Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Of Loss and Longing and Sloppy Satori

by René Spencer Saller

I wish I didn’t have to write this obituary, elegy, tribute, grief porn, whatever. I got the assignment on Christmas night––after spending the day hoping, recklessly and stupidly, that Vic Chesnutt might emerge from his coma and, even more improbably, be magically scoured of his chronic death wish––and, with the full understanding that an obit should be, if nothing else, timely, I put off writing it and slipped a DVD into my iMac instead: Jean Cocteau’s frothy fable in glorious grisaille, La Belle et la Bête. This failed attempt to distract myself only reminded me of Chesnutt and his catalog of beautiful beasts. I was unaccountably pissed off. Couldn’t I postpone my sadness, pretend for a night that the gravity of the situation was not, in fact, apparent to us all? Sugarplums and baby Jesuses should have been dancing in my head, not drafts of sentences about how some poor sad fucker offed himself and why we should be sorry.

“The Gravity of the Situation” (live) mp3
by Vic Chesnutt, 1995.
from WFMU's Radio Thrift Shop
at the Museum of Television & Radio
(courtesy: Laura Cantrell)

"Myrtle"(live) mp3
by Vic Chesnutt, 1996.
from WFMU's The Music Faucet
(courtesy: Nicholas Hill)

“Bernadette & Her Crowd” mp3
by Vic Chesnutt, 1998.
available on The Salesman and Bernadette

"Sultan, So Mighty" mp3
by Vic Chesnutt, 2003.
available on Silver Lake

I regretted the lack of oxycodone, tried to console myself with my mother-in-law’s macaroons. I put away the Cocteau DVD and replaced it with The Salesman and Bernadette, Chesnutt’s 1998 masterpiece, and the man I never knew but loved came alive to me again, my own beautiful, unattainable, much-mourned Bernadette: Vic, I honor you. Vic, I owe you some.

Maybe it’s wrong to mourn him. Maybe we should respect his right to kill himself no matter how much it hurts the people who love him, because that's his choice, and life loses all meaning if it’s mandatory. Maybe it's selfish to ask additional favors of a man who suffered more in his 45 years than most of us can imagine. How many times have you heard someone say that he (and it's almost always a he) would kill himself if he ever became paralyzed? Chesnutt faced this nightmare and stuck it out for a long time. A car accident made him a paraplegic at the age of 18, and he spent the remaining 27 years in a wheelchair. In a weird way, maybe this qualifies as what some theologians call the Fortunate Fall, a bad event with good consequences. Maybe it helped transform him from, in his words, “a redneck bum from Georgia” to a sui generis musical genius, a songwriter’s songwriter, championed first by Michael Stipe and then by countless others, from Madonna to Jonathan Richman to Patti Smith. Without that formative misfortune, could he have written a song like “Sultan, So Mighty,” an odd and lovely little number from 2003’s Silver Lake, which he sings, in a spectral falsetto, from the perspective of a court eunuch? Would he have had the imagination, the empathy, to cast his lot with the freaks, the rejects, the degenerates? (Consider, for example, his heartbreaking, definitive cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Like a Monkey in the Zoo.”) At any rate, despite or because of his suffering, he made more people happy in his brief time on this planet than most of us can hope to do if we live twice as long. As he sang in a tender, revelatory cover of Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain,” “Life is sad, life is a bust/All you can do is do what you must.” He did what he must do, and he did it well.

"Like A Monkey In The Zoo" mp3
by Vic Chesnutt, 2004.
available on The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered

"Buckets Of Rain" mp3
by Vic Chesnutt, 2003.
available on Crossing Jordan

"The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia" mp3
by Vic Chesnutt, 1995.
available on Star Power!

He called himself “a brokeback atheist,” so I'm not going to hope he's in a better place, or at peace, or hanging out in heaven with his mama, eating pecan pie on a fluffy pearlescent cloud. What do you say on the death of an atheist? What can you wish for him? A miraculously intact spinal cord, pleasure in place of pain? For most believers, heaven is the absence of all hardship, the end to all desire, a magnificent tautology. Heaven, even the hypothetical heaven that nonbelievers believe in, is deadly dull. Chesnutt was many things, but he was never boring. It’s impossible to imagine him in that sterile libido-proof realm, this beautiful broken man who plucked blossoms from the muck, who found his consolation in the imperfect here, in the brutal now.

You could easily turn his suicide into an argument for single-payer health care, as several commentators have done. It’s especially tempting because Chesnutt, who had racked up more than $50,000 in medical debt despite the fact that he had health insurance, railed against our colossally corrupt system in recent interviews. As someone who knows all too well the unique agony of bickering with some midlevel insurance rep when you’re way too sick to care anymore, I have to wonder if he simply got tired of fighting. Maybe he figured, “Fuck it all, I did what I must do, and I did it well. Now I’m through.” He made many great records, he had thousands of fans all over the world, if nowhere near as many as he deserved, and a bunch of people he admired and respected admired and respected him back. What more could anyone reasonably expect? Maybe he got sick of always having to make that extra effort, always having to measure up.

But using Chesnutt’s death to advance a political argument seems reductive and wrong, and speculating about his motives won’t bring him back.

