Monday, January 11, 2010

Losing Vic Chesnutt

by Peter Blackstock

I've been trying to write something about Vic Chesnutt for a couple of weeks now, and just haven't seemed to be able to get it all out. Mostly because it's just been too sad and depressing to face, I think. Partly because I fear that some of the things that Vic felt he lost in recent years have been things that I have lost too. And maybe -- I should admit this part because Vic would've done the same himself -- I've just been slack. (In fact he DID fess up to just that in his hand-scrawled liner notes to the 1993 album West Of Rome: "But know I am slack," he warned those who might write to the P.O. Box address he provided.)

Slack in getting the words down on the page, though, doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about him pretty much every day since Christmas. Most of an afternoon vanished when I tried to hunt down an old Polaroid of Vic taken in Austin circa 1991; not sure exactly how it ended up in my possession, but it was a fun snapshot, with a handful of Austin musicians (including Wammo, Frank Orrall of Poi Dog Pondering, Ingrid Karklins, and Thomas Anderson, and somebody's young son) all surrounding a beaming and charming Chesnutt. Perhaps someday it'll turn up and I can scan and post it here. Till then, it still burns brightly in my mind's eye, a split-second of joyousness frozen in another lifetime.

I also spent hours combing through my hard-drive and pre-laptop computer printouts to find all the old interviews and reviews and articles I wrote about Vic, for the Austin American-Statesman and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Rocket and the MusicHound Country Album Guide and No Depression. Somehow I never did write at length about Vic for ND; as editor, I spent more of my time assigning pieces to our many talented freelancers (we had Russell Hall, William Bowers and Bob Townsend write extended pieces about Chesnutt at various points along our thirteen-year run), but I did go over my own personal history with Vic in a "Hello Stranger" editor's note when we had Chesnutt on our cover in ND #56. I put that up on my previous post here.

During the '90s I seemed to have an encounter with Chesnutt once a year or so. I didn't see him nearly as much over the last decade; there was an occasional SXSW gig, and a show at Cats Cradle in Chapel Hill (opening for Hem) where my wife Lisa got a chance to see and meet him. And this past January, I went to see him at Local 506 in Chapel Hill with Elf Power; I briefly said hello inbetween sets, but didn't make the effort to visit more with him. My last chance, alas.

Counting it up from my show logs, I found that I saw Vic perform 22 times between 1991 and 2009. One of the singular things about Vic's shows was that he almost never paid any heed to whatever record he might have most recently put out. That Elf Power gig was an exception, for the obvious reason that they could only do songs they'd worked up together, which meant that they played most of their excellent Dark Developments album. Most of the time, though, and especially when performing solo (which he did frequently), he just ignored his latest release and played a buncha new stuff. Might have been frustrating for some, but I always found it fascinating, in large part because going to see Vic was always less about the song (though he truly was a great songwriter) and more about the personality. Half the experience was the humor; he was one of the funniest people I've ever encountered.

A few scattered memories from those nearly two dozen shows:

-- At a performance at the Backstage in Seattle, someone kept requesting "Danny Carlisle" (from Vic's debut Little). Chesnutt generally didn't suffer requests gladly, but in this case he had a unique reply: "Why don't YOU come up here and play 'Danny Carlisle'?" And so the guy did -- Vic eyeing him all the while with a sort of mock-schoolmarm judgmentalism, as if he were fixing to grade the kid's oral report. It was a nicely played and heartfelt rendition, which Vic ultimately acknowledged quite warmly: "You did good."

-- A crazy Sunday night in Athens in November 1993 began with an Alejandro Escovedo show at a small club and ended up in someone's living room, with Escovedo and his violinist Susan Voelz and cellist Frank Kammerdiener swapping songs well into the wee hours along with a cast of locals including Kevn Kinney, Syd Straw, and Armistead Welleford. Vic was there too; people kept prodding him to do a song, but he kept insisting, "I'm too drunk," until his benefactor finally berated him into complying.

-- At that final show I saw with Elf Power a year ago, Vic went on a classic rant about how his thunder had been stolen by Hollywood wannabes. Seems that one of the best songs on his new record was a jaunty little ditty called "The Curious Case Of The Bilocating Dog", about a remarkable canine that could appear in two places at once. A couple months later came the Oscar-nominated film The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. Vic was not amused. "I got screwed!" he howled from the stage, to waves of sympathetic laughter.

Such moments were common with Vic, and it was hard not to think of him without smiling. I realize he had a significantly darker side as well; I can't say I knew him enough to have experienced it much, but I'd heard the stories about tour freakouts and breakdowns and previous attempts on his life. Lord knows he had a hard go of it in his 45 years, but I did get the sense that he fought pretty valiantly, and he accomplished a heckuva lot. And in so many ways he was just brilliant; the oft-overused "genius" tag is fully deserved in Chesnutt's case.

That his death may have in part been brought on by the failure of the United States health care system is as maddening as it is unsurprising. More than being angry, though, I'm simply sad, for never having a chance to hear him play onstage again, or to sit and talk with him for awhile. It may sound a bit too Ben Kenobi-like, but a great light has been vanquished from our world.

And yet, I'll never forget him, who he was, that irrepressible spirit that soared above the little guy in the wheelchair. Even in this saddest of circumstances, it's STILL hard to think of him without smiling.

Soul Asylum covering Vic's song "When I Ran Off And Left Her"

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