¹ Of course ‘less than perfect’ describes how Vic Chesnutt saw himself.
² And ‘more than special’ describes how everyone else, everyone who was touched by his presence and had the privilege to glimpse the gleanings of his spirit, how everyone else saw him and could not, could never adequately articulate what they knew (knew, to have known, to know, as in the biblical sense, which can be carnal, sure, why not, if you want that meaning but is more like what happens when a soul encounters a soul and KNOWS and things progress from there to a sort of a bang and a bang and a bang and a bang and a bang to the spawnings of fathomless universes heretofore unknown and undreamt of and mysterious in their workings, circling in their relations, enchantments and horrors) in instinct but not in words, and the exhaustive impossibility of ever being able to describe this special quality to anyone who has never experienced it (can you really describe a moment of EUREKA to someone who has no conception of such a moment and its divergence of the pathways of a lifetime but can only see what is comfortably familiar and the illusion therewith? Or can you accept that a mind must mature to acquire some of the finer nuanced tastes and there is nothing really you can do about it as this is that other person’s journey to embark upon or not?) I digress.
I tried to begin writing this in the first days of Vic’s passing. I couldn’t.
There is a pain—so utter—
It swallows substance up—
Then covers the Abyss with Trance—
So Memory can step
As one within a Swoon—
Goes safely—where an open eye—
Would drop him—Bone by Bone—
-- Emily Dickinson (one of Vic Chesnutt’s many poet heroes)
The morning after he took wing I was in the Smoky Mountains with my husband where we had spent a somber Christmas day, and caught this sunrise, 26 December 2009, after a sleepless night:
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
-- Wallace Stevens (another of Vic’s poet heroes), from ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’
A lot has been written about Vic Chesnutt, both before and after his death on Christmas Day in 2009. Since we live in the age of the internet you can find most of it now, just do a search and more information comes up than can be absorbed in years, lovely personal stories and anecdotes aplenty, fantastic pictures too and more videos will result for Vic Chesnutt than even for our beloved Jonathan Richman. But do it quickly, do it right away, because this freewheeling internet age is rapidly evolving to another era, and hyperlinks and telomeres and content disappear with the blink of an eye all the time just like people sadly tend to do. (Jojoblog, will you still be around in x number of years? And if not, will anyone remember you? Is it important that they do? Is it not...?)
And hence the need for less ephemeral objects, something you can touch and see without electricity, and barring catastrophe, will still be around in a hundred years, a time I am fond of thinking will surely recognize Vic Chesnutt as one of the great Fin de siècle poets of the pre and post-millennium.
Vic Chesnutt sings: c’est la vie, la de da, que sera sera...
Hill of Beans, after Philip Guston, a Sisyphean painting dedicated to Vic Chesnutt, by Mab MacMoragh, 16 in. by 20 in. oil on linen, Cremnitz white, Cerulean blue, Ivory black, Cadmium Yellow Lemon, Cadmium Red Light, linseed oil, Dammar varnish, 1 inch housepaint hog bristle brush, brush-strokes all in double wrist swivel movement meant to look like kidney beans
When asked how he managed in a wheelchair for so long he said with graceful manners and good cheer that he had gotten used to it and this was always his answer- but what alternative answer can there be? It’s like asking what color is orange....
In a perfect world Vic Chesnutt would have had access to this robot skeleton thingie which might have allowed him to take some steps again on his own, or in the fantastic future, even fly (such a thing is being worked on as we speak so it could happen). However you and I both know that only the very wealthy and the very fortunate (though not so fortunate if they are unable to walk on their own) and the very elite-est 1% of health insured can look forward to having their own robot skeleton. But in looking at what-ifs (something Vic had to struggle mightily not to do, so this is kind of a melancholy road), what if Vic had had access to a robot skeleton that allowed him to walk when he wanted, fly when he wanted, and wheeled him around when he wanted, not as a wheelchair but as a road vehicle so he could tour and watch the scenery go by and look at his email and write more songs! Alas, this was not to be.
Vic Chesnutt sings: If I had not lost my wallet, then I could have learned my fate...
A few years ago (ok maybe more years than that) in an awkwardly shy and absurd but earnest conversation in a comically loud environment so extreme it was necessary to read lips and gestures to keep from screaming and flinching, he humbly told me that he was excited, so excited, that Van Dyke Parks wanted to record with him- I, in my sheltered ignorance and everlasting gaucheness did not recognize who this luminary was but knew that if he made Vic’s eyes light up that way he was certainly more than special too and I was glad for him; always he was so excited when I saw him, always interested and always gears engaged and engine chugging full stop, his muse leading him to move mountains in his expansive spheres of love and loss and beauty and deep primordial fears.
