Vic Chesnutt :: Left To His Own Devices

Vic was our Keats, our Nina Simone. There will never be another like him. – Guy Picciotto, Fugazi

It’s funny the things we tend to remember, or I should say, the things I tend to remember. The minutiae. The first time I heard the name Vic Chesnutt was in the Fall of 1995; I was 20 years old and a sophomore at the University of Georgia in Athens. Having recently been turned on to Jack Logan, via the University radio station, I walked downtown to Wuxtry Records to pick up his 2-disc debut, Bulk. Paying for it at the counter the clerk, noting my purchase, asked if I also liked Vic Chesnutt. No, I replied–I had never heard of him. That was 15 years ago. Chesnutt’s music has been with me ever since.

On Christmas day I heard the news that Vic Chestnutt was gone, dead at 45 from an overdose of muscle relaxants. Shocking as the news was, it was made even more surreal as I had just been shopping for Chesnutt vinyl a couple of days prior, had just seen him and his new (excellent) band December 1st here in L.A., and we had just listed At The Cut as not only one of our favorite albums of 2009, but deemed it “Chesnutt’s finest hour yet.” All appeared to be on the up and up for Chesnutt, at least from an outside perspective. In reality Chesnutt had apparently been struggling with deep depression, continued health issues, and stress and anxiety due to monster lawsuit from unpaid hospital bills in the tune of 50 thousand dollars. Tragic and sad.

Chesnutt was my kind of songwriter. There was no artifice, no bullshit. And while his music wasn’t pretty, and could be very grim at times, there was almost always a humor in it. How could there not be from the guy who wrote “Good Morning Mr. Hard On.” Like fellow Athenian Daniel Hutchens, he walked that fine line between the light and the dark. That magic lyrical twilight that you can’t quite put your finger on, but one that makes all the difference. Read Chesnutt’s lyrics; listen to his songs. A musician, he tread in the Southern Gothic literary tradition of William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, but in the vein of contemporaries Harry Crews, Larry Brown and William Gay. Chesnutt wrote about what he knew; the new South, one struggling with its identity – half rooted in the present and half in the past.

Following a pair of critically well-received albums for New West Records, Silver Lake and Ghetto Bells, Chesnutt resurfaced in 2007 with the type of late-period album that not only revitalizes long-time listeners, but draws in new ones as well. North Star Deserter was the result of Chesnutt collaborating with Guy Picciotto of Fugazi, Thee Silver Mt. Zion and members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It was a dark, challenging record that truly gave Chesnutt’s lyrics a powerful backdrop unlike any previous recording. He would take time to record another collaboration, the more light-hearted and whimsical Dark Developments with Elf Power in 2008, but would return to his North Star Deserter collaborators for 2009’s astounding At the Cut.

Every bit its predecessor’s equal, if not its better, At The Cut found Chesnutt in rare lyrical form – dissecting his usual themes of mortality and existence with amazing precision. From opener “Coward” and its powerful sonics while Chesnutt dictates about “the courage of the coward,” to closer “Granny” and its short vignettes of actual interactions between Chesnutt and his late grandmother based on a dream that he had, the album is a sonic and thematic triumph. Now, in the wake of Chesnutt’s suicide, one of the album’s best songs has also taken on a different tone. “Flirted With You All My Life” was, as Vic explained it in an interview we conducted earlier this year, “about being a suicide. I’ve attempted suicide a couple of times and I think about things such as that. [People who attempt suicide] have a kind of love/hate relationship with death. I do, in some ways. That’s what I say in the song — ‘tease me with your sweet relief.’ The song is about realizing that I don’t want to die. I want to live.” A song that seemed to point to a triumph over Death’s call, instead now reads like a lost promise.

Vic’s last tour before his death was with the North Star Deserter/At The Cut studio band promoting the At the Cut album. On numerous nights of the tour, they brought an amazing and jaw-dropping set of songs to bear on the audience. Again in the interview he described working with the band as “one of the most incredible experiences, musically, I’ve ever had. The power is like a locomotive or something.” Seeing the band live, he wasn’t kidding. It was one of the best concert experiences of 2009 to go along with one of its finest albums. Talking with Vic was always a pleasure, too. In interviews, he was genuine and forthright in the way he spoke of his turbulent life – in person, he was a kind and friendly man who was approachable to his fans. He will be greatly missed. words/ j gage & j neas

+ Musician Kristin Hersh has set up a donation website on behalf of Chesnutt’s family in tribute to the artist. 100% of all funds raised will go to Vic’s family.

