Remembering Vic Chesnutt (November 12, 1964 – December 25, 2009)

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By Greg Peterson

A week after Vic Chesnutt’s death by intentional overdose at Christmas, I wanted to do a little homage to the musician at a gathering of friends and family.  I was the real fan…not everyone there knew him. So I put on one of his recent albums, Skitter on Takeoff, and poured a round of drinks for the circle. From the music coming from the speakers, I think everyone understood my affection for this singer. His voice has a broken, emotive eloquence, and his lyrics are evocative and poetic.

I explained a little of why I think his death at age 45 is a significant loss; not all deaths are tragedies, but some are, and the desperate death of a poet surely is. We toasted Vic.  

I feel fortunate to have seen Chesnutt play live the few times I did. The first time was at the Turf Club in St. Paul, a dive bar that’s part roadhouse, part frat house. It was a cold, icy night, and Vic got help pushing his wheelchair through the door, and getting set up on the stage. A blanket was around him to keep him warm before he performed.  

Chesnutt was in a single-vehicle drunken crash at age 18 that left him mostly paralyzed, although he regained just enough movement in his fingers to develop a unique, simplified style of guitar-playing to accompany his singing. Chesnutt said his accident helped him focus as a songwriter. Chesnutt also sang about his atheism, sealed for him at age 13 when he walked out of a church in the middle of a service. The two themes came together in his song, “Speed Racer,” from his first album, Little (1990), produced by R.E.M.’s front man, Michael Stipe: “I’m not a victim/Oh, I am an atheist.”  

In an interview on the public radio show Fresh Air in December, he told Terry Gross: “It was only after I broke my neck and even like maybe a year later that I really started realizing that I had something to say.”  

When I think back to that concert at the Turf Club, I remember there being a big pot-bellied stove in the middle of the bar helping keep us warm. And when I think further it’s obvious to me that there was no such stove, but that in the lyrics of one of Chesnutt’s songs he so powerfully summons that image that later my mind mistook it for reality. That is the power of his poetry: an ability to conjure scenes from other lives and make them as authentic as personal memories.  

Chesnutt is in top form on his last album, At the Cut, both lyrically and musically. His wounded voice is matched to the poignant, piquant, oddball lyrics, decorated with spare, graceful instrumentation. Ironically, on this album, Chesnutt sings about his “break-up” with death, and forswears the suicidal impulse he had been battling for years. In “Flirted With You All My Life,” he sings:  

When you touched a friend of mine I thought I would lose my mind/But I found out with time that really, I was not ready, no no, cold death/Oh death, I’m really not ready.  In “It Is What It Is” from the same album, Chesnutt addresses his mortality and atheism:  

I don’t worship anything, not gods that don’t exist/I love my ancestors, but not ritually/ I don’t need stone altars to hedge my bet against the looming blackness/ that is what it is.  It was heartbreaking for me to learn that Chesnutt had ended his difficult life. Given the circumstances of his suicide, it’s hard not to conclude that to some degree, Chesnutt was a victim of a broken health care system. In the Fresh Air interview, he said he was no longer able to keep up with his medical bills and didn’t know what he was going to do the next time he needed life-saving surgery. While his friends said in a later interview that health care cost concerns were not directly responsible for Chesnutt’s decision to end his life, they suspect that with more affordable and compassionate care, plus better access to services to help him manage his health challenges – including mental health challenges related to his condition – his suicide might have been preventable.

(To learn more about Chesnutt and his music, visit vicchesnutt.com. Chesnutt’s music is available at iTunes. –ed.)

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