes from his guitars, wiry guns tense as he strums, foot stomp driving him on.
We found Whitley in New York City this summer. There’s a sociology of chance meetings to be written, and maybe this anecdote is part of that project. Several members of the PBQ staff were having drinks at our NY headquarters, the lovely 4-Faced Liar, on a Sunday afternoon (like you do), and as we sat there perusing possible submissions in the muggy gray heat under a sidewalk umbrella, out walks Chris Whitley, who had been quietly unnoticed inside at the bar.
For those of you who know the musician, you know he is unmistakable. Acute-angle slim, gaunt Apache cheekbones, dark eyes—the man’s got secrets and stories to tell. I’d seen him up close in Philly at the Khyber Pass some years ago. I thought then—and still do—that he looks like someone from some far off world come to visit, bringing a new language, a grammar of whispers and slide guitar riffs. So when I spotted him here in NYC, at our bar, I just about fell off my chair. “Mr. Whitley?” I nearly swallowed my stuttering tongue– “I’m a big fan.”
Graciously Chris agreed to an interview. We arranged to meet after a daytime concert, part of NYC’s Riverfest. I brought poet Greg Pardlo with me for the interview not only because he’s a brilliant writer and thinker, but because I’m basically crushed out on Whitley and have been since I first heard his songs on WXPN in the 80s. I was afraid my interview technique would consist of questions like, “Hello Chris Whitley. I love you. Do you know how long I’ve loved you? Speak into the microphone please.” Greg brought ballast. Whitley brought Brassai’s Conversations with Picasso
Here in its entirety is the record of a post-concert conversation that took place over drinks one slow summer afternoon. We drank way too much and well in to the heat of the afternoon. Our talk spooled into inspiration, influence, revelation, and melancholy; we talked aesthetics, the business of art, the art of memory; we covered celebrity, making it, and mommy issues. We talked about the blues.
So, let’s start with a toast: Here’s to artists talking to each other—and the honesty borne of a little too much wine.
MW: Let me start by saying that was an amazing performance. Really soulful, laid back. Is there something about being at an outdoor venue that seems to create that laid back, compelling vibe?
CW: I’m glad you liked it. I’m relaxed playing in New York; there are lots of people who are friends of mine here I actually like playing in New York. I know a lot of people.
But I actually enjoy playing in places where I don’t know anyone too, because I don’t know what to expect. So to play outdoors and to hear the sound bounce of f the buildings was really sweet….
I play so much solo and so much pragmatically… and you know… you just have to acclimate. When you can’t travel with your own people which is interesting because you have to adjust your shit, and you come up with new things, you acclimate. I’m quiet, or sometimes I just have to bash away.
MW: You know, it’s funny you say that because I saw you play at the Khyber pass in Philly some years back, I think it was with the Din of Ecstasy album, and you were really LOUD. Big sounds, just huge, and your guitar careening over it in, what, “Narcotic Prayer,” right? Quiet is not the word I would use. Bam. Big chords, wall of sound. You know, that was the night I my high heel went through the floorboards at the Khyber—it was a bit of dump back then.
CW: No… that was a weird night. You just reminded me. The presidents of the record label… Sony had signed me, but they moved me to one of their little “indy” labels. They signed me, but they didn’t want it to look like they’d signed someone like ME… They were really self-conscious about what represents their label. They didn’t want it to appear they’d signed the wrong guy or something. So that record [Din of Ecstasy] was just coming out and we were doing residencies all over the country. And they came the night of the first one, the first gig of the tour, and they came to tell me they weren’t going to promote it at all. And I should start writing another record, and it was the first gig. I was like, ‘Why are we touring?’ And it defeated everybody. So the next three months, the whole tour I hung my head and was like ‘holy fuck.’ It certainly gave me some new calluses. It was definitely weird to start a tour with “We’re not promoting it, so you’re on your own, blah, blah, blah.” And then they said, ‘let’s go to dinner! OK?’
The two guys who made Paula Abdul, old guys… they were really good with working with a young person they could bend around. But I’d just made a record near impossible to market, actually, so I don’t blame them. It was Khyber Pass, yeah.
MW: Listen, you mention calluses, and this is going to sound completely weird and stalker-y, but, can I see your hands?
MW: You should see this man play guitar.
CW: Aw, I’m very clumsy.
CW: I’m pretty clumsy. I learned to play by writing songs. I have no real technique. But what I listen to is weird enough or something… you know my favorites are Thelonius Monk, solo piano playing is my favorite., Nat King Cole. And I don’t even listen to guitar music, and I think that somehow translates, it bores the hell out of me… I find mid-range instruments … I like base, low end and high end.
I’m tuned way, way low:
MW: You do this thing on stage, it’s low and mysterious, and … it sounds like 8 people on guitar.
CW: Open tuning. Joanie Mitchell, Jimi Paige, Nick Drake, guys who use weird tunings.
MW: Look, I don’t have the language for this, but I’m gonna try: you’re on stage trading steel guitars this afternoon, and you move into these chords, and there’s this sweet mysterious low note, and then your voice is with it there then moves to a higher register… a moan, a whisper, at least on some of the songs today.
CW: It’s completely habitual, yeah. It’s like an uneducated response to everything I’ve listened to. You know… I played really percussively in the 80s because I wished I had a drum machine back then; and I loved melancholy DePeche Mode and I tried to pull that out of my blues roots. Bastard sort of mental state in the wrong setting… like playing guitar… I still listen to old delta blues that I grew up on, I still listen to Muddy Waters … blues of a certain period you’re like: what kind of music is this? It’s so powerful … you’re like: what’s going on with that guy?!
