Monday, January 04, 2010

Tribute: Vic Chesnutt (1964-2009)

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It's the news that we have been dreading and perhaps expecting for years: Vic Chesnutt is dead, most likely by suicide. Chesnutt always seemed older than his years and living on borrowed time: the cracked voice; those loosely-fitting clothes that suggested he was nothing but bones underneath them; the wheelchair and the limitations they imposed on him. Suicide was never a stranger in the singer's life or his songs. In various interviews he acknowledged several previous suicide attempts with a disarming degree of candor; "I flirted with you all my life/ Even kissed you once or twice" is how he addressed the subject on At The Cut. "Florida," written as an elegy for a friend who killed himself, now sounds even more chilling:

A man must take his life in his own hands
Hit those nails on the head
And I respect a man who goes to where he wants to be
Even if he wants to be dead

Most of the obituaries that have been written thus far have invariably typecast Chesnutt as a humorless and death-obsessed Southern folkie. Certainly Chesnutt spent much of his musical, and one imagines, private life confronting the types of questions about mortality many of us would prefer to keep at a safe distance. But the musician's work went far beyond that simplistic characterization; his songs could be cruel, comforting, comical and caustic all at once. At their best they told us something about the beauty and tragedy of life, about companionship and isolation, about hope and hopelessness.

His lyrics could paint pictures more vividly and believably than any painter's canvass; his songs were undeniably poetic. In Chesnutt's songs life was presented in startling detail; a bizarre, fragile and occasionally humorous world came alive in a Vic Chesnutt song. He saw the minute details about the world that most of us cannot or have been conditioned to ignore:

The filthy steps, the cold concrete
The phony earth below my feet
The ancient odor of the street
Yes the world, world, world it is a sponge
"Sponge" (from West of Rome)

Life is often portrayed as painfully transient at best in a Vic Chesnutt song. His albums are littered with characters whose little dramas we can recognize as our own and take consolation in. Chesnutt's musical worldview could be remarkably bleak; even the blissful innocence of childhood couldn't last forever. In his songs he reminded us that eventually we'll become more cynical, distant and indifferent to the world around us as we age:

And a little bitty baby draws a nice clean breath
From over his beaming momma's shoulder
He's staring at the worldly wonders that stretch just as far as he can see
But he'll stop staring when he's older
"New Town" (from About To Choke)

Time is rarely anyone's friend in a Vic Chesnutt song: it inexorably rolls on with or without us. That he could express such sentiments without resorting to melodrama is a testament to his unique lyrical and vocal abilities. When he wasn't twisting the knife into one of his hapless victims, Chesnutt could pose such questions about mortality, aging and the past with both sympathy and tenderness. He knew more about loss and loneliness than any one person should have had to:

Betty Lonely
She will always think in Spanish
Though I know her Spanish black hair will start to fade
"Betty Lonely" (from Is the Actor Happy?)

Conversely some of his songs reflect a fidelity and sense of promise that at least temporarily brightens the suffering lives that played out in his albums. A listener has to look hard and past all the jilted lovers left at the altar, coldest cadavers in the state and dead pigeons in the weeds to find such optimism, but it is there for anyone who wants to find it. If Chesnutt's music usually leans heavily towards total despair, glimpses of light still peak through. He could be unapologetically sentimental:

Cuddling up
Declarations of love
Squeeze and a hug
A kiss and a rub
Faces opposed
Eyelids closed
Nuzzling nose
Like Eskimos
"In My Way, Yes" (from Silver Lake)

In concert it was difficult to watch him perform; his stage presence was simple, genuine and unbearably heartbreaking. He'd sit in the wheelchair and sing in that fractured voice that could wrench meanings out of the even the simplest line or melody, his face twisting and contorting to the words, the bony fingers that actually worked impossible to ignore as they picked at a guitar. When it was time for an encore he'd simply roll the wheelchair back a few feet, wait and then roll it forward towards the microphone. Yet underneath that frail exterior was a defiance and confidence that suggested he knew how great these songs were, and that we'd better goddamn listen. He could quiet a belligerent crowd as easily with his acidic tongue as he could with his lyrics:

Chesnutt: Here's a song about my world actually.
Fan: It's our world, bro!
Chesnutt: It's my yard, motherfucker.
Introducing "Chinaberry Tree," 11/2/09 Athens, GA

It will be impossible to listen to his albums in the same way again. Many of Chesnutt's lyrics will now take on even darker implications in light of his death, and his memory will haunt these songs forever. For those closest to him, his death is a loss that words will never adequately describe. For those who only knew him via his songs, that loss is likewise deeply felt. His music touched our lives and put into words the indignities we endure, and he did it without ever coming across as weepy or self-pitying. He stared down the harsh realities of both his life and our lives with an endearing amount of honesty. He never glossed over anything in his songs - atheism, death, aging, mortality, the past - and he did it with a mixture of humor of the blackest sort and a remarkably colloquial yet poetic ear for language.

Today "Florida" sounds eerily prophetic:

Yes a man must make unpopular decisions, surely from time to time
And a man can only stand what a man can stand
It's a wobbly, volatile line

Vic Chesnutt dangled on that line for longer than most in his situation probably could have. His legacy will be defined by the songs that revealed the scars he'd received throughout life and how he coped with such pain. He wrote some of the most beautiful and disturbing songs any musician has created. For all of us, that will just have to be enough.

by Eric Dennis


Anonymous said...

Thank you.

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