Vic Chesnutt 1964-2009

It’s somehow fitting that Vic Chesnutt finally succeeded in removing himself from this world on Christmas Day. With a handful of muscle relaxants, the 45-year-old Athens, Georgia musician brought an end to a life that had, in turn, battered and crushed his body, ignored and rebuffed his singular talents. In doing so, he also closed the door on the small but close-knit fringe of dedicated fans that recognized in his songs a beacon of humanity and courage that only gained in power as the surrounding world moved ever farther into bland commercialism and irreverence.

Like far too many of America’s finest artists, he died all but penniless. A paraplegic for the majority of his adult life, he was plagued ceaselessly by the specters’ of insurmountable medical debts; surgeries he could never afford; lawsuits he could never hope to settle.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of his passing is that, as an artist, he was just beginning to hit his stride. His last three albums, “North Star Deserter,” “Skitter on Take Off,” and his final release, 2009’s “At the Cut,” were Chesnutt’s crowning achievements. Featuring the most sympathetic musical collaborations of his career, both “North Star” and “At the Cut” featured friends Guy Picciotto of Fugazi, Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, among others. The music they wrapped around Chesnutt’s scarred, searching vocals verges on the operatic while remaining somehow supremely intimate and unpretentious.

Not that Chesnutt’s compositions needed gift wrapping or big production tinsel to leave listeners speechless: “Skitter on Take Off,” is a stripped down, acoustic affair sans overdubs that cuts as hard and true as any of the full band albums. It’s a testament to the man’s craft and honesty that the moments in these songs that hang in the air like still, blue bursts of memory work as well through pale whispers as throttled roars.

America was never a land to let talent and strangeness go unpunished. He should have known this was no place for a cripple with a whiney voice singing about such things as Chinaberry Trees, intravenous Demerol and the small daily horrors of everyday existence. A true Son of the South/Original Man, he was seen by some as a kind of freak show savant, picking at his guitar with a claw-like hand, frail frame all but swallowed by the iron wheels and chassis that had been his home since the wreck in ’83. So be it. If the world he perceived was by necessity constricted, then he would report from that world with all the power and mutant insight his mind could call forth. Like the photographers William Eggelston and Robert Frank, he would do battle with the prosaic until it offered up its grainy or brilliantly saturated delights. He would sing about his own backyard and he would do it transcendentally.

The songs, stretching over 13 albums, contain moments that are as structurally elegant, as theatrically perfect as anything in the cannon of George Gershwin or Rodgers and Hart. The love of language stretches back to Johnny Mercer and on to Dylan, with whom he shared a certain free form approach to syntax. Forget the Great American Songbook, art of the power contained in “Glossolalia,” “Supernatural,” or “Flirted With You All My Life,” belongs in the Library of Congress, beside seminal recordings by Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie and whoever else you care to name. Behind the black humor and humble persona Chesnutt surely knew he possessed more than common talent, that he deserved something more than Michael Stipe’s word of mouth and free drinks from the college hipsters eager to prove how they didn’t even notice the shrunken legs and twisted fingers.

But of course, there was always, always, the wheelchair, and the bills, and the lawsuits and…well, it doesn’t really matter now. Maybe all those things added something to his art, maybe not. But they were always there, even on the best, drunken stupor nights with friends and family and music and all the love any one man could ever hope for. “I am a man, I am self aware,” he stated in the opening lines of “Flirting With You All My Life.” “Oh, Death,” he moans, and somewhere on the dark road of America, Ralph Stanley smiles and nods his head.

In early December, discussing his health, Chesnutt told the Los Angeles Times, “I was making payments, but I can’t anymore and I really have no idea what I’m going to do. It seems absurd they can charge this much. When I think about all this, it gets me so furious. I could die tomorrow because of other operations I need that I can’t afford. I could die any day now, but I don’t want to pay them another nickel.”

Amen. Like Hunter Thompson, another Original Man of the South, Chesnutt surveyed his life, didn’t like what he saw and decided to move on. To put it simply, he was ready, and that will have to do for all of us.


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