20 thoughts on “Vic Chesnutt :: Left To His Own Devices

  1. I, too, was a sophomore at UGA in ’95 and I had the exact same experience. Who was this guy Vic Chesnutt? Then I got my hands on Little and West of Rome and became an instant convert. Pretty much every mix I’ve ever made has had Vic. He’s just one of those American originals that put so many others to shame. He was our Dylan in a lot of ways. Very very sad. Reminds me of losing JB a few years ago on Christmas.

    Got to see him at Bowery Ballroom with Hersh a few years back and they were just taking requests for the last half of the night and his performance of “Panic Pure” silenced the room.

    Flights of angels sing thee…

  2. I read about him in Spin a WHILE back, he was somehow associated w Stipe, so a friend and I went to club gig of his and was blown away. His voice was heartbreaking and unexpected, but especially live, he annunciated in this way that you could every word and every feeling behind every word. I left w my friend and we didn’t talk for almost the whole ride home. I dropped my buddy at his apartment and he just said “wow” as he got out of the apartment. Totally wow.

  3. It was such a downer when I heard the news, especially after such a brilliant album. At the same time it was not really a shock, just bad news. RIP Vic, You’ll be missed.

  4. My brother called me with the news (somehow it almost felt like a death in the family). Went home and listened to my first and still favorite Vic album, Little. He had an amazing ability of writing what seem like timeless lyrics, folk songs from what Greil Marcus calls the “Old Weird America” (where Dylan’s Basement Tapes sprang from). But at the same time, such a contemporary artist. Hopefully, Peter Sills’ documentary about Vic, “Speed Racer”, will get a wide release. Chesnutt was honest, charming, flawed and authentic. Farewell, Little Vic.

  5. I graduated from UGA only a few years ago. But it was Vic Chesnutt that brought me to explore the lesser known bands on the Athens music scene. I should probably be ashamed to say that it was Widespread Panic covers of Vic tunes that turned me on to the man’s music, but I can vividly remember listening to “Blight” over and over and over in high school and wondering where the hell this song came from. It was so much different from any of the other nonsensical Panic originals I had heard. There is little that can be said about Vic Chesnutt that hasn’t already been said. I have listened to “Flirted With You All My Life” basically on repeat since hearing the news. A beautiful terrible song that meant something very different only a few days ago. Unfortunately Vic’s death will not be met with a 2Pac-like run on music stores that carry his music, but anyone who does not own a Vic Chesnutt album should make an effort to go out and buy some of the man’s music or donate to the website set up for his medical bills. Vic Chesnutt was our poet laureate of the South. The man will be missed.

  6. i knew who he was, i just didn’t take the time to listen. but when i heard that he had attempted suicide and was in a coma, i went to the computer and started listening and couldn’t stop. i haven’t stopped. i’m a seventeen year old girl stuck in the suburbs of kansas but something in his music produces a visceral reaction inside me. i’m truly devastated by the loss of vic and i wish i had taken the time to listen when his name popped up before but at least i have him now. i wish i would have had the chance to see him live, sounds like his shows had the possibility to be supernatural. i’m so grateful to have stumbled upon vic, someone whose music will be with me for the rest of my life, i just wish it didn’t have to be in this circumstance.

  7. a few months ago i bought a ticket to see vic at a local bar/restaraunt/venue. i bought the ticket as soon as they went on sale knowing it was going to be an experience, not just a concert. i had been a fan for years, but living in the middle of nowhere (western canada) offers little in the the way of opportunity to see such persons. then, merely days before the show, i read on a chalkboard how it had been moved to a secret location. one phonecall and i was in the know. it had been relocated to a house and was set to be filmed for a television show. i rode my bike with six beer in my backpack and headed inside. among thirty or so people, mostly strangers, i was transported. needless to say, i left a changed person. the show was life affirming/changing, and i was fortunate enough to share words with vic afterwords. next to seeing tom waits, it was the greatest “show” i’ve ever witnessed, and in the past day i’ve been coming to terms with my feelings over his passing and its affect on my memories of this one evening. i’m feeling terribly bittersweet about things, but oh so thankful for the stars aligning. obviously many albums were spun, and tears shed.

    rip vic. i hope you find that peace that’s evaded you for far too long. all my best to those you’ve touched throughout the years (friends, family, fans, and beyond).

    oh, and here’s an apparently “rough” video from that evening just over a month ago: i’ve got a hunch it might turn out to be more than just an hour of programming on scn.

