All My Life: Vic Chesnutt at the Limit

Singing the praises of the undersung singer-songwriter.

Vic Chesnutt was an artist of extremes. His music could be ridiculously sad or sublimely funny—and often a little of both—which is why it’s now receiving the reissue treatment. The first song I ever heard of his was “Guilty By Association,” a duet with Michael Stipe from Chesnutt’s fourth album, 1995’s Is The Actor Happy? It was included on a bootleg CD that collected a bunch of the R.E.M. frontman’s guest vocals and it shimmered with such melancholic majesty it nearly brought me to tears. My next encounter—this was before it was easy to search for songs online—was Chesnutt’s goofy cover of R.E.M.’s “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Next was R.E.M.’s reimagining of Chesnutt’s “Sponge,” a dark and sinister song that still shakes me to my core, whichever version I listen to. 

The R.E.M. connection isn’t random—Chesnutt, like the band, was from Athens, GA, and Stipe produced his first two records, 1990’s Little and the following year’s West of Rome. But what for me started out as mild curiosity because of that shared geography soon became an intense love affair. It was fully consummated, so to speak, when I when I picked up a free promo copy of Chesnutt’s About to Choke in a “free with purchase” bin at a now-closed-down record store. It’s an album full of odd beauty, of sad desolation, of heartbreaking humor, and it remains one of my all-time favorites to this day. But as much as I was enamored with his music—grabbing CDs whenever and wherever I could and slowly building up my collection—I was just as intrigued by his personal life.

He appears on the cover of About to Choke as a blurred figure in a wheelchair, the result of a drunk-driving accident in 1983 that left him partially paralyzed at the age of nineteen. He was unable to walk and had limited use of his hands, but he discovered he could still play guitar and began performing at Athens’s legendary 40 Watt Club. That’s where Michael Stipe first saw him play and presumably became obsessed with the ugly beauty and sardonic humor of his songs: the way his voice warbles with both an aching fragility and a defiant strength, his capacity to infuse the most ludicrous phrases with the most abject melancholy, his habit of over-enunciating words.

Certainly, that’s what drew me to him. Through his phrasing, Chesnutt could make sense of—and extract the essence of existence from—the otherwise nonsensical. He was also obsessed with the corporeal and the sexual, the dirty grit of human bodies. That’s perhaps best demonstrated by the opening verse of “Miss Mary,” from West of Rome:

Miss Mary took a shower and she showed herself to me. 
She said that God and all his glory was revealed to her carnally
She said she’d been with no man, but she must have been with me
And when I felt her with my finger, the proof burned my belief.

The way he sings it is with savage grace. It’s seedy but it’s also tender, funny but tragic, crude but majestic. It’s also pretty funny. Because despite everything—and despite a number of attempts to take his own life—Vic Chesnutt was a man with his humor intact, someone who didn’t just laugh with the world but at it, who could as easily present his sadness as a series of one liners or as a suicide note.

I was a fan of Vic’s long before I started writing about music, but one summer’s day in 2006 he came to London as part of the Undertow Orchestra—a multi-artist touring ensemble also consisting of Mark Eitzel, David Bazan, and Will Johnson—and I somehow managed to set up an interview with him for Backlash, the zine I was running at the time. Getting to meet him some hours before the show is still one of the most monumental moments in my life. I remember trying to shake his hand, but I hadn’t realized quite how gnarled and twisted his hands were, so it was a bit awkward—but, thankfully, amusing rather than embarrassing. And he was in fine form—cheeky and happy and funny and sincere and interesting and honest. He kept lusting over the late, great poet Stevie Smith, who died in 1971—“She’s hot!” he exclaimed. “Intellectually, man, she is fuckin’ hot! I love her. She turns my crank”—and was brutally candid about the drinking problems that led to him breaking his neck in that car crash. I remember being cautious when asking him about it and using the word “dabbled” when talking about his alcohol consumption. He wasn’t having any of it.

“I wouldn’t say dabbled,” he proclaimed. “Drowned! It got me all fucked up. It got me all fucked up! I should not have done that. It’s ridiculous.” The second time he said that phrase—“It got me all fucked up!”—his words were drawn out, his voice high-pitched and childlike, almost as if it was one of his songs. I then asked if the drinking at least helped him get through something, and whether the fact that it led to his third album, Drunk, which he made in a state of total inebriation, was any consolation.

“It would have been better if I hadn’t have been so drunk,” was the straightforward response. “I wanted to make a record when I was stinking drunk, just so I could capture some of that abandon. Some of the songs I made up on the spot, just got in front of the microphone and belted it out, which was really cool and fun, but then again I could do better if I wasn’t so fuckin’ drunk. But I was always drunk! And instead of trying to hold it back, you know, I just let it go. Why fight it?”

After the interview, I took a picture of him with a copy of my zine. He insisted on posing with my recording device—a Samsung MP3 player that also had a microphone—because he was fascinated by it. It lives in a frame in a box in my parents’ cellar back in England, but I did find a black and white version on my computer that I published alongside the interview.

Three and a half years later, on Christmas Day 2009, Vic Chesnutt died from an overdose of muscle relaxants. I didn’t know him, and we weren’t friends, but for a little over half an hour we shared something that I’ll never forget. I miss him greatly. I was sad last year when David Bowie died, and devastated when Leonard Cohen followed him, but when I found out about Vic—it just doesn’t seem right to use his surname here—I bawled my eyes out. Looking at that photograph, listening to his songs, playing back our conversation, I still feel his loss. I’ve done nothing but listen to him while writing this, mainly At the Cut, which was the first of two albums released the year before he died. There’s a song on there called “Flirted With You All My Life.” It’s not, sadly, about Stevie Smith, but about suicide and death. “When my mom was cancer sick / She fought but then succumbed to it,” he sings in the last verse. “But you made her beg for it: / ‘Lord Jesus, please, I’m ready.’” It’s then that Chesnutt turns the attention back to himself. “Oh death,” he sings with a salty sweetness, “Clearly I am not ready.” How I wish that had been true.

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