GP: You mention a lot of influences. Do you think you have a cultural project or agenda you are putting forward? Or is there anything you are trying to do socially?
CW: I feel like that but I also don’t know. It’s funny: I’m reading the surrealists now I also feel like living in Dresden has given me a lot. Waking up on the morning of the 11 th there, and seeing their flag at half mast. You know we bombed the hell out of that city, and I wonder if we would have flown our flags that way for them
My middle name is Becker, which is Jones in Duetsche. I think what I’ve always believed is like Camus’ The Rebel. Wars are created by really frustrated individuals, not even ideologies half the time. I really think that— these are issues created by frustrated men; 6000 years of patriarchy. I think about all that shit lately – and I do think about responding. But I have to be honest about it. I’m not all that educated. But doesn’t this seem to have to do with something larger? Like existential humiliation? These political issues: why are these guys so frustrated? Maybe they should get re-married (laughter). I mean, maybe I’m wrong, but maybe …
These issues are so old, history almost teaches us nothing. How long has it been since God grew a penis? I mean, I’m sorry, but there’s actually a lot of pressure on men too…
MW: You seem to be drawn to the past. What’s your fascination with occupied France?
CW: I have no idea why… Hotel Vast Horizon was a hotel where Picasso, Rene Char CHECK, Camus, Breton all hung out just before the occupation. Exiles: I mean any second they are going to be exiles, exiles and lovers and all … they are probably sleeping together and making love, writing like hell and Picasso’s drawing everybody… and there’s something romantic in that, lovers in wartime, trying to escape war, or how love can actually hold when everything is against you. There is a potent romantic quality there… I don’t know; I don’t know if that’s what draws me to the time period: exiles and love.
GP: Is there anything in US culture that attracts you, that you find that romantic?
CW: I always loved history in high school and that shit, but American history didn’t interest me all that much, and I don’t know all that much about it, except old blues culture and stuff like that.
The music out of this country says so much about America—more than almost anything. That’s why it’s so ludicrous we have half masts for Ronald Reagan: what about Ray Charles? Really, man, Charles did more for the world, better for the world, than a bad actor turned president.
And it also makes me love the States. I never felt like an expatriate. I left because I met a woman in Belgium, and I met a woman in Germany, and I happened to have always found Europe attractive. I think that because my kind of dumb-ass blues roots, my simple American-ness, there’s something melancholy that speaks to me about that history.
It may also be because my mom’s a sculptor and my dad’s a graphic designer. And my dad was always looking at Bauhaus books and my mom was always looking at Rodin, and I didn’t really pay attention. Until I was living in Europe. And I also didn’t really pay attention to what American music was until I was a DJ in Europe. Listening to Earth Wind and Fire, there, and even Prince. It might have been Belgium. I was broke as hell. To me, “Big Sky Country,” was a Big Fake Prince Song.
MW: What? What? I love that song… that whole record! That’s what turned me on to you in the first place. WXPN in Philly played the hell out of that album.
CW: I was trying to write an R & B/classic-ish kind of song… I only wish I had a drum machine back then.
MW: That was your biggest cross-over hit? Or was it “Kick the Stones Out of My Bed…”
CW: I was very fortunate that Ridley Scott, who did Thelma and Louise, liked “Kick the Stones.” He’s used that song a bunch of times. He used it recently too; I’m just flattered. I just think he responded to it.
MW: But are you saying that “Big Sky Country” was fake somehow? Posed?
CW: I don’t mean it in that way. I really just mean what I was influenced by, what I was feeling. And with “Big Sky Country” it wasn’t country music, it was something else.
MW: But I’d heard once that you hated that album. That you felt like you sold out. Do you like that song now?
CW: I do. Yeah, I do. I didn’t allow myself to like that record for the longest while. Not for the first couple of years. And this is funny, now I’m doing a record with the same guy who had done that record. We hadn’t talked for the longest time, 7 years. Keyboard player and engineer. He won a Grammy last year for Emmy Lou Harris.
But back then I had never been in the studio or even been produced before; so I was kind of pissed off… pissed off I wasn’t more involved. Man, I didn’t even know how to be more involved. I didn’t know what guitar sounds I was looking for.
I simplified my thinking in the last ten years. Now I’m like: I just stick to what I know. Dumb little simple guitar. And back then I thought I knew more than I actually do.
It’s better for me to do that than pushing my arrogance. Sometimes it’s necessary to know who you are, who you could be… I wasted a lot of time trying to find out something, and half the time we struggle against our own insecurities, and overcompensate, and shit like that
GP: As a performance artist, as someone more oriented to the performance of the work, is there a different relationship to finding a resonance with your audience? Actually I’ll refine the question: do you work at finding a resonance, or is it something you more open up and allow to occur?
CW: I… I… I think I do both. I think partially I do both, and I think that’s because of my culture a little bit: if I could only feel, then I’d probably do that; if I could only think, then I’d probably do that. But I feel like, that is what modernism is; it’s sort of a recognition of the primitive, of the mind, of that duality. But it’s true: that singing the lyrics it’s not as… I can imply something in the way I sing something that has almost more effect than the word itself. You know? Which to me is why it’s not poetry.
MW: hang on, hang on… now I don’t know I buy that. See, a spoken word poet would say that that’s precisely what it is. I always feel like I’m cheating; you find the right voice and you could read the damn phone book like it meant something, and freakin’ sell it.