Suicide, unfortunately, inducts you into a special club, and you might not like the other members. There you are, wedged between Ian Curtis and Sylvia Plath, Mohammed Atta and David Foster Wallace, Kurt Cobain and my maternal grandmother. Everyone starts reading your life backward. They start inferring dark shit from your every innocent pronouncement, imposing new, unintended meanings. Skinny girls in black lipstick flop around in their darkened bedrooms and mouth the words to your songs, carve your lyrics into their flesh. Suddenly, despite your best intentions, you’re, ugh, kind of goth. Chesnutt, whose best songs are, like all great works of art, life-affirming and happy-making regardless of their subject, deserves a better fate.

I wish he wouldn’t have done it, of course, but more than that I wish he wouldn’t have wanted to do it. But then we’re back to the old Fortunate-Fall paradox: Maybe his curse was his gift. The ability to experience joy and share it comes with a price, the necessity of pain. Numb yourself to the latter, and you deny yourself the former.

And joy abounds in Chesnutt’s canon, a joy that’s always pitted against pain but somehow prevails. He grapples with the can’t-go-on-must-go-on quandary in Silver Lake’s transcendent closer, “In My Way, Yes,” a touching argument against self-annihilation. After he runs through a litany of life’s little compensations (“Driving fast all night/Bursting into song at first light/Sharing breakfast from one plate/Holding hands over loved ones’ graves”), a stern Greek chorus of alter egos asks him if he thinks he deserves his happiness, to which he replies, “I say yes, in my way yes.” Never has self-affirmation sounded so heroic.

“In My Way, Yes” mp3
by Vic Chesnutt, 2003.
available on Silver Lake

“Flirted With You All My Life” mp3
by Vic Chesnutt, 2009.
available on At the Cut

In the recent song “Flirted With You All My Life,” which Chesnutt described as a “breakup song with death,” he informs Death, the “You” of the title, that he’s not ready, not yet ready, to die. In hindsight, it’s far from reassuring. I said I wouldn’t speculate, but I can’t help myself. Why did he do it when he said he wouldn’t? Guess what, Vic: We weren’t ready either. We still aren’t.

Let’s try to be grateful for all the beautiful songs he left us––about 15 albums’ worth, depending on how you count them––and stop being greedy, wishing for more.

Here are a few that I’ve been comforting myself with lately, from my favorite Vic Chesnutt albums, The Salesman and Bernadette and Silver Lake.

There’s “Old Hotel,” which I recently decided is a metaphor for the human body, the way it can both betray and redeem us. The original version, on Salesman, is strange and a little off-putting, with Chesnutt’s multitracked mutter bobbing above Lambchop’s funereal horns. The vocal effect makes him sound slightly detached, at some remove. The lyrics are among Chesnutt’s best, though, a stoneristic riddle that starts out sordid (“I can see my old hotel down amongst the smells. I’m up above that ancient city river. It’s filtered by my lousy liver. It’s filtered by my wilted lily liver”) and accumulates an unlikely grace (“I’m giddy like a tipsy Mary Poppins”). The live version, from a 1995 performance on WFMU’s Radio Thrift Shop, is knee-bucklingly beautiful, with a more intimate arrangement of keening cello, shivery vibes, and Chesnutt’s plangent rasp.

“Old Hotel” (live) mp3
by Vic Chesnutt, 1995.
from WFMU's Radio Thrift Shop
at the Museum of Television & Radio
(courtesy: Laura Cantrell)

He’s one of those lyricists whose words can fall flat on the page––deliberately, operatically flat, like a slapstick stunt that makes you laugh all the harder because you know how much it hurt. For every perfect line, there’s a real howler, and it’s this friction between the sublime and the silly that sets Chesnutt apart from lesser poets. He is endearingly unafraid of looking stupid. He makes ridiculous rhymes, or more precisely, he reveals his own ridiculousness by stretching for them and failing extravagantly, like a sitcom drunk. He doesn’t embrace so much as tongue-kiss the absurd.

Sometimes he rhymes like a very stoned person trying to be funny, which, it turns out, can actually be really funny. Then, while you’re all relaxed and giggly, he tosses off a couplet so devastatingly gorgeous that you’d swear he ripped it off Yeats. He’s often quite crude, in an almost self-consciously juvenile way, as on the horndog pastorale “Maiden,” a sweet and slow art-soul high-five to fucking that begins, “Dogs are barking. Birds are chirping. The only thing better is if I was squirting.” It’s one of many songs in which he pokes fun at himself, at the male ego.

"Maiden" mp3
by Vic Chesnutt, 1998
available on The Salesman and Bernadette

He has always reminded me of Stanley Elkin, another dirty-minded genius in a wheelchair, another crass and extravagant lover of life. Elkin, who had multiple sclerosis, was a big-shot novelist at Washington University in St. Louis, where I attended grad school. I never took a class with him, never had the nerve, but more than once I saw male students awkwardly heaving him up the stairs of the old elevatorless building where Hurst Lounge, site of most of the fiction and poetry readings, was located. It seems unfathomable now, in light of the Americans with Disabilities Act and insurance regulations and the potential for lawsuits, that anyone, much less a literary lion, would have to undergo that particular humiliation, but endure it he did, probably several times a semester. All the petty indignities, the physical and emotional pain: How did they imprint themselves on Elkin’s work, on Chesnutt’s? To what extent are they responsible for that radiant empathy?

