Vic Chesnutt: Singer and songwriter whose work tackled issues of mortality

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A cult figure for the last two decades and a favourite of critics and fellow musicians like REM's Michael Stipe, who discovered him and produced his first two albums, the singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt drew on his own experiences to make some of the most affecting and haunting music to come out of the alternative American scene.

A paraplegic since crashing his car while drunk in 1983, Chesnutt performed in a wheelchair and sang in a high, plaintive voice while strumming on an acoustic guitar. He was a prolific writer and toured often, headlining his own shows solo or backed by a band, and opening for the likes of Bob Mould or Jonathan Richman. His songs were full of self-loathing but also contained humour, and tackled death and suicide with a disarming frankness, most poignantly on "Flirted With You All My Life", the pivotal track on At The Cut, his last album. Indeed, he had attempted suicide several times. In interviews this year, the gifted musician admitted he faced mounting medical bills of well over $50,000, and the possibility of losing his home, and that he had been uninsurable for years. Last week, he took an intentional overdose of muscle relaxants and fell into a coma. He died on Christmas Day.

Born James Victor Chesnutt in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1964, he was adopted and raised in Zebulon, Georgia. His maternal grandfather, a semi-professional musician known as Sleepy Carter, taught him to play guitar, while a grandmother wrote poetry. A precocious child, he composed his first song at the age of five, and enjoyed listening to the Beatles, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. He pronounced himself an atheist when he was 13, which didn't go down well in a staunchly Evangelical Christian small town. "I bumped up with these fuckers my whole time there," he told The Independent in 2003. "Sometimes it felt great to be at war with them. But I knew I needed to go somewhere else."

In his teens he played trumpet in a cover band called Sundance then joined various new wave outfits on guitar and keyboards. He also drank far too much, including the night when he crashed his car in 1983. "I was a jerk, I was driving drunk. I did it. I pretty much accepted it right off the bat. Like, 'What, did you expect anything else out of your life?' I never even felt much horror, really. I was more fascinated, in a sick way. I felt like, 'Oh well. This puts a whole new spin on things,'" he said about the fact that he emerged from a coma to be told he was paraplegic, with some sensation in his legs but unable to walk.

Chesnutt didn't feel sorry for himself and, since the accident had affected his hands, made adjustments to his guitar-playing. The disability changed his outlook on life and began to inform his writing. He moved first to Nashville, where he shoplifted The Norton Anthology Of Modern Poetry, containing poems by Stevie Smith, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, Steven Crane and Emily Dickinson, which provided further inspiration, and then to Athens, Georgia in 1984. He was supposed to study English, but, as he put it, ended up "hanging out with poets and painters and mystics and punk rockers."

After briefly joining a group called the La-Di-Das he started appearing solo at the 40 Watt Club, where he was spotted by Stipe, who called him "an acerbic reporter on the events of the town" and determined to record at least one Chesnutt album before the singer-songwriter drank himself to death. Indeed, Chesnutt only went on the wagon in 2001. "I just love intoxication," said the musician, who also campaigned to make marijuana legal. "It's empowering, because it takes you out of here, into something else. You become someone ... other."

Stipe's sympathetic production, and the obvious quality of the material featured on Little, Chesnutt's 1988 debut, recorded for $100 in one afternoon, and West Of Rome, the 1991 follow-up, brought the singer-songwriter a cult following in the US and beyond. In 1994, he was the subject of a PBS documentary directed by Peter Sillen, entitled Speed Racer: Welcome To The World Of Vic Chesnutt. Two years later, he had a small role as the wheelchair-bound Terence in Sling Blade, written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton. Also in 1996, acts such as Garbage, Kristin Hersh, REM, Smashing Pumpkins and Madonna covered several of Chesnutt's compositions for an album entitled Sweet Relief II: Gravity Of The Situation, to benefit the Sweet Relief Fund and highlight the predicament of US musicians who cannot afford health care.

"It was a really exciting time," he recalled. "All these rock stars were singing my songs and it was fun. And it always makes you feel good to think that your songs can help other people. I know people who benefited from Sweet Relief who were gravely ill, and it helped them keep alive. That's something that my music couldn't do otherwise. I mean, I can enrich people spiritually or whatever, or tickle them, make them think they're not so alone in the world, but to actually buy them medicine is pretty great."

Released by Sony, the Gravity Of The Situation collection raised Chesnutt's profile considerably. Later that year, he signed to the US major Capitol and issued About To Choke, the fifth and the most accessible of the 15 albums he made for a variety of mostly independent labels. Chesnutt drew high praise from many of his contemporaries and collaborated with several alternative acts, including Widespread Panic, another Athens band with whom he recorded two albums – Nine High A Pallet in 1995 and Co-Balt in 2002 – under the name brute., and the Nashville-based alt country group Lambchop on 1998's The Salesman And Bernadette, which also featured a guest vocal by Emmylou Harris on the track "Woodrow Wilson". He also worked with the experimental guitarist Bill Frisell and the session-keyboardist and composer Van Dyke Parks on Ghetto Bells in 2005. On 2007's North Star Deserter and this year's At The Cut, he was backed by members of the Montreal bands Thee Silver Mt. Zion and Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Guy Picciotto of the Washington DC hardcore group Fugazi.

Chesnutt could be contrary but also endearing. He raged at the world, in song and in person. "I am ambivalent towards human beings," he said in 2003. "It's ugly, but true. I am always at extremes. Maybe that's what powers me. I can go from 'I'm a lover' to 'I'm toxic trash'. When I remember there's a whole giant universe out there, then I feel good. It's when I look inside me that these extremes vibrate so hard. If I look at a list of the things I've done, it's fantastic to me. I didn't even expect to be alive."

Pierre Perrone

James Victor Chesnutt, singer, songwriter, guitarist: born Jacksonville, Florida 12 November 1964; married Tina Whatley; died Athens, Georgia 25 December 2009.