GP: Yeah, you can take a bad line, and man…
CW: True. There are a lot of musicians who can sing their asses off, who can sing anything at all and yeah, yeah, I will feel good. So that is ‘resonance,’ but I think it is more– it’s being a human being. It’s like sensual and intellectual, somewhere, and that’s still why I love blues, ‘cause it’s almost the closest thing I know to both. That and the blues, jazz, you know, old school…
GP: So the trick then is not to allow either to overshadow…
CW: That’s the difficulty: sometimes you want to let your brain go. And sometimes you want to let your balls… your nipples [laughing all around]… just go. But it’s easier in music than it is for a writer like you all. I know it is. ‘Cause Breton would not allow music in surrealism. Except Sati (??), back when, because he needed the fame, but he was the only one. See it was too abstract already. So music was not one of the surrealist arts! I love that! That makes me…[laughing]
MW: So Greg, are you sensitive to this “brains and balls” dichotomy? Greg is one of the best poets I know. So, Greg, is that something you struggle with? That sort of ornate positioning of the mind (rendered in a line) because you can do it?
GP: Brains and balls. Well, actually Chris, it’s something you mentioned earlier: it’s totally a matter of ego and insecurity. Because when I’m enjoying the poem, when I’m letting it happen, and still when I’m in control of it, then there’s something selfless about it.
CW: Yeah, I dig.
GP: But when I’m self-conscious and second guessing and I’m trying to do something…
CW: Yeah, I dig. That’s why I don’t think about audience when I’m writing as much. ‘Cause it’s like they might make me feel good. And that’s not good enough. [laughing].
That’s very deep shit; I mean it’s deep what we do: crazy as hell. I mean, who the hell would want to be a poet? I love that. I love that so much.
MW: We’re talking about layers of audiences too. Like, in a way, so: as an editor, I’m a secondary audience for you… in the sense that your reader is the primary audience, the one you think about when you do think about an audience. But I’m in there, between you and that audience: do I get it? Do I enjoy it? Will our readers enjoy it? Like I’m imposing…Which kind of, in a way, is kind of like what the record companies are doing to you. They are imagining your audience before you even get at your audience.
CW:And if they were little more poetic they might be better marketing people. [laughing] They call everyone sheep, but that’s not even their fault. It’s probably insecurity too. When you’re paid too much you don’t make good decisions, when you don’t know why you got your paycheck, why you are paid so much. That seems to be the modern dilemma: justify my gig? I better. 500 thousand bucks a year, man, but hey. And then their judgments get fucked up. They should be paid nothing and then they might make good judgments. I’m sorry, everything’s so scary, I’m really getting tired of the music industry.
But back then they were making honest judgments. John Hammond, and the old school A & R guys who found Monk and Bob Dylan and shit – they were creating an industry. ‘S very deep.
Luckily poetry’s not that popular [laughing]. I hate to say that, ‘cause I wish it was.
MW: Hey, well—no worries about us getting paid too much for what we do. We’ll be making good judgments from here till the end of time.
CW: I also find it wonderful… when I think of poetry in France, criticism came out of …I mean you guys probably know this better than me… but the first art critics were poets. They had to be acceptable, like everyone trusts them already; it’s the folk, you know, the people, the street, that trusts you. Man we’ll take your opinion about art.
MW: That’s got a weird parallel in today’s world. I’m thinking of celebrities and political endorsement. Like it’s “I like your music, therefore I’m trusting your politics…” Without going and finding out about the issues on your own, you take a short cut…
CW: Totally American.
MW: Or politicians turned celebrities, or celebrities turned politician. I mean in the first instance—with political endorsements—maybe it’s not so bad if the word is getting out. But the latter—and here I’m thinking Reagan, or Schwarzenegger, or Jesse Ventura—that gives me the heebie jeebies.
CW: It’s pop culture You trust the icon and you’re a sheep and you don’t even ask. It’s the danger of the world we’re living in, of time we’re living in. It’s the same shit that created Hitler.
MW: I’m hearing you. It’s like a different kind of pleasure—and it all seems to spring out of popular culture, consumer culture—it’s this passive sort of position, this “lay back and entertain me & don’t make me think about anything” mentality.
CW: Yes. This is rough. Or it’s also desperation. Like: Please. Save me I’m sorry man, but Jim Carey… I love Jim Carey but…
The only guys I trust in Hollywood now are Sean Penn and Jim Carey. I don’t even trust Nicholson any more. Because they’re doing anything to stay up there with a $40 Million a movie.
MW: OK. So that’s my beef about Bill Murray. I mean, I love him, but how can you go from Lost in Translation to that cat movie, Garfield? How is that possible? You’re just cashing a check.
CW: What wigs me out is, like, $30 million? You could save COUNTRIES with that much and they think they need it again? I think it’s politics in Hollywood that if you’re not asking the fattest bank, and all the sudden you’re going down on the list, and you’re getting older. But then you got Sean Penn, some people are able to say fuck them, I’m hot shit anyway; or, I got something that’s valuable. Not that’s sellable, but valuable.
GP: You ever feel that danger in yourself to …
CW: I’ve gone through my own trips about that. And it’s mostly out of insecurity. It’s mostly that. I didn’t know that a bad decision could kill me.
It was my own insecurity saying “let’s be accessible, let’s please people, but let’s do it a little subversively.” I’ve written some songs but watered them down, at least in the production level – not the basic song or the song writing—but at the production level– to make them sound a bit more ear candy, and I’ve always regretted it. “Big Sky” I did not do that with. “Big Sky” was very honest.
MW: Ah! Thank GOD! I love that song..
CW: It was more popular because of it.
MW: Oh man, I feel redeemed: I loved that song and then I felt guilty about loving it because I hear you HATED it.
