Tuesday, December 29, 2009

PHIL OCHS fan VIC CHESNUTT a suicide at 45

The first news came via Twitter, the day before Christmas. It was Vic's friend Kristin Hersh typing out a quick chill: ""Another suicide attempt, looks bad, coma - if he survives, there may be brain damage. This time, it's real scary: *this* time, he left a note..."

Vic Chesnutt's overdose of medication came after a long year that saw the release of two albums. He'd finished a schedule of (stressful) gigs made more difficult because he was wheelchair-bound. He'd done many wearisome interviews to support the (low paying) indie music and was facing Christmas about $35,000 in debt. ("Sell some t-shirts," bloggers would've told him.)

Chesnutt's career got off to a seemingly auspicious start, with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. producing the first two albums. But Vic wasn't getting rich off them, or subsequenet releases. R.E.M. covered his songs via "Sweet Relief II," a charity production raising awareness and money for musician health care. Even so, and despite having health insurance, Vic's income was not great. He also wasn't exactly famous. He was a cult figure, known for dark songs that sometimes veered into black humor. He was never sure how an audience would take them. "Granny," one of the newer songs, was met with laughter from one audience, and tearful silence from another.

The new era of fairly cheap and easy-access digital recording (Pro Tools, Garage Band, indie recording labels) was a mixed blessing. It allowed Vic to knock out album after album, but there was nobody to separate the good from the bad, and lesser tunes diluted albums that could've been stronger.

Still, his small circle of fans were devoted to his every tune, and they agreed with Patti Smith's appraisal: “He possessed an unearthly energy and yet was humanistic with the common man in mind. He was entirely present and entirely somewhere else. A mystical somewhere else. A child and an old guy as he called himself..." Typical of his dual nature is this couplet from "Little," the 1990 debut Stipe produced: " “I’m not a victim/Oh, I am an atheist,” a reference to the drunk-driving accident at age 18 that paralyzed him. And from the "About to Choke" album (his only major label release): "I’m not a realist/I might be a sub-realist.”

Vic admitted that his fans were something else: “They come up to me after the shows, and I don’t know what to say to them. I don’t want to be an asshole or anything, but I think I do my best communicating alone in my room, when I’m writing songs. But I do appreciate them very much. If it wasn’t for them, I would’ve killed myself a long time ago.”

He said that "Flirted With You All My Life," one of his new songs, was indeed about suicide, but from the view of someone resisting it: "During run-through, when I was showing it to everyone, in the first couple of takes, I had tears in my eyes. It was very emotional to me. I’d never sung this song out – it was only on paper. But when I sing it out loud, it was very emotional for me and very personal. I wanted to write a song about a suicidal person. It’s about me – I have suicidal tendencies. So it’s about a suicide who wanted to live.

The lines explicitly talk about failed attempts: “I flirted with you all my life / I even kissed you once or twice...”

He said, "I’ve attempted suicide a couple of times and I think about things such as that...a kind of love/hate relationship with death... “tease me with your sweet relief.” The song is about realizing that I don’t want to die. I want to live."

He changed his mind some time after his last tour dates, four towns in five days: December 1st (Los Angeles), December 2nd (Tucson), December 4th (Denton, Texas) and December 5th (Austin, Texas).

The first time I heard Vic Chesnutt, was when he covered the complex, 7 minute Phil Ochs song "The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns," a song that seems to be sung by the ghost of a sailor, or a haunted survivor: "No I'm not screaming. Tell me I'm not screaming."
And: "I'm not dying. Tell me I'm not dying." The version from Vic is a slow, ominous dirge, the musical equivalent of a wounded submarine dropping deeper and deeper through black and liquid purgatory.

Christmas Day, and people were singing "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..." while Vic Chesnutt was in a coma, having decided, as Phil Ochs did, on his own exit strategy. Your two samples: "The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns," and "Flirted With You All My Life."

Update: Nov, 2011. Rapidshare's annoying "30 days without a download kills it" policy killed the original links. "SCORPION" is back via a better company.



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