Remembering Vic Chesnutt: 1964-2009

Remembering Vic Chesnutt: 1964-2009

Remembering Vic Chesnutt: 1964-2009

Originally published in Intermittent Signals.

Vic Chesnutt

Vic Chesnutt

As a fan or as a journalist, I have tried not to become too angry when an artist has taken his or her own life — “Oh, what a waste.” Musicians and actors are, in the end, just like everyone else. For some, accomplishment, fame, and the admiration and love of friends and fans are just not enough when one is alone and weary and the demons — both of the mind and of the physical world — come calling. Try as you might, you can’t put yourself in another’s shoes, so exercises in speculation and judgment are as ignorant as they are pointless.

Having said this, the world lost an astonishingly gifted artist when singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt passed away Dec. 25, after several days spent in a coma induced by an apparent overdose of muscle relaxants. He was 45. To many, including some of his musician peers, Chesnutt’s death was not a complete surprise. The Georgia native spoke openly of his depression throughout his career; he had said that the condition pre-dated the 1983 car crash that left him confined — physically, at least — to a wheelchair.

I did not mention the wheelchair — either to him or to the readers — in an interview feature I wrote about Chesnutt’s Silver Lake album in 2003.

Aside from being an overused topic, I didn’t think it was relevant. Perhaps I was wrong. Obviously, Chesnutt’s experiences and ongoing challenges heavily influenced his work. And what a body of work it was. Some 17 albums, with two in ’09. Moreover, Chesnutt’s quality surpassed, by leaps and bounds, the quantity of his output. A rare feat.

Vic Chesnutt was a unique songwriter with a unique voice. Like his friend Van Dyke Parks or Rufus Wainwright or even the esteemed Leonard Cohen, there was no one quite like him. He wrote and sang and spoke with an inimitable, Southern Gothic fashion that put the listener right in the middle of the story. With guitar perched on lap, Chesnutt examined humanity and his own human condition in the timeless style of an eccentric genius writer of books, rather than a composer of lyrics. In that sense, he was frequently compared to his literary heroes, including Faulkner. Indeed, his songs were not cocktail-party accompaniment, trite Top-40 singles, or catchy ringtones; by and large, Chesnutt songs were to be absorbed, considered, savored.

Most of all, Vic Chesnutt was bold; he had the sort of artistic strength that many of his more well-known admirers wish they possessed. Bold not just in choice of intimate or unusual topic (on Silver Lake, for example, he sang for 8:15 about a eunuch in a sultan’s harem), but in style. As a singer and as a writer, he had the courage to develop an atypical approach all his own, and it worked. Chesnutt, who was no Orbison, had no qualms about shifting pitch or changing inflection to add flavor to his song-stories’ characters; conventional tempos and structures were often fodder for tinkering. He was seemingly fearless.

After learning of Chesnutt’s passing, one of my first impulses was to dig out that interview tape to see if some insightful nugget had been edited out. I resisted the urge; maybe someday I’ll re-write the whole thing, as my newspaper articles — with their prerequisite “Who Is He?” introductions to the artist — often make me wince when I re-read them. I don’t think anything of importance was removed; while being gracious and thoughtful and extremely interesting, the songwriter replied to my queries pretty succinctly. I remember us talking at length about the eunuch and the harem (“Sultan, So Mighty”), and his fascination for observing people. It was a brief, somewhat enigmatic interview that I’ve thought about, now and then, ever since.

Finally, it would not be shameless, exploitative, or insensitive to mention that plaguing Vic Chesnutt in recent years were his medical bills for surgeries and regular treatment. It would not be any of those things because he was a very vocal critic of America’s health care system, and was reportedly in debt and in need of further operations at the time of his passing. If medically-related financial problems were a trigger for a working, touring, internationally acclaimed American musician’s suicide… then the shame, exploitation, and insensitivity are to be found elsewhere.

Mr. Chesnutt, may you find the peace elsewhere that so many wish you could have found in this world.

Vic Chesnutt: www.vicchesnutt.com

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *

Cancel reply

Recently on Ink 19...

  • Sean Costello Tribute
    Sean Costello Tribute

    Don’t Pass Me By: A Tribute To Sean Costello (Landslide Records). Review by Michelle Wilson.

  • Phantasmagoria X: “Reckoning”
    Phantasmagoria X: “Reckoning”

    John DiDonna’s medley of creepy stories and trilling dance returns once more with a tour though all the Central Florida hot spots from Deland to Tampa.

  • Killer Nun
    Killer Nun

    Let Anita Ekberg and director Giulio Berruti introduce you to the nunspolitation genre with Killer Nun.

  • The Tree House
    The Tree House

    One of the most highly regarded works to screen at this year’s Locarno Film Festival was Quý Minh Trương’s The Tree House (Nhà cây), a documentary that dramatically utilizes a science fiction lens to simultaneously examine the cultures of multiple ethnic groups in Vietnam while compelling the audience to question the contemporary importance of visual documentation.

  • Disturbed Furniture
    Disturbed Furniture

    Continuous Pleasures (Arevarc Records). Review by Bob Pomeroy.

  • A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
    A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

    Sleeping your way to the top is one thing, but killing your way up there works a just as well.

  • Deathtrap
    Deathtrap

    A writer hits a dry spell and then murders his wife, all in the name of making a hit.

  • Cabin of Fear
    Cabin of Fear

    Campers freak out when a murderer is on the loose and they have no cell phone reception.

  • Jake La Botz
    Jake La Botz

    They’re Coming For Me (Hi-Style / Free Dirt). Review by Bob Pomeroy.

  • Howlin Rain
    Howlin Rain

    Under The Wheels: Live From The Coasts, Volume 1 (Silver Current Records). Review by Michelle Wilson.

From the Archives