A BREAK-UP SONG WITH DEATH Vic Chesnutt

Saying one final
farewell to the immensely gifted singer-songwriter.

 

BY STEVEN
ROSEN
/ PHOTO BY SCOTT DUDELSON

 

 

Vic Chesnutt, who died from a muscle-relaxer overdose at age
45   on Christmas Day, 2009, was always too intense a singer-songwriter for many
to take. A 1983 auto accident, when he was just 18 and driving after drinking,
had left him wheelchair-confined and with limited use of his hands. Yet he
persevered, fighting the pain and the medical expenses, to become a performer
who addressed life frankly.

 

That frankness could make some uncomfortable, so pointed
could it be. But those who liked him felt he was a revelation.

 

After recording his first album in 1990, Chesnutt stayed in touch
with and improved his talents right to his end. Just since September he had
released two albums – the rockin’ At the Cut
came out in September on
Constellation Records and the quieter Skitter on Take-Off,
produced by Jonathan
Richman, on Vapor Records in October.

 

At the Cut had earned Chesnutt some of his best reviews ever.
He was backed by
a
tough, muscular group including guitarist Guy Picciotto of Fugazi and members
of Thee Silver Mt. Zion and God Speed! You Black Emperor. Picciotto and Arcade
Fire’s Howard Bilerman co-produced the record in Montreal, where Chesnutt in
2007 had recorded North Star Deserter with the same musicians, but with
close friend Jem Cohen producing.

 

But that artistic acclaim could only go so far in helping
Chesnutt cope with a difficult life. Cohen, a filmmaker/artist, addressed that an online
statement: “Vic’s death, just so you all know, did not come at the end of some
cliché downward spiral. He was battling deep depression but also at the peak of
his powers, and with the help of friends and family he was in the middle of a
desperate search for help. The system failed to provide it. I miss him terribly.”

 

In 1995 I first saw Chesnutt at a South by Southwest
showcase with Victoria Williams and Ani DiFranco. He was still a largely
unknown quantity outside his home base of Athens,
Ga. But the crowd, mostly music
professionals and aficionados, was predisposed to like whoever came to the Austin festival with good
buzz. 

 

Chesnutt’s early albums on the Texas Hotel label (the first
two produced by Michael Stipe) had surely done that. And his own musical tastes
seemed pretty sharp – he had written about listening to “Lucinda Williams” on
one early album and gotten Syd Straw to sing on another. And he had a very
compelling back story.

 

Yet some at that show just hated him. I remember the angry,
dismissive response of two Colorado
writer-friends – they called Chesnutt a miserablist who used his choked-back
voice, dark lyrics and ever-shifting, minor-key melodies to force his private
misfortune on listeners. They responded to him like chalk on blackboard, and
felt superior for resisting the “hype.”

 

But others disagreed strongly, and discussions after the set
were heated. Yes, the melodies meandered, but they evolved in a way that felt
organic and free of pretension. And the lyrics, while they sometimes did appear
to be secret autobiographical code, also had a daring and presciently haunting
quality. He seemed out of the Southern Gothic literary tradition.

 

It was like having life’s dark truths sorrowfully and
angrily presented, Ten Commandments-style, in the middle of a raucous party.
Not everyone could take it then – or ever after.

 

But more should have – and those who did will treasure his
best work. For instance, one of his finest early songs, “Gravity of the
Situation” from 1995’s Is the Actor
Happy?,
now can be seen as foretelling America’s currently unending
climate of war with its devastating opening verse:

 

“We blew past the Army
motorcade

And its abnormal load
haulage

The gravity of the
situation

Came on us like a bit
of new knowledge.”

 

In retrospect, Chesnutt was a godsend for those who wanted
attitude and edge with their folk or rock, but had grown familiar with – and
tired of – the worn-out, generically rebellious imagery of post-Nirvana
alternative-rock bands.

 

Chesnutt was past that – he could be confrontational toward
himself. And that is somewhere only the best older singer-songwriters, like
Leonard Cohen or Loudon Wainwright, could go, and even then often only with
considerable pain. His misfortune had given him the courage, wisdom and, sadly,
pain of a much older writer. One listen to “Hot Seat” from his 1996 album About to Choke confirms that:

 

“Ventolin and Vivarin and Primatene

Secret tequila shots and a patch of morphine

In mourning and in the throes

What a great day to come out of a coma

I’ve been in the hot seat sweating it out.”

 

Yet he was also young, still close enough to youthful
experiences to vividly draw on them with a Proustian sense of remembrance, as
in “Band Camp” from 2002’s Silver Lake:

 

“You was always
cracking me up

Messing with the band
director

Mocking the tuba parts

In your upper
register.”

 

Yet this song also displays Chesnutt’s knack for
idiosyncratic detail, which made him so singular a write:

 

“Once you soaked a
tampon in some serious vodka

Wore it to school

Second period science
lab

You fell right off
your stool.”

 

He also had a voracious attitude toward learning about the
wider world. On 1998’s The Salesman and
Bernadette
, “Woodrow Wilson” managed to cleverly include presidents Wilson,
Truman, Eisenhower and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell in its lyrics, while still
being anecdotally personal. And on last year’s At the Cut, the song “Philip Guston” draws its lyrics from the
writings and titles of that modernist expressionist painter.

