Tragic end for the talented victim of a failed system
The just gone year was crowded with bad news and the chances are this one will be the same.
As Laughing Outlaw Records’ Stuart Coupe said when he heard that Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard had died, for many musicians 50 is the new 80.
2009 was a year that took the uber famous (Michael Jackson), the old timers (Dickie Petersen from Blue Cheer), the hugely influential and talented (piano-playing producer and engineer James Luther Dickinson), the way-too overlooked (Willy De Ville) and the iconic (guitar virtuoso Les Paul).
But perhaps the saddest loss was Vic Chesnutt, the Florida-born singer-songwriter who died in his adopted town of Athens, Georgia on Christmas Day after slipping into a coma brought on by an assumed deliberate overdose of muscle-relaxant pills.
Chesnutt, 45 when he died, took the medication to cope with the pain and discomfort that came with 27 years in a wheelchair.
It’s where he found himself after, at 18, he drank too much on Easter Sunday, got into his car and crashed it at speed in a ditch outside Zebulon, Georgia.
The great sadness about Vic’s death was that he didn’t need to die. Sure, he suffered chronic depression but so much of that was brought on and made worse by a health system that locked him out of affordable care and gave him little if any hope for any quality of life.
Chesnutt was a passionate musician from a young age, writing songs as a youngster and joining bar bands as soon as he reached his teens.
After his accident he sought to resume his music career, writing songs and performing with a band called the La-Di-Das.
During some solo performances in the late 80s he came to the attention of another Georgian musician, R.E.M singer Michael Stipe, who produced Vic’s first two records, Little in 1990 and the brilliantly stunning West of Rome a year later.
Last year in an interview with the Quietus website, Vic said that Stipe feared for the singer’s life after he met him.
“Michael Stipe has told others – he never told me this but he told everyone else – that he recorded that first album because he wanted to capture my songs before I died or killed myself,” said Vic.
His first CD contained a song Speed Racer about his accident, the lyrics reflecting his angry but determined attitude to his disability: “I‘m not a victim/Oh, I, I am an atheist.” (That kind of affirming confession cropped up again on About to Choke: “I’m not an optimist/I’m not a realist/I might be a sub-realist.”)
Speed Racer was also the title of a short, black and white 1994 doco about Chesnutt, made by Peter Sillen (shown in the US on PBS and impossible to find nowadays).
There’s a link to Speed Racer on YouTube (coupled with another early song Bakersfield).
Chesnutt’s songs were about life _ its pleasures, its existential brutality and the sometimes fragile hold we have on it. Simple guitar work provided a gentle background to an often cracking vocal, layering the emotional depth with insight and revelation.
Contemplation of suicide was a recurring theme for someone who tried to kill himself a few times, battling depression with self medication.
Songs such as the early tunes I’m Through and See You Around had a bitter edge, shocking the listener with a “you won’t miss me when I kill myself” subtext.
On his last record, At The Cut, he sings directly to suicide: “I’ve flirted with you all my life/Even kissed you once or twice/To this day I swore it was nice/But clearly, I was not ready.”
Other songs can be starkly evocative, touching lives everywhere, like the title track from his second album: “West of Rome, just east of the border/in a static-y Ramada inn/polishing his boots and pummeling his liver/steeped in the dark isolation/just what business does he have around here/credentials are wearing out with each little bit of cheer/yes, it’s a bad scene we’re convening.”
And his humour is often darkly hilarious: “Once you soaked a tampon in some serious vodka/Wore it to school/Second period science lab/You feel right off your stool,’’ he sings on Band Camp from the Silver Lake album.
But it was the busted American health system that got Vic Chesnutt. He died owing about $US70,000 in unpaid hospital bills and last year he said he was stopping looking for new treatments or operations that might help him.
“I’m not too eloquent talking about these things,” Chesnutt told the LA Times.
“I was making payments, but I can’t anymore and I really have no idea what I’m going to do.
“It seems absurd they can charge this much. When I think about all this, it gets me so furious. I could die tomorrow because of other operations I need that I can’t afford.
“I could die any day now, but I don’t want to pay them another nickel.”
After he died a close friend, film-maker Jem Cohen let fly at the US health system on the website of Chesnutt’s record company, Constellation Records, saying it deprived “so many of the help they need to stay around and stay sane, and a society that never balks at providing more money for more wars but fights tooth and nail against decent care for its citizens.
“Vic’s death, just so you all know, did not come at the end of some cliché downward spiral.
“He was battling deep depression but also at the peak of his powers, and with the help of friends and family he was in the middle of a desperate search for help. The system failed to provide it.”
It was the bitterest irony that the morning before Vic Chesnutt succumbed to death’s embrace, the United States Senate passed a healthcare reform bill that includes provisions making it possible for people in his situation to afford insurance and care.
Vic Chesnutt once said he had a love/hate relationship with the US, calling it “a case of Stockholm syndrome”.
A soaring genius was cut down too soon by a society that couldn’t protect the vulnerable.
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