The Cos-mo-pol-i-tan Sound

By  |  December 24, 2015
Photograph of Vic Chesnutt by Jem Cohen Photograph of Vic Chesnutt by Jem Cohen

Vic Chesnutt, the Greatest

 

I moved to Athens on April Fools’ Day, 1994. By then, I had been writing songs and more or less living a life obsessed with music for about twenty years. Based on just one afternoon and evening spent there, I felt this place calling to me. Starting in the early eighties, the town had built a reputation as a mecca for bands and, for better or worse, had helped formulate the “alternative” genre. SPIN and Rolling Stone had written up the Athens scene, and someone even made a movie about it. R.E.M. was the biggest band in the world. But by the time I landed there, to most outsiders Athens’s glory days were already in the rearview mirror and the hype and media attention had moved on to other “scene towns” like Seattle and Chapel Hill. It was their loss. As I immediately discovered, Athens in the nineties was a vibrant and amazing place of gigantic artistic diversity—in a town of fewer than 100,000 there were probably more than three-hundred bands, making a wide range of different types of music, and doing a lot of it very well.

A local songwriter named Jack Logan released an album called Bulk with more than forty songs on it, each like a short story, to critical acclaim. The band Five Eight seemed to be on the verge of breaking through to worldwide recognition. Meanwhile, Athens musicians like Ben Mize and David Barbe were touring internationally as part of major bands like Counting Crows and Sugar. Around town, Bill Doss, Andrew Rieger, Jeff Mangum, and a collective of other like-minded artists were collaborating in bands like Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, and Neutral Milk Hotel. Before long they created a scene unto itself known worldwide as Elephant 6.

In the summer of 1995, I took a job as a sound engineer at a local club called the High Hat, granting me a bird’s-eye view of many of the best musicians in town. From my literal perch in the sound booth overlooking the room, I saw great live music five nights a week. On nights that I wasn’t working, I was out at the 40 Watt Club or the Atomic or later Tasty World, immersing myself in the glorious music scene of my adopted hometown. I was broke and living in a dive, but I was writing songs nearly every day, laying the groundwork for the band of my dreams.

It was around that time that I first saw and heard Vic Chesnutt. I walked into the 40 Watt not really knowing anything about him or his music. Upon moving to town, I had heard over and over that I needed to see Vic and that he was “the best songwriter in Athens.” I didn’t know his work, I didn’t know what he looked like or even that he was in a wheelchair. That night will always go down as one of the most transcendent live music experiences of my life. He came onstage with what he referred to as his “scared little skiffle band,” rolled up to the front, and proceeded to sing and play some stunning songs. There was a naked beauty in his music that drew me in and tore me apart. I ended up on the front row with my mouth agape and tears streaming down my face.


I’ve often said that Vic Chesnutt was the best songwriter of my generation; someday there will be classes at fine colleges devoted to the study of his songs. I realize that the “best of” declaration can be a turnoff and that I sound like a snake oil salesman claiming his craft makes one feel more alive. Added to the relative obscurity of Vic’s life’s work, such proselytizing could be taken as elitist drivel. That is, if the subject were not of such awe-inspiring talent in an unlikely package.

Vic Chesnutt is not a household name. He had a small following at the height of his acclaim. His music would be considered an acquired taste, even at its most accessible, and he was so prolific that it’s daunting to explore his large number of releases. He simply released more music than people could keep up with, solo and in collaboration with others, often on small (and sometimes now-defunct) labels.

Vic’s writing was so free. He would make choruses and hooks out of things most people would never think to fit into the song form. His art was all encompassing, freely mixing the high- and lowbrow, the beautiful and profane. He could use his Southern drawl to make short words long and fit the most complex of thoughts into an almost childlike melody. From “Onion Soup”: Those were the days, when you were so cos-mo-pol-i-tan / These are the days, my letters they’re increasingly maudlin. Vic was willing and able to rhyme “A hotel full of Pakistanis” and “a front porch filled with greasy, greasy grannies.” For me, it was love at first sight.

In “Soft Picasso,” one of my all-time favorite songs, he told the tale of a friend’s comeuppance upon the realization that the sexual revolution could work both ways. The twists and turns of the verses are followed by a knockout left hook of a chorus punch line, all delivered with Vic’s deadpan drawl and a deceptively complex melody. It’s not his best song, but it’s better than nearly anyone else’s best song.