 

The record industry was a weird place in the mid-1990s,
after Nirvana’s breakthrough, and major labels were willing to take chances
with artists previously considered underground. In 1996, after that string of
artfully designed Texas Hotel albums, he was signed by Capitol Records and
released About to Choke. Two years
earlier, a 30-minute Chesnutt documentary, Speed
Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chesnutt
, had been released by filmmaker
Peter Sillen (the doc is reportedly due out soon on DVD with 60 minutes of
extra footage; a trailer can be viewed at Sillen’s website). And he was also
the subject of a 1996 tribute album from the Sweet Relief organization,
designed to help musicians in need of financial assistance.

 

That was probably Chesnutt’s peak year for mass-media
exposure — Sweet Relief II was on
Columbia and had contributions from many of the day’s biggest acts, such as
Hootie & the Blowfish, LIVE, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage and Madonna (with
her brother-in-law Joe Henry).

 

He didn’t last long on Capitol, and went through several
other labels during his career. Yet he also kept working hard, releasing 16
albums including some in collaboration with such bands as Widespread Panic
(under the group name brute), Elf Power and Lambchop. He additionally worked
with the diverse likes of Bill Frisell and the Cowboy Junkies. And he contributed
to various projects, like last year’s Sparklehorse/Danger Mouse album Dark Night of the Soul, and toured
with such other respected singer-songwriters as Richman and Kristin Hersh. He
even turned up in a memorable scene in the 1996 Billy Bob Thornton film Sling
Blade
, playing, alongside fellow Georgian Col. Bruce Hampton, a quirky
musician type named Terence. It’s worth comparing the productivity of his
career – and his lasting impact – with that of some of those who participated
on Sweet Relief II.

 

Chesnutt’s songs have been called death-obsessed, which is
an undeniable part of his artistic whole. You can read it into a lot of his
songs – even “Band Camp.” It has a jaunty, almost-jubilant feel, especially
when Chesnutt and his harmony singers repeat the line “If I knew then what I know now.” What is he referring to? That the
subject of his song – an older girl he admired – would kill herself? Or that
his days of happiness would end in 1983? That mysterious dimension of meaning
is present in so many of his songs.

He could also be courageously unambiguous about it, which is
what makes “Flirted With You All My Life,” from At the Cut,  so powerful. The
“you” of the title was death, ferociously stared down by Chesnutt:

 

“When my Mom was
cancer sick

She fought but then Succumbed
to It

But You made her beg
For it

Lord Jesus, please I’m
Ready’

o’Death … Clearly I’m
not ready.”

 

In an October telephone interview with Chesnutt for a Cincinnati CityBeat story, I told him
the song seemed as wrenching a rumination on its subject as Ralph Stanley’s “O
Death.”

 

“My ‘O Death’ is an homage to his,” Chesnutt answered. He
then explained the musical inspiration was a song by Exuma, a Bahamian-born
musician whose Caribbean-influenced work dealt with mystical, magic-reliant
religions, especially voodoo.

 

“I was inspired to write a song based around one of his
songs, and he was singing about zombies and shit,” Chesnutt recalled of Exuma.
“I was trying to think of something I could sing with the same such conviction,
and ‘O Death’ occurred to me – the Ralph Stanley song. I wanted to write my own
‘O Death.’ It’s basically a suicide’s break-up song with death. It’s a love
song.”

 

In an At the Cut-related
interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Chesnutt went further, saying, “You know, I’ve attempted suicide three or
four times. It didn’t take. I’ve flirted with death my whole life. Even as a
young kid I was sick and almost died a few times. Sometimes I’d be angry that
they revived me. I’d be like, ‘How dare you?’…But of course as the hours and days
wear on, you realize, well, there is joy to be had.”

 

In the wake of his death, those who knew or worked with him
have issued heartfelt statements attesting to his impact: “We have lost one of
our great ones,” Michael Stipe posted on R.E.M.’s site. Jeff Mangum of Neutral
Milk Hotel added, [sic] “in 1991 i moved
to athens georgia in search of god, but what
I discovered instead was vic chesnutt. hearing his music completely transformed
the way i thought about writing songs, and i will forever be in his debt.”

 

And Hersh, who is taking donations for Chesnutt’s widow Tina at her website www.kristinhersh.cashmusic.org/vic/, said, “What this man was
capable of was superhuman. Vic was brilliant, hilarious and necessary; his
songs, messages from the ether, uncensored. He developed a guitar style that
allowed him to play bass, rhythm and lead in the same song – this with the
movement of only two fingers. His fluid timing was inimitable, his poetry untainted
by influences. He was my best friend.”

 

Chesnutt
thought At the Cut was his best work yet, and it is very strong, but one
shouldn’t sell short the Lambchop collaboration on 1998’s Salesman, or
the focused folk-rock of 2003’s Silver Lake. But he
was extremely enthused about At the Cut in our October interview.

 

“I
do feel it’s my best by far,” he said. “It’s a very adult album in many ways
and it encompasses most of what I do in my singing and songwriting. And the
musicianship and arrangements are incredible. I think it’s a very sophisticated
album musically, and it’s very raw in some places but also very architecturally
sound. I’m very proud of it.”

 

Anyone who believes music can rise to high art without
losing touch with the roots that make it populist should be very proud of
Chesnutt’s accomplishments. And mourn his too-soon death.

***

Blurt’s Chesnutt obituary can
be read here.

 

 

Photo of Chesnutt taken by
Scott Dudelson at the Echoplex, Los
Angeles, on December 2, 2009.

 

 

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