A GUEST POSTING by HYBRID SOC PROF,
our Michigan Correspondent
A TRAGICOMIC SOUTHERN GOTHIC ICA
To a certain extent, it’s hard to separate the apocrypha from reality when it comes to Vic Chesnutt’s history. Whether this is because he was a fabulist more interested in narrative and poetry than facts or because he was, by all accounts, more than open to a wide variety of mind-altering substances consumed with regularity, is unclear. Uncontested is that he grew up in a small Southern town 60 miles south of Atlanta, Georgia. Moreover, depressive, unathletic and an atheist from an evangelical family in the Bible Belt, he’d taken a stab at suicide even before he was largely paralyzed following a drunken auto accident in his late teens. He consistently reported that it was the gift of poetry – in the form of an album of poetry written and ready by the British poet Stevie Smith – that changed his life, lead him to read books and try to get away from his “Daddy’s friends, asshole chauvinist racist pigs.”
Effectively confined to a wheelchair and with limited use of his hands and arms, Chesnutt was able to play simple chords on his guitar and, while here again accounts vary, would read his poetry with the guitar or interspersed with it. Nevertheless, more suicide attempts followed. Exactly how many… who knows. Leaving Zebulon, Georgia, for Nashville, Tennessee, before moving to Athens, Georgia – 80 miles east northeast of Atlanta – is regularly described but opaque to me. Nevertheless, he joined a band in Athens and then left it to perform his own poetry/songs. (If you’re interested in reading more about his life via interviews and reviews, there’s a wordpress site titled revicchesnutt where many things are collected.) Famously, there in the late ‘80s, he was seen by Michael Stipe who then directed and produced Chesnutt’s first two records, Little (1990) and West of Rome (1991). They were on a tiny label, Texas Hotel, and if they were sent to KZSC, the university station in Santa Cruz, I completely missed them.
I’d had a subscription to Option magazine, a medium circulation music rag focused on independent, small label, and niche musical tastes, that I’d started in New York in ’87 and read religiously. There were what seemed to be hundreds of short reviews at the end of each issue and it was a great resource. I was flipping through an issue in 1993 and read these lines from Eddie Huffman: “Vic Chesnutt is a mama’s boy from Georgia. His mama’s a born-again Christian. When she heard him sing, ‘I am not a victim, I am an atheist,’ it made her cry.” Pretty great opening and it drew me in, as did the take-away point… that Huffman had interviewed Chesnutt and his wife, Tina, at least in part to tell him to please not commit suicide. His third record, self-produced, Drunk (1993) had just come out and I bought the CD – I might have had to drive to San Francisco to get it at Amoeba – and searched the radio station to see if we had it. We did, but not the previous two.
Chesnutt’s nasal, grating and yet sometimes beautiful Southern-tinged twang is jarringly perfect for his poetry/lyrics. And the lyrics are intensely evocative and emotionally devastating… while regularly flush with soaring, ironic – even hilarious – distance from the immediate experiences and feelings he recounts. He could also be pretty darned raunchy. Importantly, via the second version of “Sleeping Man” on Drunk, I was introduced to Syd Straw’s glorious voice. I was hooked. Then came Is the Actor Happy? (1995) and About to Choke (1996) and, by no means alone, I had found what I believed was among the most singular voices in rock.
Proving that I was far from alone, he had – the year before – collaborated with Widespread Panic on an album, Nine High a Pallet (1995), released as Brute. (They’d release a second, Co-Balt, in 2002.) Moreover, Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation (1996) was released with a raft of brilliant covers of his songs. The Sweet Relief Foundation was set up to generate money to pay for health costs and coverage for US musicians given the anti-social and inhuman nature of our profit-driven private health insurance and delivery system. That same year, as well, he had a minor role in Billy Bob Thornton’s brilliant film, Sling Blade.
However, to my mind the collaborations got out of control. I didn’t like The Salesman and Bernadette (1998), recorded with Lambchop, nor did I appreciate his work with the Keneipp sisters on Merriment in 2000. And I thought he’d simply gone off the rails with 2001’s Left to His Own Devices, 2003’s Silver Lake, and 2005’s Ghetto Bells. Diane and I had seen him open for Wilco at a small college here in Michigan around 2000 and he was engaging, self-deprecating, and wonderful. More than anything, though, he was a bit painful to watch. Years of atrophy given his paralysis had left him physically twisted and clearly physically uncomfortable. This was a guy who’s work I’d always continue to buy, if for no reason other than giving tribute to his force of will.
As a result, when I bought North Star Deserter, in 2007, I was completely unprepared for its extraordinary lyrical power and explosive instrumentation. Recorded in Montreal with members of Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra and Godspeed! You Black Emperor, along with Guy Piccioto from Fugazi. It makes perfect sense, in a way, that he’d record with anarcho-communalist cooperatives and punks but, jeez, that he served to focus the two Canadian bands and that Picciotto seems to have found another natural métier continues to amaze me. I love this record. Both Mitte End August OST and At the Cut were released in 2009 and weld the very early solo/folkish work on West of Rome with the experimental creativity of North Star Deserter. Most notably, however, At the Cut has what Chesnutt claimed were his farewells to suicide in “Coward” and “Flirted with You All My Life”… even though – in the face of ever more insurmountable medical bills – he committed suicide as Skitter on Take Off – his third recoding of 2009 – was being released.
As with any ICA where the artist’s work spans decades, cutting down to 10 songs to produce a coherent album means a lot of great stuff is left behind. In putting this together, I went for a combination of feeling and flow as much as favorites. It turned out a little heavier than I anticipated on the last efforts… but I think it works.
In the Robert Palmer-curated BBC/PBS History of Rock ‘n’ Roll series (1995?), there’s an episode, Respect, about Motown, Stax and Fame studios. In it, Steve Cropper, of Booker T and the MGs, is talking about the death of Otis Reading says that every time he played with him, from the first time he was in the studio with Reading playing solo piano to the last, recording “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”, that Reading “always moved me.” That’s how I feel about Vic Chesnutt (even if I wasn’t always moved to appreciation.)
1. Vic Chesnutt – Flirted with You All My Life – from At the Cut
2. Vic Chesnutt – Ladle – from About to Choke
3. Vic Chesnutt – Sleeping Man (Syd Straw version) – from Drunk
4. Brute – Protein Drink/Sewing Machine – from Nine High a Pallet
5. Vic Chesnutt – Sponge – from West of Rome
6. Vic Chesnutt – Gravity of the Situation – from Is the Actor Happy?
7. Vic Chesnutt – Marathon – from Mitt Ende August OST
8. Vic Chesnutt – Free of Hope – from Is the Actor Happy?
9. Vic Chesnutt – Everything I Say – from North Star Deserter
10. Vic Chesnutt – Coward – from At the Cut