What is Vic’s best song? That’s a tough one. It could be “Isadora Duncan,” the stunning opener to his debut album, Little. An ace card to open any hand, it’s a near-perfect gem of a song with a vicious central line: I can’t believe you own this attitude. Or it could be another from the same album, “Speed Racer,” wherein he lays bare his injury and defiant outlook:
I’m not a victim.
I’m not a victim.
I am an atheist.
I am an atheist.
The idea of divine order is essentially crazy.
Laws of action and reaction are the closest thing to truth in the universe.

Reconciling this earned worldview with the one he inherited growing up in the Bible Belt came at a high emotional, and sometimes physical, price. There is a moment in Peter Sillen’s wonderful 1994 documentary short film, Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chesnutt, in which the poet John Seawright recounts seeing Vic perform at a Unitarian church with Vic’s family in attendance. After singing the lines above, John says, Vic apologized to them all, but especially to his granny. It is a heartbreaking story of Vic’s conviction but also his kindness.

Vic was raised in a Christian home in Zebulon, Georgia. He was adopted by loving parents. His father, James, worked as a luggage handler for Eastern Airlines and his mother, Marian, was a clerk at the immigration office in Atlanta. Vic was very close to his grandparents. The colloquialisms in his wordplay could likely be traced back to all the time spent with old Georgian men and women. There is no doubt he spent many hours as a child going to church. But instead of discovering himself there, he began to find his place in the world by playing music. Vic dabbled in songwriting and played guitar in various bands before the car crash that, at eighteen, left him mostly paralyzed from the neck down with only partial use of his arms and hands.

After the wreck he initially couldn’t play the guitar so he threw himself into his songwriting. He was influenced by the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Stevie Smith. Vic turned inward with a vengeance and reinvented himself. He made his disability a platform from which to provoke and taunt, to rail against hypocrisy and complacency.

A few years later—while tripping on acid, he claimed—he discovered a way to once again play the guitar. He glued a pick to a special glove he rigged up for his right hand that enabled him to strum, while special tunings allowed him to make simple chords with his left. His instinct for music technique was undiminished, so he persevered, making up for his physical limitations by drawing on his vast chordal knowledge.

After moving to Athens in 1985, Vic was discovered playing solo at the 40 Watt Club by Michael Stipe, who produced his first two albums. After that, he made some fifteen more, including collaborations with such varied entities as Widespread Panic, Elf Power, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, Van Dyke Parks, Guy Picciotto, Ham 1, Jonathan Richman, and Lambchop. In 1990, he married Tina Whatley. She was a devoted companion as well as musical collaborator.

On record, he pursued a restless fervor with a lack of compromise to the varying fashions of the day. Onstage he could be fearless and antagonistic, sometimes gloriously great and sometimes train-wreck terrible—but never boring. (Vic with a nylon string guitar is punk-rock incarnate.) The one constant above all else was the top-shelf quality of the songwriting.

Talk about playing it like you feel it—for him, every chord or note was an agonizingly painful and herculean act. Getting around was no small task either. Just playing locally had to be a feat of triumph over adversity, but Vic was a road-dog till the end, logging tour after tour all over the world, navigating airports and venues in a schedule that even I would find grueling.


I first met Vic shortly after that transcendent experience in his audience at the 40 Watt, during my tenure at the High Hat, where I had the good fortune of working several of his shows, including the memorable album-release night for About to Choke. He came onstage and basically disavowed the album he was there to promote.

A year or so later, I mixed a show for Brute (wherein Vic was backed by the Athens band Widespread Panic), which culminated with a completely irony-free cover of Olivia Newton-John’s “Have You Never Been Mellow.” It was soul singing at its finest, with Vic so taken by the moment that he seemed to be levitating above his wheelchair. I was standing in the booth grinning from ear to ear during a song that I had always hated.

It was some years later when I got to know Vic better and our friendship was forged. We were both booked to play a Christmas benefit that Jay Farrar was putting on in St. Louis. The plan was for Vic and me to be on the same flight from Atlanta. I would rent a car and he would ride with me from airport to hotel, from hotel to show. Vic seemed embarrassed for me to be helping him, but I was honored. There was snow on the ground and it had never occurred to me how treacherous even a small amount could be for a paraplegic, lest he get frostbite and not immediately know it. Vic didn’t drink anymore but loved to smoke a joint or two. I procured a small amount and after the show several of us had a wonderful late night hang at the hotel, listening to Pink Floyd’s Animals on repeat on an iPod dock and laughing hysterically as Vic held court.

