Addicted To Vinyl Musical thoughts from the open road, with headphones on

25Dec/0929

R.I.P. Vic Chesnutt

vicchesnutt

I was never a huge Vic Chesnutt fan, but it was more due to ignorance than active dislike. The Athens, Georgia, singer-songwriter released about an album a year and toured quite a bit, so he became one of those artists that was always around, someone I "always meant to check out." Still, because I was a huge R.E.M. fan, I always felt like I knew him: Vocalist Michael Stipe produced a couple of his early albums, and the band covered his tune "Sponge" on 1996's Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation.

At age 18, Chesnutt became a paraplegic after a car accident. He performed sitting in his wheelchair -- most recently on tours with artists such as Jonathan Richman and Elf Power, or with backing from Fugazi guitarist Guy Picciotto and members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra. In recent months, he talked about mounting medical bills -- $70,000 and counting despite having health insurance, he told the LA Times on December 1.

That same article seems eerily prescient as of tonight. On Thursday, it was reported that Chesnutt had slipped into a coma, the alleged result of a suicide attempt, according to Twitter posts on pal Kristin Hersh's account. (The official word from Chesnutt's label didn't specify what happened, but confirmed he was in a coma.) On Christmas, a spokesman for his family confirmed that Chesnutt had died, at the age of 45.

In the LA Times interview, he talked about a new song called "Flirted With You All My Life," seen below in a video taped at his June 2009 Beachland Ballroom show. The song is searing and primal.

"I've been a suicidal person all my life, and that song is me finally being 'Screw you, death,' " Chesnutt said about the song in the article. It was an oddly hopeful twist on the melancholic timbre of this year's At the Cut, which was described by Spectrum Culture like this: "Mortality and memories flood its songs in an unnerving mix of hope and despair, determination and defeat, and Chesnutt's self-described tendency towards being 'painfully nostalgic' takes on a more urgent tone throughout the album."

I don't know the specifics of Chesnutt's current physical condition or the long-term consequences of his car accident. And speculation as to why his death happened are futile and counter-productive. However, as someone with a permanent physical disability -- one that sometimes causes me more physical pain than I'd like -- I always empathized with Chesnutt. It's hard to explain to people sometimes the mental anguish caused by chronic pain -- how it colors your whole outlook and life, leaves you numb and at times makes you want to shrink into yourself. It's hard to even verbalize how frightening uncontrolled, unexpected physical pain can be, how frustrating and helpless it can make you feel. When your body betrays you, it's difficult to describe the emotional fallout and lingering effects.

Chesnutt's albums wrestled with these topics, and he explored how they related to everyday life and how he reacted to them -- because life doesn't stop for one person's private pain. And he certainly poured his entire self into music, via collaborations with Lambchop, Widespread Panic and countless other musicians. This soul-bearing brought him many loyal fans, and probably prevented him from being more of a mainstream figure -- because people have trouble hearing the hard, sad truths.

Chesnutt leaves behind a remarkable body of work that's articulate, literate and altogether human. An excellent NPR piece is one of his most recent interviews. On this Christmas day, may he have found peace and freedom from whatever demons which plagued him.

Kristin Hersh has set up a page for donations to help ameliorate the expenses surrounding Chesnutt's recent hospitalizations/death. Go here to help.

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