Vic Chesnutt sings: When I met you everything changed
Now, I don’t pretend to be a personal friend, nor even an obsessive superfan, just an ordinary fan off to the side, one of the masses who could recognize a passionate poet, a clowning man in despair, a tragic romantic with a tarnished silver lining trailing clouds of glory. But if my off-kilter memories of Vic are so strong and haunting, how does his departure affect those who were his own true loves?
Vic Chesnutt via Mab MacMoragh, instrumental from ‘Opening for Jonathan’ recorded by Southern Shelter in Athens- another later version of this song performed in Cleveland is ‘Ode to Jonathan’ on Youtube via kingofthecastle7 worth a look and listen for all true Jojophiles
Vic Chesnutt sings: Everything blows away some day, everything turns to dust, big ol’ mountains do, as well as every one of us
One of those true loves, as he so painfully, hurtfully, and openly shared with everyone who listened to him sing, was Death, mortality, the enticing unknown, the darkness beckoning. His oft-declared atheism was as paradoxical as his protestations were against dying. It was evident the truth wavered somewhere oscillating in the tension between one extreme and the other.
I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows...
-- Flannery O’Connor, from “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”
I was going to say something here about his battle with labyrinthine health insurance, his mounting medical bills, his worries, pressures, anxieties, personal demons, things that would fell the strongest among us even still able to tilt at windmills, and so on. But you can find those concerns written about competently, eloquently elsewhere
But rb, one or two Jojoblog readers might say, this is a blog about Jonathan Richman. Why make us read something so depressing as this?
I hear you, dear readers. Bear with me. Vic was a reader here too just like you.
I know for a fact that Jonathan Richman loved Vic Chesnutt. And I know for a fact that Vic Chesnutt loved Jonathan. The final words I spoke to Vic as I sat with him in The Waiting Room, a small venue in Omaha:
Image: rb (The Waiting Room 16 March 08)
rb: I have to go now. I love you.
Vic, his eyes on post-concert mute Jonathan in the front of the room being accosted by über-sweet adoring fans: I love Jonathan Richman...
His eyes welled up with tears.
I nodded and stood up. I understood what he was saying, it was an extension of the loopy conversation we had been having and he hadn’t taken his chain of thought yet to its logical conclusion. He wiped his nose with a tissue, still contemplating, his attention someplace else, perhaps in the abstract sublime, perhaps in his runny nose, perhaps both. I waited.
Then he turned his eyes to me to say goodbye. He said, a bit nonplussed but with gentle humor, politely eschewing foul language: Well, hill of beans!
On Christmas Day last week I thought about Vic and realized suddenly with surprise that the thought was not unbearably painful, and actually I was happy thinking about him for a change. So I knew the time had come to write a couple of these things down, and looking about on the internet discovered the amount of information was overwhelming, and overwhelmingly made me cry. I decided to reach out to a friend for help, a friend who knew Vic Chesnutt well and who also knew John Seawright, the departed friend that Vic refers to in his song ‘Flirted With You All My Life’.
Video, 1992: John Seawright and Vic Chesnutt via Dashboard Dog Pictures
John Seawright lived in the town where I live, before my time, and went to high school with my husband. I never knew him but had heard about him and had occasionally read his ghost stories in the free Athens GA weekly, Flagpole. He was sort of a mythic legendary artist poet raconteur bard. If there is an afterlife, or an over-the-rainbow, or an instead-of-life-but-yonder-in-our-dreams that we don’t know about yet and have no earthly means to measure, perhaps Vic is with John there and they are working on a mystical book together. Perhaps.
Vic Chesnutt sings: She said ‘you are the light of my life, and the beat of my heart...’
What will survive of us is love.
-- Philip Larkin, from ‘An Arundel Tomb’
Here is Sam Mixon’s very generous contribution to this meandering appreciation, written on New Year’s Eve:
It seems like lots of people are just now coming to grips with Vic as I've had a few people contact me this year in his remembrance.
As for John Seawright, they were friends in a wordy sort of way. They were both storytellers and I think Vic would have written books if he had lived. He was actually working on a book at some point but part of the problem is the completely different approach you use when writing lyrics as opposed to writing prose. Vic, as you know, was extraordinarily well read (in fact, he and some of his south Georgia friends referred to themselves as well-read necks).
My favorite story about John happened when he came back after his stint in New York. I went over to his house to hang out a few times (I was still just a teenager and into Bowie, Eno, and the Rolling Stones). He played me a record that his roommate's band had recorded, a little band called the Velvet Underground. It was years later before I realized their importance.
In all the stories I heard during all the touring we did with Vic, here is one I only heard once. Vic told this story in 2007 backstage at McCabe's music store in Santa Monica. Curtiss, Vic, and I had flown out to the west coast to do three shows as an acoustic trio (known as the Amorphous Strums because we ended so many songs like that). In 1993 Vic had played a set at McCabe's with Harry Dean Stanton in which Alan Ginsberg happened to attend.
