“Do you remember the first time you heard West of Rome?”
I was standing in an Athens, Georgia bar, circa 1995, when I was asked that question. My interlocutor was a complete stranger to me then, but we soon became close friends. It was the kind of question that transcended the usual music geek bar banter. Vic Chesnutt’s 1991 album was a touchstone for me in the same way that Elliott Smith’s early demos made such an enormous impression on many of my younger friends. In that way that only music can, Vic’s songs weaseled their way into my DNA. They were secret code that only I and a certain special elect understood. They were the gold standard.
And so I answered: “Yes, actually…I do remember the first time I heard West of Rome.”
Vic Chesnutt died of an overdose of muscle relaxants on Christmas Day. He was 45 years old. The rumors that he was in a coma started swirling Christmas Eve. From what I can tell it was Kristin Hersh who first let slip on her website that it was a suicide attempt. Of course that didn’t surprise a soul who knew anything about Vic’s life and career. It would have been more surprising if it had been natural causes. Chesnutt was suicidal most of his life. He talked about it openly. He wrote and sang about it. It was his own personal cross and he bore it with honesty and, yes, good humor. It was exactly that sort of paradox that made him such an essential artist.
For the uninitiated, Vic Chesnutt was born in Jacksonville in 1964 and raised in Zebulon, Georgia. There were musicians in the family. He learned to play the trumpet, messed around with the ukulele, pecked around at the guitar, and tried his hand at writing songs. He played in cover bands. But in 1983, Chesnutt’s world tilted on its axis. He was 18 years old the night he got drunk and rolled his car into an Atlanta ditch. The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down and with only partial use of his hands. After a short and ill-fated stint in Nashville, he landed in Athens. It was 1985.
When you’re tied to a wheelchair, you have plenty of time to catch up on your reading. By Chesnutt’s own rendering, he shoplifted a beat-up copy of the Norton Anthology of Poetry and immersed himself in the words of Auden, Whitman, and Dickinson. By the end of the ‘80s he was performing solo shows at the 40 Watt and was considered one of the rising stars of Athens’s fertile scene. It was Michael Stipe who took Chesnutt into the studio to record his first two albums: Little in 1990 and the seminal West of Rome in 1991. He would eventually release 13 records and perform and collaborate on many others.
Vic and I were not friends. We did, however, have mutual friends and acquaintances. We ran in some of the same circles. We crossed paths maybe four or five times in the five years I was in Athens but it was always at a bar or club and our conversations rarely went beyond the usual pleasantries. A couple of my buddies who knew him better said he could be pretty obstinate, but in my experience he was unfailingly polite and unassuming. We once had a strange conversation about the Beatles’ White Album and I was pretty certain I’d pissed him off. Later I was told he was just messing with me. And then there was one eminently forgettable evening when I ran into him at a late night watering-hole called “Lunch Paper.” We swapped shots for over an hour in complete silence. I was enduring my own little dark night of the soul and I wasn’t in any mood for conversation — even with one of my artistic heroes. He liked that just fine. When the bartender yelled “last call,” I stood up to pay and my knees went a little wobbly. I looked over at Vic and he smiled and said, “See? Every once in awhile these wheels come in handy.” Off he rolled into the heavy night.
No, my interest — my obsession, really — with Vic Chesnutt was and is with his words. And even there I want to tread lightly. Some years ago in another piece I referred to him as the “Poet Laureate of Athens, Georgia.” That implied that being a great songwriter wasn’t enough — that the popular song was somewhere down the ladder of artistic forms. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Through the complex interplay of his words and music, Vic made pop songs that were great art. They were crystalline miniatures that somehow could encapsulate the human condition in all of its pain and absurdity and humor. He had this singular ability to take you to the abyss — to sing with brutal honesty about human frailty and failure, about going toe-to-toe with those inner demons, about hurting those we love most, and to express his anger, unhappiness, self-loathing, and self-doubt — and then with excruciating ease, turn a phrase that could double you over with laughter. By laying bare his fragile and flawed humanity, he made us all a little more human. That was his monumental talent.
His live performances were just as riveting. He seemed such a diminutive figure when he rolled out onto the stage but as soon as he started telling stories you could hear a pin drop. Even when he played the “World Famous 40 Watt Club,” in front of an audience notorious for talking over the performers, Vic ruled the roost. No one would have considered interrupting a Vic show. It just wasn’t done — even in that hipster hell.
I’ve wanted to write seriously about Chesnutt for years. I hoped one day to do a long interview with him for Verbicide. I figured that now that I was back in Georgia the opportunities to talk to his friends and family might present themselves and I could do an even longer piece. Why not? Even with his personal life in turmoil, his career was on an extraordinary trajectory. In interviews he often expressed doubts about himself and his music, but he was an avid collaborator constantly hooking up with world-class musicians who felt compelled to help him to achieve his vision. Lambchop, Widespread Panic, Bill Frisell, Van Dyke Parks, and Elf Power were just the tip of the creative iceberg.
