03 Mar Vic Chesnutt: In Memory
Just over a year ago, I learned about Vic Chesnutt’s suicide on the radio: “Those of us who work on Fresh Air were upset and shocked…” The usually unflappable Terry Gross sounded shaken by the news, having interviewed the enigmatic singer just a month prior. He had told her the story of his southern childhood and its sudden about-face when he was partially paralyzed in a one-car accident. He had played “Flirted With You All My Life,” explaining that the intensely personal and bittersweet tune was a “break-up song with death.” He had even told her about his past attempts at suicide, joking, “it didn’t take.” Vic’s ability to craft stories with quirky wordsmithing and self-deprecating humor came through just as much in his interview as in his songwriting, and Terry Gross, like so many fans he left behind, was clearly charmed.
I first came across Vic Chesnutt in 1993’s Drunk, a carousing album that showcases Vic’s style in full-blown fury. An acquired taste for some listeners, for me his strained vocals over minimalist guitar chording (both aspects were due to the physical consequences of his accident) created a mesmerizing effect. This album swings from eccentric musings to raucous outbursts, and it brought to mind what would happen if David Sedaris were locked in a room too long with Tom Waits and Shane McGowan of The Pogues. Witness the fucked-up glorious spectacle in “Gluefoot”: “Cross my heart/ Cross my eyes/ Stick a needle in my thigh/ Drop kicked my unscrewed lid and fiddled fiddled fiddled with what’s inside/ A rusty mass of mechinations….” The title track that follows is what might result if that same crew crashed an AA meeting. Denial it ain’t.
I was lucky to see Vic in concert several years later, sharing the stage with his friend Kristen Hersh (of Throwing Muses and 50foot Wave). They took turns playing acoustic songs, one building on a theme from the other. Both were remarkable, but even Hersh would acknowledge that her poetic mania seemed dim alongside Vic’s scintillating wit, as he joked with the audience and sketched stark images with his lyrics. It is perhaps this latter quality that has attracted the most attention over the years—some have likened his songs to classic southern novels. Whether this is apt or not, he certainly was able to evoke a sense of time and place as so few of his contemporaries can (my favorite example is 2009’s “Sewing Machine,” recalling a childhood in a simpler time). His songs are sometimes melancholy testaments to decay (as in “Degenerate”), at other times veering toward the downright goofy (“…we were laughing at Dapper Dan/ We were happy as giant clams…We were bumping our birth-marks/ we were happy as lilting larks” –“Society Sue”). As Michael Stipe pointed out, it is the unusual turns of phrase at the core of his songs that make them so oddly compelling.
Perhaps the greatest measure of Vic Chesnutt’s artistry was the company he kept. He became a core member of the Athens, Georgia music scene, accompanied by locals Widespread Panic, and more recently, Elf Power. In 1996, the tribute album Sweet Relief 2 was released, featuring Chesnutt covers by artists ranging from Garbage to Smashing Pumpkins to Madonna (!). The fact that so many musicians wanted to pay tribute and collaborate with him, usually in the role of back-up to his idiosyncratic vocals, reveals the level to which he was in reality an artist’s artist. His commercial success was always limited, and he was dogged by financial troubles from past-due medical bills for the remainder of his life. Yet he continued to crank out albums, eighteen in all, and collaborations with The Cowboy Junkies (who just released a tribute album of their own this month) and the ageless Jonathan Richman were in the works. If anything, Vic’s creative energies were on the rise toward end of his life, having released three albums in a year’s stretch. “He was on such a burn,” Fugazi’s Guy Piccioto said to Terri Gross, that he instructed his fellow musicians to not let him have his guitar at night, because he needed rest. “The music was pouring out of him.”
To me, it is incredibly sad that in such musical genius as Vic Chesnutt’s were also the seeds of his self-annihilation. Apparently, his friends were trying to get him the help he needed, having recognized worrying signs in his escalating behavior, but it arrived too late. He left a community of musicians and fans deeply appreciative of his contributions and long in mourning.