Music docs shed light on ax innovators

Thanks to a pair of recent music documentaries, two of the most singular rock guitarists of the last 30 years are finally receiving some much-deserved recognition.

It’s probable that at some point in their journey, Rowland S. Howard and Chris Whitley met, or at least caught a glimpse of one another, either standing on stage, leaning against a bar or pulling out of the parking lot of some half-filled club on the outskirts of Anywhere, USA. Or England or Australia or Germany for that matter. Both were lifers, musicians who lived, and quite literally died, chasing the music in their heads, through times of plenty and years of famine, when they were nearly forgotten by all but a handful of die hard fans.

Though their careers began with the promise and verve befitting two of the music’s most original instrumentalists, their late-career descents, and ultimate terminations, are the stuff of rock music’s saddest and darkest storybooks.

As detailed in the documentaries Autoluminescent, a recently completed profile of Howard’s uncompromising career, and Dust Radio, a still unfinished document of Whitley’s singular talent, both guitarists came to prominence in the mid to late 80s, Howard as part of the seminal post punk band The Birthday Party, and Whitley as a solo act. The individuality of their music, which stood in bold relief to the pale, anemic sounds that predominated during the era, helped rejuvenate rock at a time when listeners had seemingly written off the music as staid and hopelessly outdated.

Howard came roaring out of Australia with fellow lunatic Nick Cave as part of one of the most explosive and dedicatedly debauched bands of the twentieth century. The Birthday Party was also one the most talented and Howard’s sulfurous, romantically warped guitar, as attested to by nearly every surviving member, was its most defining, crucial element. Listening to their music some three decades after its release, the shock of the new is still palpable. Jazz, blues, country and western and rockabilly are slathered in reverb and genetically spliced, mutated and filtered through whatever part of Howard’s body such things spring from to emerge as one haunted and haunting ode to melancholia and self abuse. To this day I’ve heard nothing like it, despite the numerous Goth bands that have clearly aped his style without fathoming his talent or intelligence.

Howard would go on to refine his approach with bands such as Crime and the City Solution and These Immortal Souls, adding touches of 50s girl group pop and ethereal balladry to his increasingly scaled back sound. He would also release two exquisite solo albums, ten years apart, that showcased a guitar style honed and restrained to serve songs that are at once self-mocking, surrealistic, and movingly honest.

Though Whitley and Howard’s careers followed similar trajectories, in one respect they were polar opposites. While Howard began as an extreme noise, almost avant-garde musician, Whitley worked from the opposite direction, moving from roots rock to something resembling abstract free blues.

Whitley gained a measure of mainstream success with the release of his first album, Living With The Law, in 1991. After appearances on David Letterman, Arsenio Hall and other popular late night shows, Whitley was hailed as one of the great white saviors of blues rock, a cross between Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan with the songwriting chops to back up his raw, resonant playing, which was often channeled through an electric national steel guitar.

By his second album, Din of Ecstasy, Whitley was already moving against the critics expectations into something stranger, less literal. If Howard’s career was marked by a gradual refining of an established style, Whitley’s moved, Neil Young-like, from one extreme to the next, now seeking solace in jazzy acoustic blues, now exploring electronic textures and howling feedback dirges.

Like Howard, Whitley indulged in the lifestyle that has always presented itself to artists curious and naive enough to embrace it. Heroin, speed, booze…who knows what else. By the early 2000s both men were struggling with addiction, eking out a living playing small clubs to indifferent audiences anywhere they could find a gig. They both would eventually fall ill and struggle to remain mentally and financially solvent.

Autoluminescent and Dust Radio present two men who, in their individual ways, reached for and found the violent, erotic, tender heart of rock and roll and took up residence there, refusing to abscond for safer, more lucrative environs at the expense of both their bank accounts and physical and mental health.

Both were committed to creating deeply human music that paid no heed to current trends or production techniques. To my ears, the wildness of their playing, their willingness to flirt with pure musical chaos, has more in common with the primal essence of rock and roll than much of the soul-numbingly technical or purely commercial-minded players at work today.

As aggressive and subversive as their music could undoubtedly be, it is also marked by a keen sensitivity to nuance, space, subtlety, and what I would venture to call grace. Both understood the importance of silence in highlighting and defining the bursts of fragmented rhythm and shattered notes that they mastered at the very outset of their careers.

And both would reaffirm their commitment to their music by playing until they could no longer stand, finally succumbing to cancer-related illnesses, Whitley on November 20, 2005 and Howard on December 30, 2009.

During Howard’s last public performance he went on stage with a vomit bucket and, by shows end, blood could be seen slowly dripping from his mouth. “I seem to be leaking,” he joked with the crowd.

But there’s no great tragedy here. Like everyone, Whitley and Howard made their choices and lived and died accordingly.

I expect neither, given the chance, would have done it any differently.


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