Vic’s voice was an instrument in itself. Not beautiful in the traditional or technical sense, it was highly expressive, the perfect vehicle for the songs he wrote. His songs had a conversational quality about them that I have always aimed for in my own writing, and at the same time his speaking voice had a sing-song quality about it that was distinctly musical when he spoke. As John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote of Vic in this magazine in 1997, “Maybe not since Dylan Thomas dropped dead of an insult to the brain has anyone squeezed so much meaning out of the sound of English.”

My band shared a bill with him once at a crowded showcase at South by Southwest. The show was a disorganized mess, with too many bands sharing too small a stage, along with the usual technical difficulties associated with such things. I can remember Vic working through a particularly long soundcheck. At one point, the soundman asked him if he was happy. “I’m not happy,” Vic sardonically replied without skipping a beat. “But it sounds all right.”

It’s well known that Vic attempted suicide several times; even his car wreck was shrouded in some speculation about intent. He was open and candid about his struggles with depression, which fueled much of his work, the same way his inspirational defiance did in his better times. He referred to the song “Flirted with You All My Life”—another candidate for his very best—as his breakup song with suicide. That it appeared on his final album is perhaps ironic, or perhaps not. To know and love Vic was to accept him as he was, as he was always militantly his own man.

On Christmas morning, 2009, Vic Chesnutt passed away from an overdose of muscle relaxants. His loss tore the heart out of so many people in our shared town. At home, my wife and I worked hard to conceal our sadness from our four-year-old daughter. After she opened her presents, I took a brief opportunity to slip away into a back room to write a song to try and deal with my overflowing emotions. “Sitting in the Sunshine (Thinking About the Rain)” is so far unrecorded, but it enabled me to get through that day. Perhaps that unto itself is a fitting tribute to an artist whose songwriting enabled him to live for so long.

A few weeks after Vic’s passing, many of his favorite artists gathered at the 40 Watt Club to pay tribute. I witnessed two unsurpassed evenings of beautiful music, mostly Vic’s songs, lovingly performed by a wide range of artists, local and otherwise, for a packed house.

Later, I collaborated on another song with Kelly Hogan. She and Vic were close friends and one of his last songs had been for the solo record she was working on. After he died, she wrote a stream-of-consciousness poem for him and asked me to help adapt it into a song for her album. The song took too long to finish to make her album, so I asked her if I could put it on the record I was working on. “Come Back Little Star,” which featured a guest vocal by Kelly, was the standout track on my album Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance. “This town got blown to tatters / When you traded in your wheels for wings.”

In the years since Vic’s passing, everyone who loved him has had to figure out their own ways to deal with the loss. Some of our friends say they can’t play his records yet; it just makes them too sad. For me, it’s been the opposite. I will always mourn that he’s gone and that we can’t go see him play, or laugh at his beautifully perverse sense of the world. But we can take solace in the immense gift he left us. For Vic, a lot of life must have been a nearly unbearable pain, but he endured it for so long in order to create these beautiful works of art and we can still visit him by playing those wonderful songs—songs that I feel make up an afterlife Vic could believe in.


“Sitting in the Sunshine (Thinking About the Rain)”

Lyrics by Patterson Hood, for Vic Chesnutt

I’m not happy but it sounds all right
Not much that you can do to make my outlook bright
It’s just gonna take a while to chase these blues away
But I appreciate you stopping over anyway
Cuz I always look forward to the things you say
and the way you choose to say them

I’m not defeated I’m just hanging low
You’ve been sitting here beside me long enough to know
That I always have a surliness to guide me through
and I put my disposition in everything I do
If we cut it into plastic then I promise you
you can be the first to play it

If I’m sitting in the sunshine
I’ll be thinking about the rain
But I long to have you beside me
Just the same

Not surrendering I’m just too tired to fight
I’m still hungry for a win but lost my appetite
I’m not mistaking your attentions for an easy play
Not forsaking all those mentions that you’ve brought my way
And a laugh to cut the tensions of this winter day
and the nights that always follow

If I’m parked out in your driveway
Will you leave your porch light on
This empty seat beside me
Needs you on it

I’m not happy don’t guess I ever was
But I’ve made the most of something that just never was
And I gave the darker moments one hell of a chase
And I’ve kept a sense of humor through my darkest days
We pretend that it’s not ending, just some passing phase
Like the light that’s passing through it

Sitting in the sunshine, thinking about the rain
I long to have you beside me
Just the sam

From "Athenx x Athens", a special selection from our Georgia Music Issue, Winter 2015.


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Patterson Hood is a recording artist best known as a member of Drive-By Truckers, who just released a career-spanning 35-song live box set. He recently published a New York Times op-ed about the Confederate flag controversy.