  8. he seemed to be able to conjure an endless stream of not merely good, but great, songs out of nowhere – each memorable and unique, delivered in that sonically immense voice, and hinting always at that brokenheartedness that hovers at the edge of all of our lives – courageous, unflinching, darkly comic and by all accounts a real gentleman – a great loss

  9. I had a great Christmas, but when I heard Chesnutt died, melancholia was added to my holiday euphoria. While I haven’t checked out much of Chesnutt’s work, I remember listening to Dark Developments and feeling a sense of authenticity – replicated in “Degenerate”, which just popped up – that is unmatched and frequently absent in modern music. Chesnutt will truly be missed, and this piece on Chesnutt is unmatched.

  10. @Kaley – Thank you so much for sharing that story and video. Having seen that band and even that song performed just a few weeks before you did here in North Carolina, I can certainly imagine what an amazing experience it must have been to see that in a house show setting. I do hope that sees a DVD release at some point. That tour desperately needs to be documented.

    I too have had an odd time dealing with my feelings about this – I didn’t know-know the man. But I did interview him for AD back in August and found him so disarmingly genuine in the way he spoke so openly about himself that it was hard not to want to be the same. When he related the story of the song “Granny,” that he had dreamed the whole thing while dreaming of his late grandmother, I shared with him a similar story from my own life about dreaming of my late grandfather and having it affect me in a similar way. The way he listened to me tell the story and responded in kind made the whole interview seem like just a good conversation between two people. All of my favorite interviews for this site have been exactly the same way, but this one in particular stuck out to me.

    I only met Vic in person twice – once in Austin, Texas in 2003 at a restaurant after seeing him play a show earlier in the day at SXSW and then again on Halloween this year while seeing him and that amazing band play. Both times he was just a lovely person, easily approachable and disarmingly humble. We are so much richer for having had him and so much poorer for having lost him.

  11. The first words I ever read about Vic were in Option, in 1994 I think… in the essay, the reviewer noted the pain in Vic’s lyrics and her immediate identification with them (and her need to head to Athens to express her hope that he never succeed at suicide). I couldn’t not follow up and immediately bought Drunk, West of Rome and Little… it made so much sense that Vic was playing with Giant Sand, then about to record their album-of-devastation, Glum, at the Backyard Barbecue Broadcast at WFMU… from 1998’s The Salesman and Bernadette to 2005’s Ghetto Bells, I connected less with Vic than I had previously, and then North Star Deserter… omigod, what a record… played it almost non-stop for a month of hour long commutes to and from work. This is devastating news.

  12. I have had the honor of seeing Vic through the 90’s at various clubs in Boston. He was without a doubt a fantastic and gifted storyteller, but we must never forget the fact that he was f****** hilarious! He would crack the room up with his banter and then gut them with songs like Panic Pure, Betty Lonely, Free of Hope and Isadora Duncan. I missed his last tour and could kick myself for that. I am sorry he was in so much pain. I hope he is free at last.

  13. I first heard Vic on a compilation CD from magazine in the mid 90’s. He’s always been so unique and hauntingly enjoyable to disappear into the ether with. His death has hit me strangely. I purchased Skitter on Take-off on 12/18 and had been listening to it only all week. Then I read about his death, Christmas night. Somehow I and his work were connected deeply for that week not knowing what was to come.
    Such a huge loss. I hope he has peace.
    Peace to his family and friends.

  14. I first heard about Vic Chesnutt from the band LIVE they sang one of his songs
    and I was floored. I always applauded his abilty musically and to overcome his disabilty he will be missed.

  15. Nice piece. I first saw Vic in London in the mid 90s. There were some shambolic shows for sure but two, one with Lambchop and another as part of a Howe Gelb curated event were pure magic. I’ve written about them on my blog, Carnival Saloon, if you want to read more and hear further MP3s.

  16. I saw the man open a Bob Mould show, at the old 9:30 Club (DC), in 1991. I was in college, high and wasted and perhaps a bit too quick to judge. I had never heard of Vic Chesnutt, and when he wheeled out under the lights, I said to my friend something like, “This dude better be able to rock that guitar, because if he’s only as good as me (admittedly lousy beyond belief), he won’t get any sympathy over being in that chair.”

    I think he opened with what I now know to be “Miss Prissy,” and when he sang about “knuckles against a cheese grater,” I probably made another off-color remark. I was there to party. This guy was a downer.

    Flash forward almost twenty years. I’ve long-since reassessed my opinion of Vic Chesnutt’s music. I now spend a lot of time in a wheelchair myself, and it isn’t this fact alone that has me reflecting deeply on the loss of one of Our Recent Greats.

    I’d be a fool to draw some fatefully ironic conclusion here. I’m just sayin’.

    R.I.P. Mr. Chesnutt. The world is worse off without you.

  17. I just recently got introduced to Vic Chesnutt and all I can say is I miss him. I truly miss him.

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