Thursday, December 31, 2009

RIP Vic Part II

Last post of 2009. Sorry it has to be such a bummer.

I suspect I was not alone in being somewhat depressed just prior to Christmas. The period between Halloween and Christmas always seems to be a down time for me.

But I suppose what is truly surprising is not that I found myself depressed during that time, but that I was surprised that I was depressed. Every year when the days get so ridiculously short, and the weather gets nasty cold, my body and mind rebel. I love the sun and warmth and I hate it when it’s dark at 4:30 and the day is over before it’s really begun.

And every year I experience this, but it seems like this is the first year that I finally realized that it is a cyclical occurrence. Huh. I guess we really can continue to learn, even as we grow grizzled and decrepit and ornery, set in our ways.

I bring up depression because I read about Vic Chesnutt’s death on Christmas morning, the day I was flying out to Pennsylvania. Following what reports say was a deliberate overdose of muscle relaxants, the singer/songwriter spent two days in a coma before he finally passed away on Christmas Day.

Since I was doing family stuff for the past several days I decided to put off writing about Chesnutt, who is one of my favorite artists of all time. Other people can give you better details on his biography, but the gist is that he was essentially a paraplegic, having survived a drunken car accident when he was 18. He taught himself to play guitar, gradually getting some use of his hands back--for years and maybe even up until his death, he attached a Velcro cuff with a guitar pick embedded in it to his strumming hand, because he was incapable of the finer precision needed to grip it.

So, the narrative now predictably turns from ‘what a brave soldier! Overcoming such odds!’ to what a tragic, doomed figure he must actually have been. Headlines like ‘Tragedy Foretold in Song’ blare out the news that, because he wrote about mortality and dark subjects Chesnutt was somehow destined to die by suicide.

I hate this Monday morning quarterbacking bullshit. The man was depressed, sure. And he wrote about dark topics. Plus he had some $70,000 in medical bills hanging over his head and, as much as we love them, cult musicians make cult money, unfortunately.

And as Jem Cohen, producer of Chesnutt’s “North Star Deserter” said, “Vic's death, just so you all know, did not come at the end of some cliché downward spiral. He was battling deep depression but also at the peak of his powers, and with the help of friends and family he was in the middle of a desperate search for help.”

I don’t want to make political hay of the man’s passing, and frankly, he has admitted to attempting suicide on at least three previous occasions, so it seems likely that there were other underlying problems besides debt and a lawsuit from the hospital. But it must be said that the health care system in America failed him. Leave it at that.

No, I would rather talk about the impact he made on my life, and what a unique character he was. His songs were indeed often dark, but laced with a self-deprecating humor, a gentle, wry irony that I think is unique to the South, at least in its purest form.

I interviewed him for a Westword profile in 2003, and what I took away from that conversation was the sense that, despite his having done several interviews that day in preparation for his tour (a rare occurrence) he seemed like he would have been happy to chat with me the rest of the afternoon.

Of course, there is a gift that some public figures have, the ability to make you feel like you are the only person in the universe, and that you super-duper-important to them. But Chesnutt was so ingenuous, so regular-guy and down to earth that there is simply no way it was act. Despite the photos I got later on of him and me at the Fox, during that conversation I transitioned from fanboy to a person simply talking with another person.

Which is what I had been all along, of course. Until we talk with these people we only approached from their art, it’s difficult to remember that they are just people, broken, flawed and limited--despite the pains some take to elevate themselves above the rest of us.

But it was always a rare thing for me as a music journalist to encounter someone who was that open and friendly and unpretentious. Another example that stands out is Echo and the Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant--we talked for nearly an hour, getting into the technical details of his guitar set-up, chatting about my own music, and even his love of the original “The Prisoner.”

But going back a bit, Chesnutt had a quality that I think of as uniquely American, uniquely Southern, a quality he wrote into his songs and also wove into conversation, and it is a kind of wry humility. It is an acknowledgment of one’s own limitations, one’s own ridiculousness, and the ridiculousness of not only our silly individual lives, but also on a species level--it is a non-bitter chuckle at the absurdity of the human animal and the society he has created.

Yes, there is sadness there. How could a man who saw his entire life change in a flash before he was even truly an adult--who came so very close to death--not feel regret and loss? But within that pain Chesnutt gave us a canon that is unique, and which, I would argue, would have been unachievable without his having been put through that trauma.

Listen to “Free of Hope.”

He says ‘Big brother’s at Columbia University/Quote unquote he’s tanning beaver pelts.’ Now ponder on that line a moment, not only for its clever crudity (which he immediately disowns as coming from someone else in the next line: ‘Subtle as a billboard/Oh so refined.’) But imagine also a healthy and whole Chesnutt, a happy-go-lucky southern boy given to drink and chasing tail, and imagine that guy writing these haunting, beautiful and terrifying songs.

It couldn’t happen.

So, it seems cruel, but I thank the universe for giving us the Vic Chesnutt he actually was, faults and all, and therefore giving him the emotional and physical pain that drove him to create. We are poorer for having lost him, but we are rich for having had him at all.

Rest in peace, brother. No more pain now.

Some pics from the Fox in 2003.

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