I just learned that Vic Chesnutt died today, aged 45: a suicide.
In the last few years, I got to know his music well, and I thought him the finest songwriter alive. He was the only musician in whom I still took an ongoing, non-nostalgic interest. I saw him play at the Great American Music Hall less than a month ago: extraordinary, impassioned, a born artist, the real thing.
In the most obvious way, his death is perfectly believable. Chesnutt was a paraplegic and had been in a wheelchair since he was eighteen. By his own account he had made four previous suicide attempts. His injuries had caused painful and costly medical complications, and, report has it, he could not pay for them.
In another, more self-centered way, I find it unbelievable. During this year I had need to cling to Chesnutt's music: especially to his second album, West of Rome. Every other music reminded me of something else; not West of Rome. (His finest other albums include Is the Actor Happy?  and About to Choke , as well as his collection of home demos and experiments Left to His Own Devices , which is predictably patchy but really pretty great all the way through.)
Chesnutt had every reason to be unhappy, and was unhappy; I envied him, though. His soul was articulate. The practice of his craft presented so whole a personality. He wasn't completely without worldly recognition. The band he was currently touring with was a supergroup made up of members of well known indie groups. I could name-drop them but I won't, because I think in a few years Chesnutt's name will be the one to drop.
His show at the Great American Music Hall, November 30, was one of the most moving events I ever experienced. Chesnutt, his lower body being immobile, had the most mobile head in the world. In the extremes of passion to which his music forced him, his head seemed to arch upward, his eyes rolling. He seemed to try to lift himself out of the chair purely by the use of his skull. I reflected that I wouldn't be able to let myself sing like that: I'd be afraid of rupturing a blood vessel. Sometimes, what with the wheelchair, the stage lights and this transfiguring howl, he seemed about to become a Francis Bacon painting.
His voice -- whether going for leather-lunged power or intimate confidences -- was a great, great instrument. It was from the deep South (none of your Texan drawls): out of Georgia and Florida, with so much soul. The soul of a white boy who has been transfixed by John Lydon's vocals on Metal Box, but who can also say "I just want to be Aaron Neville." Aaron Neville has soul in abundance but did he ever sacrifice his cool the way Chesnutt did? And was he as funny? "A funny pilgrim," Vic called himself, "a saucy Chaucer / A sorry chapter mislaid." The voice was clear, lilting, conversational, unaffected (though not everybody responds to the way he finds in ordinary words whole strings of previously unknown syllables).
Chesnutt's onstage presence was curmudgeonly and fun, and inspiringly proud. Because he was in San Francisco he gave "props" to Frank Norris. "Mmm? Frank Norris? McTeague?" he queried the unresponsive room. "This is San Francisco so I bet everyone here has read that." At another juncture he thanked the audience for "not throwing things at us." An obnoxious female voice hooted: "Oh, we'll get to that later, Vic!" He stared at her, appalled.
That night at the Music Hall, Chesnutt was havering over what to play, making the audience fidget, when suddenly he said: "We're gonna do something from my second album." My heart soared: throughout the whole show he'd done no early material, and now he was going to play something from my totem album! I clapped -- I had expected a volley of applause from the whole room. But there were only two of us clapping.
"Yep," sighed Chesnutt, "about two people bought that record."
I wanted to tell him about West of Rome, about his own album, to tell him everything -- but this one second of hand-clapping was, and now will remain, my total contribution to the recognition Vic Chesnutt deserved. By now he had launched into "Sponge," in a powerful arrangement totally unlike the record. "I'll soon be silent," he sang, "you'll soon hear nothing / 'Cause the world, world, world it is a sponge."
All night, while singing, he kept reaching up to his head to adjust his knitted woollen cap. The cap didn't need adjusting; it was just something he compulsively did. The mannerism was distracting at first -- then fascinating; and finally endearing. Now it is fixed in my mind for good, as a reminder that artists work from compulsion, from impulse -- and other words that have "pulse" for their root.
The last song he did that night was "Flirted With You All My Life," from his new album. I hadn't heard it before. It is uptempo, commencing with infectious drum taps. At first you think he's singing to a lover or a romantic fixation; then in the chorus he names her:
Really I'm not ready.
He was saying it was just a flirtation; I thought he meant it. Now I'll have to let Vic Chesnutt go, go on his own terms. He sang on West of Rome:
. . . I respect a man who goes to where he wants to beI wish that hadn't been what he wanted. If we must part, please, can't it be on another of his great songs of farewell --
Even if he wants to be dead.
And I ain't got time for the niceties,
Or rather I was never ever fond of the niceties!
I'll see you around
Christmas Day, 2009
P.S. 1/12/10: At this site you can make a donation to Vic Chesnutt's family, and read a moving tribute by Kristin Hersh.