But nothing prepared diehard fans for the sonic paradigm shift that came with the Jem Cohen-produced North Star Deserter (2007). Cohen convinced Chesnutt to record the album with a bevy of Constellation Records artists including members of Thee Silver Mt. Zion and Godspeed You! Black Emperor along with Fugazi guitarist Guy Picciotto. That same indie-rock supergroup reformed for this year’s release, At the Cut. The band took Chesnutt’s deceptively simple songs and contributed all sorts of layers and textures. That process proved incredibly inspirational to Chesnutt who reported in an interview with the music blog, Aquarium Drunkard, that the recording sessions had proven so powerful that he’d gone home and written 15 new songs.
Within weeks of wrapping up the recording of At the Cut, he went back into the studio with his longtime friend and mentor Jonathan Richman. Richman had a very different aesthetic agenda in mind. No accoutrements. Strip away all the artifice. Sit Vic in front of a microphone with just his guitar. Let him play. The result is the stellar Skitter on Take Off, an album so naked and raw you can hear Chesnutt breathing on some of the songs. As aural experience, it couldn’t be more different than either North Star or At the Cut. And yet Vic’s visceral power — the power of his words — is still there. Skitter is a quiet little album that packs an emotional wallop. The bottom-line is that 2009 witnessed the singer/songwriter at the absolute peak of his creative genius.
And now he’s gone. A suicide. In early December, in an interview with Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air Chesnutt talked about his struggles. He admitted to attempting suicide “three or four times.” But as he put it, “It didn’t take.” He talked about the anger and resentment he felt when he was revived and realized that he had survived. “I’d be like, how dare you?,” he told her. “You know, how dare you people interfere in…what was obviously my life, my wish?” But then Chesnutt went on to say that as time went by — as he put distance between himself and the suicide attempt — he’d feel increasingly happy that he was alive, that he had tasks to complete before he could go.
The question that provoked Chesnutt’s frank admission concerned the song , “Flirted With You All My Life.” In the song, Chesnutt’s protagonist literally flirts with death.
I’ve flirted with you all my life,
even kissed you once or twice,
and to this day,
I swear it was nice,
but clearly I was not ready.
When you touched a friend of mine,
I thought I would lose my mind,
but I found out with time that really,
I was not ready,
no, no, cold death, cold death, oh death,
really, I’m not ready.
Gross was quick to interpret the song as “heavy” and dark. In fact in obituary after obituary written since Christmas Day, we’ve inevitably had to encounter this particular song. It is a song about suicide; Vic committed suicide; how profoundly tragic it all is. But Chesnutt pointed out just the opposite. In the Fresh Air interview he corrected Gross: “This song is a joyous song, though. I mean, it’s a heavy song, but it is a joyous song. This is a break-up song with death, you know what I mean?”
So why now? Why cash in your chips when you’re on such a hot streak? How the hell should I know? I will say this, however (and I’ll say it because it enrages me), the man was in constant pain. His disabilities worsened over the years. He endured multiple surgeries and incurred massive debts — this in spite of having health insurance. Chesnutt reportedly owed Athens Regional Medical Center as much as $70,000, and those evil parasites sent the Sheriff a-knockin’ with the good news that they were threatening to take his house. That prospect horrified him. He was afraid to go to the hospital for any further treatments. According to Chesnutt, “I mean, I could actually lose a kidney. And I mean, I could die only because I cannot afford to go in there again. I don’t want to die…just because I don’t have enough money to go in the hospital. But that’s the reality of it. You know, I have a preexisting condition, my quadriplegia, and I can’t get [decent] health insurance.”
Did the American health care system kill Vic Chesnutt? Probably not, but to argue it didn’t have some role in this sorry episode is a flat-out lie. Vic’s friend, Jem Cohen, put it this way: “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 was 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.” A fund has been set up to help the family pay off these debts. (http://kristinhersh.cashmusic.org/vic/)
There is nothing easy about this story. There is no way to reconcile its many paradoxes. Vic was an immensely complicated person. But one thing we can say is that a righteous noise has gone out of the artistic universe. That is a loss that affects us all. Each and every one of us. Vaya con dios, Vic Chesnutt. One day maybe we’ll catch up with you out there on that lonesome stretch of highway just west of Rome.
Mark Huddle teaches African American History and Popular Culture at Georgia College and State University. He writes from a bunker at an undisclosed location somewhere in central Georgia. He can be contacted at email@example.com.