CW: I feel redeemed too because people, all kinds of people, from lesbian lovers to old blues folks responded to it. And then I’m like… what are we trying to be? Hip? Or beautiful? You know I sound stoned…but I gotta remind myself of that because we get caught up in fear, or “popness” and now I’m like… well, now I just feel like I’m over it. And I hope I can survive, you know. And I’ve worked my little ass off, trying to make that OK, because there’s easier ways, there definitely is, I mean, there must be.
MW: Amen. Look, we need to get you more wine.
CW: I’m trying to write pop songs, but I try to do it honestly, I also think it’s politically a great thing.
MTV almost killed most of the world. I had a friend who just got back from Viet Nam and all the old people hate Americans and all the kids want to be hip hop. It’s faux rebellion. Nike? These are some of the worst corporations.
MW: But there’s the lure of instant cash, the image and bling bling. It is about money. I mean, you ain’t gonna make a dime doing the pure poetic gig, unless you get a lucrative professorial gig somewhere.
But back to MTV the series of epiphanies that lead to MTV. Music videos? What were they? Ads for songs. So the network puts them on the air—dirt cheap content, right—then sells ad space between the videos. It’s ads between ads between ads. Genius. It’s the proliferation of pop culture and consumer culture.
CW: Yeah, but it didn’t have to be that way. It could be a place for visual art, visual art with music.
MW: Yeah, I’m just being cranky.
CW: Yeah, but your right too, because it didn’t turn out that way. I’d always thought “yeah, what a cool new medium.” But then all we did was write a song and hook up with a visual guy and he’d attach the visuals, or attach some marketing ploy. It can be art – but maybe it’s partially because you are a writer that maybe you don’t feel this, but I do talk to some musicians who feel the same way about music videos—like ‘eeew, videos: they fucked it all up’—but there’s something cool about visual art, having a song and a video, or a song in a movie. I don’t know; I don’t know what I think about that. The cross pollenization of arts. I mean Picasso put on plays—whacked out, but he’s actually a good writer, and it was only taken seriously because he is Picasso. So I’d rather see Ingmar Bergman…
We’re doing rebellious work. I’m so glad about that. It’s a dangerous job… [GP and CW giggle]
MW: Look, there’s a Picasso poem PBQ. It’s by a poet named Katy Hawkins and it’s called “Alchemy Girl.”
CW: Bastard! I wish I wrote that title. “Alchemy Girl.”
CW: But you guys being educators… that’s a dangerous job
GP: I feel that
MW: Here, look , here’s Greg’s poem about “ Atlantic City.” It’s a fine piece, but we botched the line breaks when we re-sized the layout of the book.
CW: [giggles]… the line breaks…
GP: But that’s another aspect of poetry.
MW: Yeah, you have to work two ways.
GP: I’m always conscious of the visual impression on the page
MW: HUH? There’s no lyrics in your CD cover!
CW: Yeah, I’m so glad….
MW: Who’s the photographer?
CW: A good friend and he only prints for Avedon now… worked for Rolling Stone… Models Manual… he was a kid… he’s an emotional mess.. he’s so damn sensitive he can barely walk. He almost refuses to make money for his art.
MW: sounds like the Painted Bride Quarterly.
We were at an editor’s meeting last night puzzling over this—either we’ve come up with a great idea and will get great stuff for the music issue, or we’ve brought down the wrath of the poetry gods and will get inundated with lame, lame poems about music. “This is a poem about Jaaaaz.” You can imagine the Jazz hands in the margins: “Ooo Miles Davis, OOO Dizzie Gillespie.’
CW: Breton—music is not included! It’s too abstract already.
MW: But as you guys said, the roots of poetry are in that troubadour tradition. So in a way, maybe we’ll see that there’s a split, and we’ll honor that split. You know, in a way, we started by saying we’d look at the crossover… but I suspect we’re going to reinforce the differences, find that they should be different, and maybe find the differences more compelling.
CW: Egyptian poems. The old Egyptian songs… the old Lesbos-aram is cool as hell.—those songs– you guys are already all over that…
GP & MW: No way! What are you talking about?
CW: Sappho, man. I love ancient Egypt … I steal so many damn lyrics; I often do.
MW: Like what?
CW: Not in the last 15 years since I been making records. But when I was a kid I used to write. I found a book for 4 bucks, ancient Egyptian love songs and man that’s cool and it’s all her about her… and I was a young man and I was all into that.
MW: Ahem, like you do [laughing].
CW: It’s the songs and who knows & it’s so crazy. Honestly man: poetry? It’s the basic art. It’s more basic than anything I do. As basic as laying bricks. And that’s what’s crazy: you guys are actually rebels…
GP: My parents weren’t happy about it.
MW: Yep, my mom still doesn’t understand. She calls it my hobby.
CW: Yeah, I think of Shakespeare.. Wordsworth, even Blake. Some of that shit, I can’t even… but maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.
MW: No hang on. I kind of hate the Romantics… but still I swear there’s something about that orientation, that celebration of the common, the vernacular, that move away from ornate formality and simultaneously that lauding of the imagination, the spirit of the poet. Seems to set us up for where we are now.
CW: Somewhere between the corporate hired entertainer and the resonant motherfucker.
Yeah, this is what we do. This is what we all try to do. This is what I try to do.[PAUSE]
It’s a hard gig. But why do we do it? Who the hell knows… I honestly think poetry takes so much courage. I think it’s really beautiful you are both writers. Being a musician is like, in some ways, is much easier. And I don’t like pop culture. I don’t believe in postmodernism. I shook hands with Andy Warhol when I was 17. At the Peppermint Lounge, uptown… I always hated that shit…. I always hated -isms. Fucking read Van Gogh. At the same time I’m like “figurative?” – do we want something fresh? …But if I can’t get at some really fresh images, then I’ll take some figurative resonances. Man… it gets at my heart.
