I was originally attracted to Vic Chesnutt because of tales of his life that leaked out through the net. If they are to be believed (and I have no reason to doubt any of them) he was a foundling baby adopted into a loving working-class family in the American south. He seemed to develop a life-long dependence upon alcohol and had a car smash at age 18 that left him quadriplegic. Despite this he learned basic guitar (nylon strings), started writing songs and playing in a small restaurant where he was discovered by Michael Stipe of R.E.M. fame, and thence recorded. In time he made 17 albums. He struggled with ill-health over the years and was probably depressed much of the time, despite which he married but had no children. Following a protracted period of ill health he eventually suicided in 2009 aged 45.
Vic – he was such a warm-hearted artist that it seems utterly natural to call him by his first name – had a genuine poetic mentality, and an exquisite eye for detail. He also seems to have been one of those rare individuals immune to the allure of fame. This, unfortunately, has led to access problems. Many of his albums have ‘songs’ that are primarily poetic, the musical content being fairly minor. As well, he seemed to take no interest in presenting any kind of image of himself as a star; watching his NPR Tiny Desk Concert (on Youtube) one almost wonders how he ever attracted any attention at all, he’s so casual and understated. I suspect this accounts for why he has been over-looked. Given that his singing voice was only good-enough at best, much of this material requires a special interest more attuned to poetry than music. I shall not discuss it here.
His best music is quite another matter. I count almost 70 first-rank songs in all. They range across pretty-much everything. Initial stand-outs are his three immensely powerful autobiographical songs Ignorant people, Flirted with you all my life and Free of Hope.
Then there are several achingly beautiful, more melodic pieces such as Woodrow Wilson, Forthright, Rambunctious clouds and the exquisitely-evocative Sewing machine. He also has several lovely personality vignettes such as Betty Lonely and Granny, and he does a devastating hatchet-job on Dick Cheney. Then there’s the rock stuff such as Bad boy town and You got it all wrong, and lots of comedic stuff such as Morally challenged and Stupid preoccupations; Vic did a great line as a dumb/smart yokel. His poetic material is at its best on Unpacking my suitcase, a poignant testament to friendship. A few of his songs are just plain odd, such as My New Life and Supernatural. His absolute best (IMHO) is the incredible Miss Mary; a re-working of the Christmas myth and full of X-factor. Just listen and think about it awhile.
As well as those mentioned above, the following songs are highly recommended:
Gravity of the situation, Wrong piano, Isadora Duncan, Thailand, Good morning Mr Hard-On, Sad Peter Pan, Guilty by association, Strange language, Withering, Onion soup, Doubting woman, When I ran off and left her, Dodge, Florida, George Wallace, Mysterious Tunnel, Degenerate, Marathon, Thumbtack, Lillian Gish, Aunt Avis, Naw, Myrtle, Duty Free, Feast in the Time of Plague, Latent/ Blatant, Until the led, Arthur Murray, Concord Country Jubilee, Glossolalia, New Town, Soggy Tongues, Society Sue, Coward, Sleeping man, All kinds, Mystery, Virginia, Blight, Stay inside, When the bottom fell out, Replenished, Big huge valley, Tarragon, Swelters, Super Tuesday, Snowblind, The garden, In my way and I’m through.
These are all songs which, were they included in almost any popular music album, would be considered among the high points. Many would sit quite comfortably in Pet Sounds or Sgt. Peppers.
What I got from Vic was how to make the most of those good but not really outstanding tunes, the kinds of songs where I think “Hmmm, it’s nice, but is it really good enough to bother finishing, especially given the struggle involved in writing a really good lyric?” His poetic and observational talents found ways of imbuing his often quite modest musical structures with tremendous salience. A song like Unpacking my suitcase, well, I’m not sure I’d even recognise it as a tune if it came to me as a couple of phrases (as most songs do at first). I’m sure I wouldn’t have bothered turning it into a finished piece; it would have seemed just too unpromising. But the delicacy and tenderness of his imagery is sometimes almost unbearable, and when he matches these with appropriate tunes, the tunes themselves suddenly seem magnificent or extremely evocative. Consider these extracts:
Looking in the hourglass
Ants in the sand
Reflecting in the oil lamp
I can see the wrinkles in your hand
She said her brother wished he was Negro
Went to school in Africa – American Studies
Once he’d had his picture taken with Adam Clayton Powell
(From Woodrow Wilson)
Granny wrote a letter up under the table lamp
Said her thumbs hurt ’cos all the beans she had to snap
I laid on the porch just a-looking through the cracks
See the dog asleep and watch those ugly chickens scratch
The Prom is coming and big sister should be the Queen
And Mama makes her dress on the sewing machine
(From Sewing machine)
Much has been written about poetry in popular music, meaningful lyrics and all the rest. Some wonderful stuff has been written and everyone has their own favourites. Personally I’ll take Vic Chesnutt over anyone else.