Saturday, December 26, 2009

RIP Vic Chesnutt: 1964-2009

Awhile back, I made the declaration that the Janus Home blog would be "all furniture all the time". At the time, I had the intention of starting up a music blog called The Pop Narcotic. Well, 2 posts and about 6 months later, my music blog sits woefully unattended - truth be told, I can barely get it together to update THIS blog on a regular basis. New year's resolution? "WILL UPDATE BLOG ONCE A WEEK. WILL UPDATE BLOG ONCE A WEEK". So, while the ultimate fate of The Pop Narcotic remains undetermined - hopefully one day when I have more time, I will be able to do something with it - something happened a few days ago that I simply can't not write about.

That something was the death, presumably by suicide, of Vic Chesnutt, a brilliant artist who deserved much wider recognition. While he received consistent critical accolades throughout his career, as is often the case, this did very little to increase his sales or turn him into anything other than a cult hero.

If you don't know anything about Vic Chesnutt, never seen him, never heard his music, you should know that the simultaneously most and least important thing about him is that he was a paraplegic with limited use of his hands and arms, left that way at the age of 18 as the result of a car accident. It is the most important thing because it completely changed his life, gave him tremendous obstacles to overcome, and eventually likely led to his death from an overdose of muscle relaxants. It is the least important thing because it seemed to do very little to dampen the man's spirit, or his ability to write and record amazing songs.

I've been lucky enough to see Vic play twice, and the two performances couldn't have been more different. One show was a good show with a full band behind him, the other was simply one of the most inspiring simultaneous displays of human strength and frailty that I've ever seen in my life. At this show, Vic played accompanied only by his primitively strummed acoustic guitar. It was here that I realized the extent of the man's disability - not only was he in a wheelchair due to being paralyzed from the waist down (which I knew), his upper body was partially paralyzed as well, and he could really barely hold his guitar, let alone play it. Despite that, there he was, on stage at the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle, in front of a room full of adoring fans, playing and singing his heart out. While it was an amazing performance, it was also not easy to watch, as the tension between what the man's mind was capable of creating and what his damaged body was able to produce was palpable.

While that show was hardly one of the BEST performances I've ever seen, it was absolutely one of the most MEMORABLE, and likely one that I'll never forget. Vic's lack of fear in getting up onstage with no backing band, presenting himself exactly as he was with no apologies, could simply be filed under "how to be human". His performance was so raw, so unadorned, so unflinching and unapologetic, that one couldn't help but be completely moved by it, practically to tears. Then there's the whole "man, if this guy can get up there in this condition and play these songs in front of all these people, and do it WELL, I have got NOTHING to complain about" thing.

Vic was an artist who could reliably be counted on to put out a new record, whether it was under his own name or a collaboration with other like-minded artists, every few years. While the quality of those records was somewhat variable (I hadn't picked up his two most recent releases, "North Star Deserter" and "At the Cut", because I was rather underwhelmed with his 2006 effort, "Ghetto Bells" - but I hear they're really good, so I need to rectify that), he could always be counted on to make something interesting, even if it may not have been a career highlight. On the subject of career highlights, I think that anyone who is even remotely interested in the singer-songwriter genre, especially if anyone who has an appreciation for twisted, Southern Gothic storytelling, NEEDS to have both "Is the Actor Happy", from 1995, and "Silver Lake", from 2003, in their collection.

It's been said that Vic had been suicidal on and off for most of his life, and that he had tried it more than once. It's hard to glean that from his music, which, while certainly not always chipper, is uniformly enormously full of life. However, it's got to be damn hard to accept a disability that was brought on purely by one's own poor teenage decision making (the accident that crippled him was a one-car accident that was the result of drunk driving). Given what he was able to accomplish despite the odds stacked against him, Vic Chesnutt was truly an inspirational figure, and his tragic passing leaves us with one less astute commentator on the art of being human.

Read more about the career and albums of Vic Chesnutt here.

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