GP: My brother is a pop musician. His band, well, they broke up, was called City High. Their album—they got nominated for a Grammy—it was doing pretty well and everyone kept saying “Why don’t you write for your brother ?”
CW: Wow a Grammy is great , you need to be really good to be even nominated.
GP: Cool, right. But I’m like, I can’t get into that headspace. Cause they are doing this very clean, very produced R&B hip hop. I mean… my brother grew up in the suburbs. I mean he was a really pampered kid.
CW: Yeah, dig.
MW: Not exactly the hood.
GP: Now he’s being covered in tattoos. He went to school in Berkley in Boston … [laughing]
CW: He’s probably a monster. Does he play keyboard or guitar?
GP: He plays everything
CW: Holy mother fuckin shit. He’s probably monster.
GP: He is. He is quite brilliant, quite talented. But he’s got that very ambitious, business sense about his approach to art. And he and I—we just…
CW: Your kid brother? Is he your younger brother?[laughter]
CW: Cool. [laughing] ‘cause you should kick his ass.
CW: See ,that’s the funniest thing. It’s like when it all fails what do you come back to? You come back to poetry, you come back to the first songs you ever loved, the first painting you ever saw, the first film that ever moved you … cause it will fail man, you can only get up there so long… that’s deep [laughing] that’s deep ‘cause you be the substance. He might be the form, but you’ll be the content. You know?
GP: He’s got this big old studio in the house… and it’s tempting, you know.
MW: Right next to the writer’s room the folks set up for you[laughing…]
GP: No, no, didn’t even.
MW: Honey, I know, I’m joking.
GP: But it’s tempting, you know? Like one day he’s stuck , he’s stranded at the house and he gets a limo to take him back to New York. A limo.
CW: I know. I know man.
GP: It’s tempting. It’s like I’d do it.
CW: Yeah, man it’s a lot of fucking money
MW: But you are writing a great book.
GP: [big pause] Well…
MW: Well it’s what you are doing, right?
CW: Well luckily… luckily she can remind you
GP: Yeah, totally
CW: I fucking see an old girlfriend of mine. We used to hang out years ago. She’s a basket case. A cool poet. Really she is. She didn’t even give a fuck. So when we were screwing around she’s writing in Harper’s about her escapades with rock stars… and I’m sorry, I was not a rock star. This is like some sensationalist writer, young girls with daddy problems.
MW: Yo, step off the daddy problems![laughing]
GP: We get some of those poets …
CW: Just come from Harvard…
MW: You have no idea…
CW: I know, but yeah, but I’m a dad myself. I have a daughter
MW: So what’d you name her? A boy’s name? My dad was a wiseacre and named me Marion Curtis.[laughing]
CW: I named her a girl’s name. And all my dad could say—he was such a dick—he’s like “why’d you name her that? That was the name of my dog?”
GP & MW: aaaawwww.
CW: Dick face. He’s from Houston. Just… well, then: Mommy Problems?
MW: Well then fine, we’ll do those too. Let’s go there.[shrieking laughter]
CW: Man, that’s rough too, you know?
MW: I do.
CW: (murmurs) My mom… she’s so beautiful.. my daughter is even more beautiful.. but my mom: she’s so fucking smart. She’s fucking starving like always; I send her money. Survived breast cancer. Third time she’s had cancer in her life. She smoked most of her life. She’s Texas, 50s Texas; she’s trying to be so fucking tough. And I’m like: how come you been alone twenty years? She’s been alone 20 fucking years. And then she takes a picture of me and she looks like I’m her lover. And I was like: duh. Sorry ma, I ain’t yer lover, I’m yer son.[laughter]
MW: well, it is Texas. [laughter]
CW: Moms and dads and sons and daughters… it’s weird.. But it’s Ok.
MW: Where’s your dad? Is he still alive?
CW: My dad’s in Jersey. He’s so weird. My dad’s finally got this chick. He’s like one of them dads. Every woman I’m with didn’t know her dad. And my dad’s a singer. I got a 3-month tour with Warren Zevon and I had heavy pneumonia, I was dying. Put me in Bellevue, in the hospital, and my dad comes and all he says is “maybe he should just die so I don’t have to feel guilty.”
GP & MW: [big pause] ouch
CW: This is “father.” And you know what? I’m not gonna be too guilty to not tell my daughter I love her more than fucking anything. You know, my dad? He’s too scared: little wimpy 50s (era) guy. 50s Texas: fuck you. Know what I mean? Really: it’s like, ‘I’m so guilty I can’t even be responsible.’ I mean: why don’t you rise, mother fucker?
GP: Don’ you get an odd inspiration from all of that though?
CW: I do. I do. And I also do as a man. It’s like yo: I understand why he was weak that way. I told him that. You know, my mom, my ex-wife, fucking remind me constantly– and I went to my dad and I said “Yo man– I know how hard it was for you.” And my dad started crying. And he still won’t say it, you know.
GP: But it moves you to recognized him with those shortcomings and to address them and to keep them sort of… to be aware of it in your own personality and character.
CW: You know… OK. It taught me a little bit more about being a man, about being a “dad.”
GP: In the negative sense.
CW: And I wish I could say it to him. But he don’t even want to know. And my mom too; she’s like: “as long as you’re not my lover, who needs ya!” [Laughing]. She don’t say that, of course, but it’s like [laughing]. She been alone so long it’s like … You know, she’s a fucking brilliant artist. She really is. She don’t even know and I can’t even tell her. I can’t say “Momma: you can teach in Dresden, East Germany.” The art institute is so big, and they’d love to have a woman sculptor teaching there. They’d love to have someone teaching in bronze, terra cotta, welding—my mom does all that shit.