Ginsberg went up to Vic after the show and said to him, "Aren't you that guy who is a paraplegic because of a drunk driving accident?"
Vic said, "Yeah."
Ginsberg said, "And didn't you name your last album 'Drunk?'"
Again Vic said, "Yeah."
Ginsberg then said, "You're a moron!"
Vic said, "Wait, what about '...the best minds of my generation...?’"
Ginsburg replied, "Dude, we're all sober now."
While on tour in 2003, we played the Swedish American Music Hall in San Francisco. Our green room was a beautiful, wooden room with tall ceilings and fantastic acoustics. Curtiss and Ballard went off in search of a good, strong cup of San Francisco coffee (which puts Seattle coffee to shame in my opinion) and left Vic and me alone to snack on the goodies provided in our rider. Suddenly, he started singing "All I Have to do is Dream" by the Everly Brothers. Of course I had no choice but to join in. We sang the entire song together, our voices blending in this wonderful room and floating out into the warm streets outside. As we ended the song we drifted apart to opposite sides of the room and never spoke of it. I have to say it was probably the most supremely beautiful musical experience of my life. Vic's talent as a singer was truly immeasurable.
The last story is about how Vic felt about people viewing him as a hero. He scoffed at the idea, but I personally could see where they were coming from. His dedication to the craft of writing music and performing it was almost superhuman. He could push you in a rehearsal to your limits.
One night we were playing a show in Brooklyn and Vic was getting sick (as often happens on tour). I remember looking up at him as I sat on his left and watching him push himself up in his chair with his hands and struggle to hit the notes, his voice cracking and in obvious pain. This photo is similar to what I saw. In my memory, he was almost hitting the ceiling as he rose above us. We played the entire set.
Image: Jason Thrasher
Vic Chesnutt’s self-penned list-style biography
Vic Chesnutt at Constellation Records (Tribute, discography, audio, links)
Debriefing: The music and art of Vic Chesnutt (by Charles Fontaine)
Southern Shelter: Vic Chesnutt
Rabbits are Cooking Breakfast (Vic Chesnutt Fan Site)
Vic Chesnutt memorial and link to Memorial Guest Book
Tribute page by Kristin Hersh
Jojoblog: Vic Chesnutt
NPR: Vic Chesnutt
Brooklyn Vegan: Vic Chesnutt
Youtube: 'It Is What It Is' teaser/excerpt from Michael Stipe-produced documentary, 2011
Sweet Relief, 2011
Vic Chesnutt in the Perforated Sky, by Travis Nichols, Huffington Post, 2010
Youtube: Bears and the Pope, 2009
Youtube: Ode to Jonathan, 2009
Youtube: Vic Chesnutt & Elf Power European Tour, video mostly shot by Vic, 2009
Youtube: Mitte Ende August (film soundtrack by Vic Chesnutt) & also here, 2009
Youtube: Dangermouse & Sparklehorse feat. Vic Chesnutt- Grim Augury, 2009
NPR: Songs of Survival and Reflection, interview with Terry Gross, 2009
The Quietus interview, 2009
Aquarium Drunkard interview, 2009
Skitter on take-off, en français by Blogonzeureux! 2009
Chambre Verte: ordet blog: text en français and videos, 2009
Vimeo: Vic Chesnutt- Anecdotal Evidence- A short film by Jem Cohen, 2008-2009
Huffington Posts penned by Vic Chesnutt, 2008
Village Voice: Interview and downloads, 2008
Youtube: video interview, Paradiso, Amsterdam, 2008
Village Voice: with William Bowers, 2007
La Blogothèque, ‘A Takeaway Show’ en français & video vignettes by Vincent Moon, 2007
Ink 19 interview, Steve Stav, 2003
Artist Sunny Taylor's bigger-than-life-size oil portrait of Vic Chesnutt, 2002
Vic Chesnutt: It Weren’t Supernatural, by Travis Nichols, interview originally published in Flagpole, 1999
Youtube: Vic Chesnutt & Tina Chesnutt: Where’s That At?’ from Inner Flame, tribute to Rainer Ptacek, 1997
Youtube: Vic Chesnutt with Michael Stipe- Injured Bird, From The End of Violence soundtrack, 1997
Youtube: Discussing poetry in the movie Sling Blade, 1996
Youtube: Victoria Williams & Vic Chesnutt- God is Good, 1996
Youtube: vic chesnutt- speed racer (welcome to the world of vic chesnutt) 1993 (teaser)
Vimeo: John Seawright and Vic Chesnutt, 1992
Youtube: Vic's Christmas Special, (Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3), 1987
Thank you to Boomer, Sam Mixon, Jason Thrasher, and Mike White for help in preparing this appreciation.