“Stay Inside,” another standout from Silver Lake, is the atheist’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” an introvert’s manifesto. Supported by a mournful choir and stately Wurlitzer, Chesnutt’s slippery moan sounds soulful and reverent, as timeless as Dylan or the Bible. Printed on a page, the words are almost unbearably sad: The last verse goes, “Suddenly everything’s different and/Everyone’s on edge/I just wanted to bring folks together/But it seems that I am the biggest wedge.” It’s hard to resist staying inside, the siren call of the chorus, when you know that shutting yourself off is the only sure way to keep from causing further damage. Somehow, though, the song demolishes its own argument, comes out on the side of the communal. It is so perversely beautiful that it almost sounds holy, more holy than a song that references stinky bedclothes has any right to be. The band comes together, gingerly at first and then with a loose but locked-in grandeur, as if they’ve all tapped into the universal mind. We’re not alone, not yet.

Come back outside, Vic. We owe you some.

"Stay Inside" mp3
by Vic Chesnutt, 2003.
available on Silver Lake


If you would like to make a contribution to VC's family, to help defray his medical bills, follow THIS LINK.


Xindeed said...

thank you.

beet said...

wow. well put. another piece of heaven slipping by...

Anonymous said...

Pretty much summed it up.

Ivan Halen said...

Great !
really "enjoyed" reading this
while listening to vic's music


Unknown said...

Wow, Ted. Thank you. Not much more to say...

Rene Saller said...

Wow, thanks everyone. I wish my debut in one of my favorite music blogs had happened under happier circumstances, but it's still very nice to read all your very kind comments. I wish our love could bring him back somehow. Thank you, Ted, for giving me the forum to ramble in my grief.

Ted Barron said...

You are so welcome, and thank you for writing this wonderful piece.

lentil-bo-peep said...

I spent my Christmas pacing the floor over the sad news of Vic. It was very unnerving but not really surprising. Suicide is so personal - and to make such big decisions on Christmas? Seems cruel to those who loved him don't you think? It bothers me still..and still I am a fan. Thank you for writing this and sharing his music here.

Chris Kelley said...

Wow, his version of "Buckets of Rain" really is a revelation. Thanks for posting that, I didn't know it existed. I've been crying some the last few days about Vic's suicide and I just started to think, "Fuck that." I was feeling sorry for myself and all the other people who won't get to hear any new music by Vic. There's no reason to feel sorry for Vic--he's dead. And if there was ever an artist who could be said to live on in his work, Vic is the one.

To battle not only his broken body but also his own mind which wasn't always his best friend, for as long as he did is impressive to me. Just think of all the great records he made. My favorites happen to be the first 4, though I can see how several others can be people's faves. I was 17 when West of Rome came out and it changed my life--seriously. The world seemed stranger and bigger and more beautiful and funnier and sadder and--well, everything that great art should open to you. Those first 4 records got me through college and were the soundtrack to many great and not-so-great moments.

I would say thank you to Vic, but I thanked him when he was alive, back in 1993. He was shy but friendly. He was opening for Live (ick) and I think he was surprised anyone knew who he was. He had just gotten off a pay phone (I've always wondered who he was talking to). I never approach celebrities and I was sort of nervous, but I also felt like I knew him. And I thought he might like to know that people there appreciated his work. I told him how much his music meant to me, not ass-kissing, just telling him how I felt. And I'm glad I did.

Pete said...

Thank you for your words! I wish I did not have to read this (yet) ... but thank you.

daisy said...

thanks - i needed someone with more vocabulary to help me release some grief about this - thanks Rene. Thanks for posting these songs. Vic Chesnutt could access his truth and sing his truth and that allows my blood liver smelly sheets longing kissing rubbing noses stuff to have some weight. the weight that holds our bodies on earth

Unknown said...

Beautifully done, Rene. Thanks very much. I'm going to pass this one along as far as I can.

RIP Vic.

Anonymous said...

I haven't had a chance to listen to the music yet, but the words themselves were a great gift by themselves. Thank you.

Nigel Smith said...

That's a wonderful tribute and thanks for the songs. I've linked to it from my blog post about Vic. I first saw Vic in London in the mid 90s. There were some shambolic shows for sure but two, one with Lambchop and another as part of a Howe Gelb curated event were pure magic. I've written about them on my blog, Carnival Saloon, if you want to read more and hear further MP3s.

Unknown said...

This is one of the most beautiful reflections on an artist I have ever read. Thank you so much.

Rene Saller said...

Thanks again, everyone. You are very kind.

Chess Nutt said...

The fuckin' guy was a complete lozer and done kilt hizzelf to prove it. He be dead. Weep no more, chillun'.

Anonymous said...

Did not one person hear in chinaburry tree what I did?
He knew it all. An Oscine malapert who wasn't sellable. Agrapha.

Biajoni said...