MW: But she can’t come out of what she knows.
CW: She can’t come away from the States. She’s stuck. 50s Texas. Dumbass culture. I say they should all starve to death. [Laughter]. Well, I hate to say that. Dallas ain’t so bad, and Austin is great, but Houston is idiocy. It is so conservative…it’s like, ‘what are you so afraid of?’ and they’re like ‘you!’ They are afraid of anything… it’s like complete xenophobia. ‘I’m afraid of anything I don’t know.’ And that’s when I go ‘you’re my fucking worst enemy.’
And now I know who the enemy is: a moron who thinks the highways are OK. That crappy architecture is OK. And that poetry shouldn’t exist. Now I know who I’m fightin’. But that’s OK. But that’s my fuckin’ home town— Houston sucks. I hope they don’t mind this down there—but they’ll never read it.
MW: So Greg’s got a beautiful mother…
GP: Yeah, she’s a graphic artist. And you know when we were talking about the commercial aspects…
CW: Your Momma… I bet it was rough for her too getting started…
GP: Her whole life, she painted on the side, timidly. It was a secret, like her ‘dirty little secret.’
CW: She still married? To your dad?
GP: Yeah, yeah. [pause] I mean I don’t think they should be [laughs].
CW: Yeah, dig.
GP: They’re still married. They’ve gone through all kinds of shit.
CW: You came out OK, man. I mean, I know a couple of people whose parents stayed together when they hated each other and they didn’t come out OK. They came out hating relationships and objectifying.
GP: What I learned from her, which was my approach to art, was that if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it in an honest and genuine way. Because I saw her regret her whole life…
CW: That’s beautiful. This is like a son… she taught you… well like for her, where it was completely impossible to express herself, where she comes from, and we caught it. I know man. I dig that.
And my mom sometimes would tell me “I like what you do.” Once in awhile. She used to tell me sometimes when we were cutting wood, “just sing and shut the hell up.” Cutting wood. And I’m like, sorry I have to warm your fucking house Momma. Cutting wood up the ravine. But she was right.
MW: You just came up with the headline for this interview: “Just sing and shut the fuck up.”
CW: She was right. She told me “what I value about you is that you are the artist. I don’t need to know your thoughts.”[laughter all around]
CW: It’s kind of rough too coming from your mom and shit, but she was right. She was like ‘sing ‘em to me, let’s not talk about it.’ You know?
MW: But that was… you found a way to communicate with her?
CW: You know, I don’t know. I have no idea any more. What I know now is that I didn’t have my mom at all. You know… I… I grew up in
I’m going to tell you an absurdly intimate story. They were both fucking married when they were 16. My mom tells me ‘we got married so we could fuck.’ Catholic culture. I’m not baptized. And shit like that. In Oklahoma City, where my dad’s up here looking for a job…he was 21… god I give it to that old fucking bastard. And my mom, she was being a kid in Oklahoma City, and she was raped a bunch of times and she would take me into the room to protect herself, and I don’t remember any of it, but I cannot watch a movie with any sort of violence and sex. So I was raised a little angry about men anyway– but it can kill you as a man, you can hate yourself, and also you can’t express yourself sexually and all this kind of shit. That definitely formed me, it definitely did. And I didn’t even realize it until I was watching these movies… And then I asked my mom about what I recalled and my mom told me, and she wrote it off as if was no big deal. And I was like, “yo, you know: It was me who was paying.”
And I was watching the film The Piano—and Keitel pulling that woman out of the —and the violence and eroticism, the erotic implications and the violence—and I couldn’t watch it and it dawned on me: this fucking shit has been affecting my whole life.
That’s why I go back to Camus’ The Rebel; I know that that’s the kind of shit that makes worlds.
When you get that frustrated, when you get that angry, and you don’t know where it comes from.. but I know now, so I try to bite on that.
It’s rough. And my mom, she don’t even pay it attention, she’s like, “that’s just something I did when I was too young.”
And I’m like ‘you mother-fucking half destroyed me.’ You know what I’m saying?
It’s funny. Fucking crazy woman. She’s such a great sculptor too. Her shit is like Camille CLAUDEL? She can study anatomy. She’s the shit. Dumb bitch.
I love her so much, but it pisses me off like hell, she takes her self so much for granted. And it’s because, there it is, she’s a woman in the 50s and it’s like her own feelings don’t matter. And I’m like yo, they matter so much. They mattered so much.
We got so many reasons…
GP: I gotta call my mom
CW: Me too, man![ALL: Laughing, howling now.]
CW: My mom’d by like, “OK, all right, what can we get into now?” And I’d be like, “Mom, Picasso.” And she’d be like, “I hate that bastard. He was a fucking misogynist!” And I’d be like “shut the hell up” [drawling that last bit.] [Howling again.]
GP: So you have a church background?
CW: No, no, I wasn’t even baptized.
MW: Are you serious? Dude I thought for sure you’re singing me church songs.
GP: Yeah, yeah, see that’s the thing, you keep mentioning and referencing these gospels, spirituals…
CW: I, I… totally believe in that stuff, but I do not believe that god has a penis.
GP: Mmhmmm. Mmmhmmm. No, I dig it.
MW: No hang on. There is that gospel quality to your songs, that… well, you give me access to a kind of spirituality that I don’t find other places.
