The day after Christmas brought the unutterably sad news that Vic Chesnutt had died. He was 45. His death was an apparent suicide.

Vic Chesnutt was born in Florida and raised in Georgia. When he was 18, he was in a serious automobile accident that left him paraplegic. Confined to a wheelchair, Chesnutt taught himself to play guitar in a manner that ended up turning his limited dexterity into a strength. With a pick strapped to his thumb, he developed a distinctive style which made up in expressiveness what it lacked in technical proficiency. He was discovered in an Athens’ Georgia bar by REM’s Michael Stipe, who produced his two first records in the early ‘90s. Chesnutt was amazingly prolific to the last. He released three records last year: one, “Dark Developments”, with the Athens’ band Elf Power, another, “At the Cut” with his Montreal-based musical accomplices (more about that later), and a third, “Skitter on Take-Off”, a stripped down set featuring Vic accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, with some barely-there accompaniment by Jonathan Richman and his drummer. By my count, his solo albums and collaborations number almost twenty.

Chesnutt was a songwriter of fearsome ability. His songs are at times funny, and often scarily personal and naked. Chesnutt follows none of the rules. A recent favorite of mine, “Worst Friend”, drawn from the “Skitter” album, is an almost 8 minute listing of facts about the friends of the song’s addressee. One rubbed his penis on TV’s actual Wheel of Fortune, another claims to have taken a dump in the White House. The song goes on and on, each verse finishing with Chesnutt’s reiterated judgment that he is in fact, in fact, his friend’s worst friend. If you think this is an unpromising premise for a song, you would probably be joined in that judgment by 99.9% of songwriters and listeners. But Chesnutt turns it into something uncanny and moving. I’m not sure how he does it.

In part, the songs work because of the strength of Chesnutt’s vocals. Another song on “Skitter”, “Sewing Machine”, is a sad song about the singer’s mother and grandmother. Each chorus ends with Chesnutt singing the title words in a soft falsetto that brings tears to your eyes, so powerfully does it express the singer’s vulnerability before the force of childhood memory.

Chesnutt’s albums were recorded with a great many backing bands. Lambchop performed on one of his best records, “The Salesman and Bernadette”. The band that performed on Ghetto Bells included the great Bill Frisell on guitar. And he recorded two albums with the jam rock band Widespread Panic under the name brute.

In my view, however, Chesnutt found the ideal musical setting for his songs when he teamed up with members of Montreal’s own Silver Mt. Zion and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. The two albums he recorded with them, “North Star Deserter” and this year’s “At the Cut” are arguably his best records, both because of the quality of the songs, but also because of the what the band contributed to them. Now, I have to confess that I have never been a huge fan of Godspeed and post-Godspeed bands such as Silver Mt. Zion. I find that the music aims for a kind of drama that is actually unearned. To these ears, their music builds to big and noisy climaxes that are just big and noisy rather than actually building in a musically interesting way. Now, there is no denying the musicians’ chops. But I have always been unmoved by their vision.

Combined with Chesnutt’s songs, however, their music comes into its own. The songs make sense in the context of the dramatic settings that these wonderful Montreal musicians provide them with, and they provide the music with a focus that was in always lacking from both Godspeed and Silver Mt. Zion’s studio offerings and live performances.

I saw Chesnutt perform live in Montreal with these musicians twice in the last couple of years. Watching him perform is a tense, disquieting experience, but an exhilarating one as well. Part of the unease comes from watching a man struggle for his art against painful physical limitations. Chesnutt would contort himself in his chair while he was singing, perhaps as a way to fill his lungs with enough air to hit the big, loud notes that contributed much to the drama of the songs. He looked spent at the end of some songs, and his musicians would look to him with solicitude and concern, as one would a boxer who had taken a few too many rounds of punishment. I remember thinking at the end of his performance at the Ukrainian Federation in late October that perhaps he had had enough. Listening to the lyrics on “At the Cut” with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Chesnutt was in the process of making an angry peace with mortality.

But the performances were triumphant nonetheless. The arrangements from the two records he recorded at Montreal’s Hotel2Tango studio came vividly to life. Despite the obvious pain he was going through, Chesnutt would look up at the band with wry satisfaction at the end of each song. Here was an artists satisfied in the conviction that he had finally found the right palette of colours for his art.

There are musicians that one listens to because of their cleverness, others because of their musical chops, and others still because of their sheer entertainment value. But there are musicians who make music because they have to, because in making music they are figuring out how to live, and in the process telling us something important about the way in which we should lead our lives. Chesnutt was one of those, as was Chris Whitley, who passed away four years ago, also at the age of 45. It is hard to imagine living in a world in which his voice has been silenced forever.

Posted Monday, December 28th, 2009 at 9:05 am
Filed Under Category: Uncategorized
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Response to “RIP Vic Chesnutt”

Kylie Batt

Пока просто буду знать))))…


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