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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Goodbye to My Friend Vic

Picture I took of Vic at a concert in October

I met Vic Chesnutt once...well met is a stretch. I was leaving an REM tribute concert, where he performed a version of Everybody Hurts that blew away an audience who, most likely, hadn't heard of him before. Anyway, I was walking down a side street, ready to head to the subway, when I saw I saw Vic as he wheeled out a back door, and as several friends helped him get into a car. I was right next to him, probably two feet from him at most, and no one else was near us. But I was at a loss of what to say and by the time I thought of what I could say he was being carried into a car. Either I felt that I knew Vic well enough to anticipate a four-letter response, or because of my own experience with friends and family who have had or have various disabilities, I knew that this moment was so private that I shouldn't say anything to draw attention that anyone was watching. I stood by and felt privy to a vulnerable human moment.

It was a twisted turn of fate that a man so strong, independent, and fiery had to spend the majority of his life in a body that required help. But it was this strength, a passion which often was best displayed in anger, and most of all a sense of humor, that allowed him to survive for nearly 30 years in a broken, sickly body. His view on life was that of Camus, who decided: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to understanding the fundamental question of philosophy (The Myth of Sisyphus)." Vic, for most of his life chose to live; to live with a body that often failed him, the result of a night of drunk driving which resulted in his being paralyzed, with limited use of his arms at that age of 18, or with a mind which was often troubled with deep depression even before that. Yet, he survived, lived on, and became a legend.

Vic was a songwriter's songwriter, admired by the likes of REM, Madonna, Smashing Pumpkins to name a few, and he was one of the main reasons I started to play guitar and write songs. He was philosophical and literary without being pretentious, always wielding an unmatched sense of humor. While he was perhaps the smartest songwriter of his generation, often the power lied in his ability to know when to not speak: to be quiet, understated, or to howl. In many ways, his style was very much like Camus: direct, immediate, simple, and profound. Both wrote allegories of universal suffering, and both confronted death at every turn.

But despite clever lyrics that could allude to Flannery O'Connor, obscure politicians, dreams, or historical episodes, it was his voice, his honesty even if disguised in metaphor which drew me to Vic. I heard him first at a listening station at a Borders store. I was 13, and beginning to realize that something was not right with my mind; the beginning stages, a prelude, to my long battle with depression and anxiety. When I heard Vic's voice on About to Choke, on "Myrtle" specifically, I knew that this was someone who had been through a great deal of pain, a fellow sufferer, someone else "fumbling in the dark, struggling to make something out (The Plague, 113)."

I'm not an optimist
I'm not a realist
I might be a sub realist
but I can't substantiate.
It was bigger than me
and I felt like a sick child
dragged by a donkey
through the myrtle. -Myrtle

For anyone who has suffered from any sort of mental illness, you know that one of the worst parts of it is that you create what seems to be airtight and complex logic which always isolates and tears yourself down. To know that I was not alone, that I was not the only one who felt that way; that was the gift that Vic gave to me. To challenge and laugh at my logic, to not take too seriously the darkness that, for no reason that can ever be adequately explained, had become visible.

I'm just chasing that electric rabbit
I'm a reluctant rebel
I just want to be Aaron Neville
With a crown on my head
and my denim shirt
all soaked with sweat

I'm just pushing the paint around
On advice from your lying mouth
you touched me and then you ran
and left some sad peter pan
all alone and awkward
but a transformation I swear
it will occur.
-Sad Peter Pan

While his songs cursed God/fate/nature he found beauty in the small and the strange, humor in the absurdity, and hope in the darkness. In the notes on About to Choke, Vic dedicated the album partially to "those that wrote me to say "don't die." And that "some of this album may be a bit obsessed with the premise that through death life is nourished." It was hard to fault Vic for that obsession, nor his fans for their nervousness about his "not dying." Death was a constant companion for Vic, if not in times of his dark depression, just a looming specter who may, at anytime, come to finish what he started in that wreck when he was 18.

I last saw Vic at a concert in October. He looked a bit sickly, but he was in good spirits. He was surrounded by friends, and his last album was his best work. The last song I ever heard him sing was "Flirted with you All my Life," a song he described as "breaking up with suicide."

I am a man
I am self-aware
And everywhere I go
You're always right there with me

I've flirted with you all my life
Even kissed you once or twice
And to this day I swear it was nice
But clearly I was not ready

When you touched a friend of mine
I thought I would lose my mind
But I found out with time that
really I was was not ready, no no

Oh, Death
Oh, Death
Oh, Death
Really, I'm not ready

Oh, Death you hector me
Decimate those dear to me
Tease me with your sweet release
You are cruel and you are constant

When my mom was cancer sick
She fought but then succumb to it
But you made her beg for it
Lord Jesus, please I'm ready.

Oh, Death
Oh, Death
Oh, Death
Really, I'm not ready
-Flirted With You All my Life

But, there's another song, the last on what is bow his final album, that may serve as another excellent posthumous remembrance. Vic had a strained relationship with his family, in large part because of his atheism. On "Granny," a song based on a dream in which he had a conversation with his late grandmother in her kitchen, he seems to have found peace in that, as she tells him "you are the light of my life, and the beat of my heart."

The nature of Vic's death is ambiguous. Somehow he overdosed on muscle relaxers. It may or may not have been suicide. It may or may not have been because of debts due to medical bills. I would argue that it was mostly accidental; he's been addicted to things in the past, and may have OD'd while trying to self-medicate. Even if he did complete suicide, his life, his survival and success in the face of such odds is a testament to life and the human spirit, and his voice will live on in the musical treasures he left us with.

Nobody can ever tell what is going on in the mind of someone on the brink of suicide. One of the main misconceptions about mental illness is that it somehow is a problem of software instead of hardware, to use a computer analogy. That our perception and experience, our very existence, and even our soul, is in our brain. In reality the brain is just another organ of the body, that relies on all sorts of outside stimuli and synthesized perception from all parts of the body. And it can get sick like a heart or turn on the body like the kidneys or the liver. To anyone who thinks that depression is a lack of will-power, Vic Chesnutt exists as the rebuttal to that myth: a strong person, a defiant person, a stubborn person who had the will to get out of a that overturned truck in a wet Georgia ditch, his body broken, to survive when it would have been so easy to give up, and live his life on his terms as long as he did. Whether it was suicide or not, that broken body finally gave up on him. Vic didn't believe in god or an afterlife, but I think that, in the final moment he was for the first time in his adult life free of pain. And that he no longer had to hope for release; he knew it had come.

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