CW: OK, that’s a stupid thing to say about god and the penis. It has nothing to do with the issues, or thoughts; it’s that I don’t know where else to go, mostly. Gospels. Spirituals. I go back to gospel ‘cause I don’t know.
You know, I never went to church, but I was missing that and I’m sure it’s like that. And church, and the whatever-the-hell ideologies of the church don’t interest me. I just like what it gives. You know?
In communism, church is illegal. But they are so spiritual. The people: they need, and they know, and they recognize their need and they respond to it… and it’s spiritual, but it ain’t ‘catholic,’ and I love that . It’s heavy. That’s weird. I am a Taoist native American, sort of.
MW: Now there’s a t-shirt.
GP: But even that desire to name it, to put a label on it. I wouldn’t put… I wouldn’t even call it… just be.
CW: It’s so natural for us to do… like terminology… to put a name on it. That’s why I love poetry because you guys have made a profession out of putting terminology on experience without being moronically descriptive. And that’s the basic art. Sex, death, and religion. What you guys do for a living, that’s the real shit. You know? It’s much realer than the president.
But it is. You are more important. Tiny fucking selfless art resonating because you are a human being. It’s more important than reading something that has topics with issues attached. I think so any way.
We’ll all take more rounds.
MW: And water?
CW: I know it’s important. I honestly think that poets are the most important thing right now.
MW: I’ve been listening to your music for nigh on a decade. Maybe longer. And I always thought that you were giving me access to those soulful religious songs. You had access to the blues. I didn’t. But you did. It was something that I didn’t know or have access to in my life, but you did, and through you I could get to that. And there was something about the way that you were performing that brought me in, brought me closer. Right, to the… to the truth of something… that because of my own frickin’ baggage that I couldn’t own.
MW: It was something that I didn’t have a name for… and this word melancholy that’s haunting our conversation in so many ways is the fucking spot-on word for what you call up. Like in that audience today at the pier… it’s a melancholy and a bliss.
GP: Yeah, yeah
CW: Right. The death…
MW: It is the sex and the death and the bliss.
MW: all of it. But there’s a sense of religion to it as well. Here I’m a suburban girl from South Jersey without any roots, it feels, in any tradition bigger or outside of that…
CW: And I’m some moron from anywhere…
MW: But you’re telling me the truth of something… so to hear you disavow that…
CW: That’s why you’re a poet.
MW: Naw man… you’re telling me the stories I needed to hear, singing me the love songs I needed to hear. There’s like a …. I’m here to tell you gentleman: do not discount your audience (not that you would)—and, not to interfere with whatever process it is you’ve got when you are in front of your microphone, but god help me there’s fucking trails of glory that come after whatever you do on the page or with that microphone…
CW: I have to say this man. Greg, most of my art from black music and I’m a white guy. And Vernon Reid, an old friend of mine…
GP: Living Color, right
MW: In Living Color?
GP: No, Living Color. In Living Color was the name of the TV show.
CW: I read this poem of his, this song, and it made me realize half the shit I’m pulling from is black. And I’m sorry, Eminem? He grew up on LL Cool J. Elvis Presley? No, I grew up on fucking Little Richard and Chuck Berry. And so there is a political issue of … there’s some trip in my shit, rightly. Somehow I’m a white guy doing something that’s easy for me and I know who I owe it to and I owe it to being a bastard mostly. I also got a black great uncle, but I’m a bastard, I’m Cherokee, I’m many things, I’m a bastard. I’m like whatever the hell.
I’m Cesair. You know what I mean? The surrealist Cesair. He was a fucking surrealist. The Haitian president. The negritude poets.
MW: Spell it.
GP: C-E-S-A-I-R. The negritude poets…
CW: And when I read him and I’m going ‘I don’t know what the hell he’s saying ‘cause I ain’t black.’ But at the same token I don’t want to be, but I want to help.
GP: But that’s the thing I was interested when I first asked you about bringing all this stuff together, bringing all these influences, and I think there is a statement in saying—where I was criticizing the label– where the problem is that we take words too much for truth. That black or white mean just that. And I think there’s a beauty in you working to break down that border, saying no: it’s culture.
CW: Dig. Thank you man. You just said the thing that’s been fucking with my head. You just said it.
CW: I played my shit for somebody the other day who happened to be black and they just fucking hated me. They just hated it. And I was like straight up ‘right!’ They were right. You know? They were right to fucking hate me. But at the same token, let us blur. Let us blur the lines…
GP: But it’s like what you were saying about your dad though. It’s like your dad. It’s like you say ‘I can be pissed off at you and hate everything that you stand for and that mentality of that xenophobia but I understand it and I also respect that ignorance and I see how you arrived at that.’ So to say that you are right for hating me is to say I understand where that aggression comes from.
CW: It feels like… Christian. It feels like… and I ain’t baptized. It feels like Jesus. You know like…on a certain tip.
MW: Wait, wait. In what way?
CW: It’s like love will expand your head like you can’t even imagine. And that is what it’s lacking in our culture. It’s not political issues, it’s love. It’s like a basic thing that is not a science.
MW: Pity it ain’t got no press. It’s got no PR, no spin… we keep looking for a language for it.
CW: No, right? No one can talk about it. It’s not a science. The men can’t control it. And if the women forget, then we’re fucked. And then we should all decompose. If she forgets that I love her, then I just hope I die, you know? [And he’s patting my thigh]. Laughs.
MW: Ah, now hold on, wait, but that’s part of your project, right? And I’m thinking of Rocket House. What’s that song…
CW: “Serve You.”
