SLC Blues

Singer-songwriter John Whipple takes on personal demons and the American “Dream”

by Randy Harward

Meet John Whipple, itinerant everyman singer-songwriter. It's quitting time, and he's fresh off the train (well, TRAX) and pouring himself shots of Maker's Mark. He's self-medicating, trying to forget the drudgery of what he estimates is his 200 th job, “adoring terrible saccharine-coated religious paintings” in a South Salt Lake frame shop. He's a sweaty cotton undershirt away from the anti-Rockwell picture of imminent domestic violence.

Sensing this, the youthful bit weary 37-year-old says, “Later, I'll be taking out my pent-up aggression and sexual frustration on my Dobro. She likes to be beat. She's a kinky bitch.” This is the dichotomy of Whipple. He's a nice, soft spoken, sensitive guy itching to be naughty and have a personal collection of demons.

He started out as a punk rocker (“That's what happens when you're 14 and you suck”) but couldn't deny the appeal of Dylan, Coltrane, Waits and a host of Depression-era blues, folk, and country musicians. He modeled himself after them, copping their tendencies (creative and otherwise) to form his musical and personal identity: that of the tortured (mostly through self abuse), travelin' troubadour. This persona is his own Hedwig, Ziggy, Dr. Funkenstein: outrageous and otherworldly, albeit in a self abuse-y kind of way. It would be depressing if it weren't Whipple's most fervent dream, which this excerpt from his bio seems to reveal:

“John has led a rambling lifestyle. He has traveled from town to town, shit job to shit job, woman to woman all across the states. He has gone through many misadventures along the way. He has been arrested for impersonating himself in Anchorage, found himself homeless in Northern Arizona, offended Republicans in Utah, lived and worked with tree planters in the mountains of New Mexico, and got thrown in jail in Sarasota for staging a one man protest in Sarasota. This tour of the dark side of the American Dream has been the source material of John's music.”

Verily, Whipple's swampy tunes explore the dark days/nights/weekends/fortnights of the soul that come from being poor, aimless and prone to screwing up. His voice, which sounds like a young Lou Reed, carries all the weight and weariness it should (even in its slightly forced context). His guitar playing is ragged-a charming negotiation between his fingers and his instrument that only resolves at the end of the song-but effective. The finger-picked chords and the yawn-to-howl slide work conjure exactly the picture he wants, whether it's sad, spooky, plaintive or-in rare moments like “Expectations” (from his latest, Songs for No One , WhippleMusic.Com) just a little sanguine.

For now, those winds are still: He's stuck in Utah. Mainly, he says, because he's without a car-and here, he can work on his electronic/blues duo, Tycoon Machete, with James Perry. But that doesn't keep him from eyeing the next ride to wherever.

“[My life has] been accidents and opportunities”, he says. “I don't feel the need to attach myself, and there have been plenty of times when the grass really was greener on the other side”. As a for-instance, Whipple tells how he wound up in Salt Lake City (and hints at what might cause him to leave).

“A couple of years ago, I was living in Flagstaff. I was unemployed, and I'd thrown out my last pair of shoes. I qualified for unemployment but I couldn't collect because I didn't have an address. Winter was coming and, when my friend generously offered to share his apartment in Salt Lake, Utah sounded pretty good to me for a change. That's how it usually goes. If there's a job or an apartment or a dame somewhere else, I'll take it.”

SLC City Weekly January 12, 2006