A profile of Vic Chestnutt
Years ago—eleven years?—the OA staged a reading at a fancy hotel in Atlanta, and Vic Chesnutt came.
The day was already memorable, because it had started in a way I expect no future days to start, riding around in a massive black limousine with Rosanne Cash, who had flown in to read.
Also present, besides staffers: the giant shaggy author-historian of Athens, Georgia, John Seawright (the late, alas). Seawright, whose body made the limo seem a natural mid-sized vehicle, talked incessantly, which was perfect, a social miracle, in fact, since otherwise the awkwardness would have filled the car and silently overpowered everyone. Was a person even allowed to address the daughter of Johnny Cash directly? Seawright told Atlanta stories, resurrecting dead neighborhoods, and Ms. Cash was smiling, so we all were, riding through the cold sunny city in the morning.
During the reading an incident emerged at the back of the hall. You heard it before you could see it. A whiny voice, something about money.
“Well, we don’t have that!”
Fundraiser—it’s coming back. The tickets were super expensive. And this person looked strange, he had on a strange elf hat, in a wheelchair. They were hassling him. Why was the voice familiar?
“Lady, I was in SLING BLADE!” it said. “Doesn’t that count for nothin’?”
Editor and Athens person Kelly Caudle said aloud from the podium, “That’s Vic Chesnutt.”
I’ll always be grateful to the OA for that day. Because of that day, I know the feeling of being in the room when genius enters (the windows sort of inhale).
A serious argument can be made that his handicap gave him an unfair advantage as a songwriter. Not in the sense that it got him points (hardly!), not even in the sense that suffering deepened his music—though it did—but on a purely technical level. Elvis Costello has talked in an interview about forcing himself to write songs on bass, instead of on six-string or piano, because on bass, you reduce yourself (strategically) to the innermost elements of a song, root note and melody. You peel everything else back with a scalpel, as it were (interesting chords, gratuitous changes, octave leaps, whatever), until you see the actual mathematical bone structure of the song, sans which everything else is noodling. Manage to do something interesting there, and it’s undeniable. And that’s where Vic, with his semi-gnarled hands and limited fingerings on a few strings only, had to proceed from every day, and stay for that matter. Unable to go higher or very far to the sides, he went deeper. Of course, he had a transcendent gift.
Hear what use he made of it in songs like “Withering,” one of his greatest, those doomy chords he descends to at “funeral,” and “policies were made,” that change the whole meaning, who would do that? Same with the two-guitar coda that takes up the back half of the song, so basic and at the same time rippling with melodic ideas. You could teach a six-year-old to play it, but good luck trying to write it. Guy Picciotto from Fugazi talked eloquently in that recent Terry Gross interview about how “you can build these structures [on top of Vic’s melodies] that are quite elaborate.” One could go further and say that the structures are implicit in the melodies, the way they’re somehow totally present in an otherwise raw recording like “In Amongst the Millions,” from Left to His Own Devices.
It was the Banquet Years, and duels were fought
So bastards in the end died with honor.
It was an epoch so unlike the one that we got,
People can’t die anymore.
I shoulda been buried long ago,
But they electric-shocked me, though.
I oughta be pushing up the pine straw,
But people can’t die anymore.
That technique he used over and over—letting redneck idioms and speech patterns slip into his lyrics, keeping his songs from taking themselves too seriously; Vic paid as close attention to small-town Southern English as Synge did to native Irish, and he too found wonderful things, “When the bug hits, that’s the time to scratch it.”
He was a person who had lost the use of his legs, the enjoyment of his own body, and the first line of the first song from his first record is, “I dreamed I was a’ dancin’,” and he was so good, you don’t notice. It never occurred to me till now.
Some have expressed understandable feelings of dissonance since he died, because the song from his newest record that’s getting the most play, “Flirted With You All My Life,” is supposedly a renunciation of suicide, or as Chesnutt said on NPR, “I don’t deserve the sweet relief of death yet, because I haven’t accomplished my tasks yet.”
It makes more sense when you remember he was never far from the ghost of his weird little muse, Stevie Smith, the post-war English poet who illustrated her death-obsessed collections with her own ironic cartoons. Vic set her work to music more than once. When I interviewed him in 1996 he talked about finding her stuff in a copy of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry that he’d shoplifted from a strip-mall bookstore after his accident, and how much she meant to him. They were soul mates of some kind.
“Flirted with You All My Life” makes constant allusion to one of her best pieces, “Exeat.” That poem includes the story of a cruel Roman emperor who often visited his own dungeons, because he liked listening to the prisoners beg for death, and when they begged he would say, “Oh, no, oh no, we are not yet friends enough.” That’s what Smith’s muse said to her, when she wanted to die.
Yet a time may come when a poet or any person
Having a long life behind him, pleasure and sorrow,
But feeble now and expensive to his country
And on the point of no longer being able to make a decision
May fancy Life comes to him with love and says:
We are friends enough now for me to give you death;
Then he may commit suicide, then
He may go.
“Exeat” is Latin for, Let him go.
Photograph by Ben McCormick