MW: I’m think of “Here she comes, catching on fire again…”
CW: How’s that for a genius writer woman, she’s a little poet, she’ll be the next fucking huge…
MW: That song. You listen to that album, and that song in particular, and you know that this man loves women, and it comes through. And that’s not true of some male writers I know.
CW: You know, some guys are assholes. [Laughing]
MW: But this guy, my my my. It’s there in the lyric and the way you breathe.
CW: I met the most brilliant women in the world. I gotta take a piss.
*****[Things get drunk and pornographic from here. The tape starts again and we’re talking about culture and aesthetics and how poets, musicians and teachers are in the business of surfacing that beauty.]
CW: You too momma … Holy cow what a responsibility. And Greg? You got balls. His balls are big. He’s got some big balls.
MW: And what’s the female equivalent?
CW: No, but I came up with this thing. I was thinking, c’mon, what’s the equivalent? And I invented it:
GP & CW: Big nipples. [laughing, clapping]
MW: Nipples are important in life.
CW: Holy cow. Nipples. I must be really lonely. Cause they sound so damn good right now. Fuck.
MW: Ah, loneliness and wine…
CW: Poetry’ll work. Loneliness and wine? Picasso and poetry. That’ll work.
MW: Wait. I’m reading you a poem.
CW: Right. Let’s talk.
MW: Katy Hawkins has this poem in PBQ called “Alchemy Girl.” I’m gonna call and tell her I’m reading you her poem.
CW: “Alchemy Girl” [says it with such awed longing]. I like “Velocity Girl.” I wrote that.
MW: Or your “Poison Girl.”
CW: Mmmm yeah, that wasn’t good. It’s a shitty song.
MW: Whhhhhattt?? I’m deleting that.
CW: It’s very stable-y written. And I hate stable. Shit like that. It’s written verse to chorus. Exactly where you expect it. And there’s no emotion in it if you expect it. I was working in a factory in Brooklyn when I was a kid and I heard on the radio “Boys and Girls.” And I wrote, “that sounds like ‘poison girl.’” And it’s a shitty song.
I hate to say this I wrote it for… Back in 1981 when I came back from Belgium I lived uptown at 108 th Street before all the yuppie shit, and my friends were all shooting dope. And two of them they were both poets, and this is part of poison girl, and one of them she had this line, let me see if I can remember it: “and I pray for salivation.” Not salvation, but salivation.
GP: right, that’s neat.
CW: And I was like yeah, momma, I wish you were praying for me with your ‘salivation,’ yeah, that’ll work. C’mon man, let’s go.
These two women I used to live with. One was a punk rock base player and one of them was a poet. One of them died. Rikki. I wish… I hope you’ll publish that. No one will remember her but our close friends. I remember her. Rikki. She started shooting dope ‘cause she was dancing in a strip joint. Working 48 th Street. And I’m like ‘yo! Why you doin’ that? You gonna die!’ And their like, ‘nah…’ Fuckin’ 1981, we needed money. Shit. And their fuckin doin anything to make money. And Rikki, she’s gone. But Gwenni, she wrote that line, ‘And I pray for salivation.’ It’s a stupid line, but it’s kind of wonderful for a woman to have written, you know what I’m sayin’?[Greg and Chris snap]
She’s beautiful and she gave up writing.
MW: Is she still around?
CW: No, well, that era ripped her out so hard she left… and made babies… like a lot of people do. You know, like when you’re young… That’s why it’s crazy you both are still doing what you do. Being a poet… most of the time it’s so fucking hard … it will rip you… it’ll destroy you before you get 20.
MW: Are you talking about poetry or music?
CW: [Smiles.] I love that. That you guys survive and turned it into a career. That’s another trip.
MW: Well… but that’s about the Painted Bride Quarterly. It’s a freakin’ institution. The fact that it has been around more than thirty years… it’s got its own gravitational pull. It keeps us steady. Respect. But maybe not rich.
CW: You can always try. And you always must push. You are the responsible one.
CW: So I think you better push.
GP: There been times, many, many times in my life, when I would have easily spun out into the ether if I didn’t have this to come back to.
CW: I’ve done it too; I’ve done it too. I’ve spun out… and gone like ‘how come I hate myself so much’ and ‘how come I don’t fit in’ and blah-dee-blah. Fuck that. Fuck that.
I get too serious. I get like, ‘if they don’t come around, then fuck them.’ I feel like that. I’m like, if they don’t come around then maybe I should soot ‘em.[And now we’re really ripped & laughing]
Maybe I should buy a gun!
It’s hard for a man. We got our shit going on and it’s like no one is even paying attention.
MW: Right, if you were a girl , it’d be a whole different fish kettle—you’d be all hair-flippin’ and giggling. You’re just not giggling enough.
CW: NO! If you were a girl you’d be like ‘holy fuck,’ man if my dad don’t listen to me then maybe I should corrupt myself and get back into the corner. Or… maybe become a professor of poetry.
MW: That’d do too.
CW: God you are a beautiful woman, you know? And you created yourself that way. You did. You did. And holy mother fuckin’ shit—girl, your colleagues, right? Back at the University, they sure don’t look like you.
GP: Well, that’s true. [Laughing—snapping hands]
MW: Good lord: my rock star hero is flirting with me!
CW: They’re not trying to open their eyes that wide… they probably buy the bureaucracy… but you… you already seduced them all.[Laughter]
MW: Now, see that’s the charm of the giggle.
CW: You poets. You are a poet.
MW: It’s charm.
CW: No it’s not. It’s talent. It’s talent. And mother fucking will. And you already done that.
MW: I will take the ‘will’ part of that.
CW: Let’s say talent too.
I say no one can stop us.
I’m gettin’ drunk.