The Critical Mass

Vic Chesnutt: 1964-2009

When Michael Stipe, angered by his friend’s over-reliance on drugs and alcohol, dumped Vic Chesnutt from his wheelchair a few years ago, Chesnutt suggested to me this summer that Stipe’s act was simply, “Another piece in my war against my self-destructive tendencies.”

After a series of battles that included waking up in a hospital at age 18 following a drunk-driving accident to discover he was paralyzed below the waist, and then a few suicide attempts, the 45-year-old Chesnutt lost the war against his self-destructive tendencies on Christmas afternoon, when he died after slipping into a coma caused by an overdose of muscle relaxants.

Chesnutt had emerged as one of my favorite songwriters in recent years. I’d first seen him maybe 10 years ago at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. It had taken what seemed like an agonizingly long time to get him set up for the performance; adjusting the microphones to the level of his wheelchair, that sort of thing. “Does anyone have any pot?” his asked as he was wrapped in a blanket of electronics that would carry his oddest thoughts to this crowd; Chesnutt was frequently in pain, and was a marijuana advocate, both medical and recreational.

Chesnutt didn’t live up to my expectations that night. But a few years later I saw him again at the festival, and he won me over with his opening song that set, a beautiful piece called “Stay Inside.” While interviewing Chesnutt this summer to preview his upcoming performance at the Bug Jar with Jonathan Richman, I asked him about “Stay Inside,” and discovered I had misinterpreted the song. Seeing a man in a wheelchair, I had assumed he was singing about being in his home, perhaps looking out the window, trapped by his circumstances, praising the beauty of turning inward. But no, Chesnutt said; This was a song about Christ in his tomb, and Chesnutt was telling him to not roll away the boulder and come out, the world was too nasty a place. “Stay Inside,” Chesnutt was urging the Son of God.

Here in June, Chesnutt opened for Richman. For a few moments, some people in the small room, tightly jammed with maybe 100 people, didn’t seem to realize Chesnutt was even onstage. Wheelchair-bound, you couldn’t see him unless you worked your way to the front of the stage, or he tipped his head up while singing, exposing the bill of his baseball cap over the shoulder of the person in front of you. It was like peering down a manhole, trying to catch a glimpse of a sewer worker. What’s he doing in there?

“Shouldn’t they turn it up a little?” a woman next to me asked as Chesnutt finished another song with his fuzzy guitar, penchant for melancholy, minor-key notes and slightly nasal, wheedling voice. He sounded like David Sedaris, if Sedaris ever sang. But with no boost in the volume, people crept forward into every available space at the front of the stage, hoping to catch what was happening. As people left, either because Chesnutt required too much focus for a Friday night, or because it was too hot in the room, someone gladly stepped forward.

His music seemed as much influenced by the great southern-gothic writers  as any songwriter, with whimsical images of love unfolding at marching-band camp, and characters scraping the scales from a big black fish. Two songs in a row included references to dumpsters.

I don’t know if Chesnutt was a genius, as some have claimed. But he was close enough on that night for me to put one of the two albums that he released this year, Skitter on Takeoff, on my best of 2009 list. And he did have a way of turning accidents to just the right angle so they catch the best light. “You were a beautiful pig,” Chesnutt croons unevenly, yet poignantly, on “Feast in the Time of Plague.” His voice was sad, tending to drift to a drone, tuned to frequencies best left to serious students of literary eccentricity. Chesnutt’s portrait of Dick Cheney is brilliant, but it’s Chesnutt’s weirdness that illuminates. “A feral cat went dashing to a dumpster there, which displaced a big brown rat that went fleeing with a comical flair,” he sings, before explaining: “We are trapped but we are free to go through the motions and be just as happy as we can be.”

That’s kind of genius, isn’t it?

The summer night that Chesnutt came to town, I spotted him outside the bar after Richman had finished playing, parked on the sidewalk in his wheelchair. Perhaps trapped, but appearing to be just as happy as he could be. I thought about saying hello, but he was talking to some people, and I just moved on. I should have told him how much I enjoyed his work.

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