erik lundegaard

Sunday December 27, 2009

Vic Chesnutt: 1964-2009

I don’t write much about music because I don’t have the vocabulary or knowledge to write about music, but I do have a music section on this blog. It’s got the same kind or revolving photos in the upper left corner as the rest of the site, and one of them is of Vic Chesnutt, whom I first came across when others performed his music on the album “Sweet Relief II,” released in the mid-90s, and who died last Friday, Christmas day, from an overdose of muscle relaxants. He was 45.

The “Sweet Relief” albums and charity benefited artists in medical need, such as Victoria Williams, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1993, and Chesnutt, who became a paraplegic in 1983 after a car accident. Among the artists performing his work: Madonna and Joe Henry (“Guilty By Association”), LIVE (“Supernatural”) and Soul Asylum (“When I Ran Off and Left Her”).

I came to him slowly but kept coming back. “About to Choke,” his first post-“Sweet Relief II” album, included the song “Little Vacation,” which I listened to all the time on a trip down the Oregon coast in ’97. I also loved this sad, true snapshot from “New Town”:

And a little bitty baby draws a nice clean breath
From over his beaming momma’s shoulder
He’s staring at the worldly wonders that stretch as far as he can see
But he’ll stop staring when he’s older

When a friend’s daughter turned two, I quoted that stanza and added: “My wish for Eva is that she’ll never stop staring when she’s older.”

In the late ‘90s I saw him at a concert in downtown Seattle, a small figure in a wheelchair, opening for someone, and the power and purity of his voice surprised me. Four or five songs in, though, it cracked, and kept cracking, and he grew dispirited, angry, self-flagellating. The Seattle crowd, already a passive-aggressive group, with most waiting on the main act anyway, responded with something like embarrassment. The show petered out.

According to my iTunes application, “I’m Through” from “Silver Lake” was the seventh song I downloaded (uploaded?) into the application back in December 2003. That’s the song with which I almost always closed compilation CDs back then. It fit my mood in 2003/2004, particularly in terms of politics and employment. He sings the song with a mixture of resignation and defiance, but you can imagine the song sung through clenched teeth. Maybe that's how I sung it:

And after everything else you draw out of me
You still expect cute curtsies

And I’m through through through
Carrying you on my shoulders
And I’m through through through

Sometimes his songs feel so personal you almost want to turn away:

Dogs are barking
Birds are chirping
The only thing better if
I was squirting
But there’s no one here
To love on me today
Cause the maiden’s
On holiday

Other times it’s as if he’s the third-person narrator of a Flannery O’Conner short story:

Betty Lonely lives in a duplex of stucco
On the north bank of a brackish river
Her ears omit the noise from a nearby airstrip
Her mind floats beyond the snapper boats

But his wicked sense of humor was always close by:

The mirror’s a mirage
No wonder I always look so crummy

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Chris Riemenschneider writes, in his tribute, “The L.A. Times has a quote from Chesnutt complaining about his mounting [$70,000] medical bills. It's goes without stating a guy like this—who contributed to society way more than he took from it—deserves decent healthcare, but let's not cheapen his memory with political talk.”

Riemenschneider works for a corporation and I don’t, not here anyway, so I can afford to be cheap. We live in an unChristian nation. There but for the grace of God goes some other guy. Here’s the L.A. Times quote:

“I was making payments, but I can't anymore and I really have no idea what I'm going to do. It seems absurd they can charge this much. When I think about all this, it gets me so furious. I could die tomorrow because of other operations I need that I can't afford. I could die any day now, but I don't want to pay them another nickel.”

I never left Vic but this spring I came back with a vengeance, listening to his songs, just his songs, on shuffle mode, and re-discovering this one. “In My Way, Yes” gives us three stanzas: the first on creativity (“Taking my time/Working on lines/Fingers in clay/Everyday”), then on love, then on life, and the chorus for each is an affirmation, a choosing of celebration over cynicism. Here’s the chorus for creativity. The creativity is his, the affirmation is mine:

(Do you think it makes a difference?)
I say yes
(Do you think it makes a difference?)
I say yes
(Do you think it makes a difference?)
I say yes
In my life, yes
In my life, yes
In my life, yes

Posted at 10:19 AM on Sunday December 27, 2009 in category Music  
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