Thursday, December 31, 2009


At the end of the year, one can find many a ‘roll call of death’ on the internet. Passings which made quite a mark this year include, perhaps most famously, Michael Jackson (June 25), but also Ted Kennedy (Aug. 25), and his aunt Eunice (Aug. 11), notable passings for all of us for whom the Kennedy family were fixtures of our lives and times; then there were writers so prolific as to seem eternal, John Updike (Jan. 27), and J.G. Ballard (April 19); actresses, like Farrah Fawcett (June 25), whose death inspired nostalgic paeans of the ‘70s as culture and fashion, and Natasha Richardson (March 18), whose death inspired thoughts about how important it is to treat recreational injuries seriously; in academia, milestones were certainly marked by the passing of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (April 12), a major voice in the establishing of gender studies (oddly, she died on the same day as Marilyn Chambers, star of the first porn film I ever saw), and Claude Lévi-Strauss, the intellectual most responsible for structuralism and all that followed from it; an actor, Patrick McGoohan (Jan. 13), whose role as The Scarecrow for Disney’s TV show left a mark on my childhood and whose role as The Prisoner left a mark on my teens and twenties, when I finally got around to watching them all on PBS; a few more figures lost, who had some personal valence for me, were Andrew Wyeth (Jan. 16), the most famous artist from the region I hail from, and W.D. Snodgrass (Jan. 13), who was the grand old man of the writing program at Univ. of DE when I was there in the late '80s, and who I took a class with and shared a dinner with once at the home of an English prof and friend, the late Hans-Peter Breuer.

But of all the deaths of the year, the one that feels most like a loss to me is that of Vic Chesnutt, a singer and songwriter from Georgia who, paralyzed from the waist down since the age of 18, apparently took his own life at age 45 with an overdose of muscle relaxants, dying, after being in a coma a few days, on Christmas Day. Chesnutt’s breakout cd was 1996's About to Choke, which I first got around to hearing in 1999, and then got to know the 1998 album, The Salesman and Bernadette, which he made with the band Lambchop. More recent albums I’ve picked up as they were released were Left to His Own Devices (2001) and Ghetto Bells (2005), which featured not only Bill Frisell but also Van Dyke Parks. I saw Chesnutt play live twice, once in combination with Kristin Hersh in Baltimore, and once opening for Jay Farrar in Towson, MD. Of late, he seemed to be on a roll, with new albums featuring new musicians to collaborate with.

The thing about Chesnutt’s music, to me, is that I associate it with the decade now ending; those brittle melodies, that unadorned and unmistakable voice, bending words and notes in dialogue with his characteristic strum, and those literate, quizzical lyrics, many of which posit a life lived marginally, one might even say magisterially so, a kind of anatomy of the perilous nature of creativity on the edge -- where there’s nothing to keep the machine running except a claim on what it means to be human, musical, driven to find words and tunes. I can think of many, many lyrics from Chesnutt that gripped me on first hearing with the unfettered honesty of someone committed to a unique musical vision, able to convert the misery of his condition into beautiful acts of legerdemain, even of levitation. 'Supernatural,' 'Maiden,' 'Parade,' 'Myrtle,' 'Ladle,' 'Swelters,' 'Degenerate,' 'Very Friendly Lighthouses,' 'Hermitage,' 'We Should Be So Brave,' 'To Be With You,' 'Vesuvius,' and no doubt many others I’ve still to discover. Rest in Peace, Vic, and thanks, man.

Christian charity is a doily over my death boner
–Vic Chesnutt, 'Vesuvius' (2005)


ithinkihatemy45s said...

interestingly, he also recently did an album with elf power; have you heard that one?

Donald Brown said...

no, to my chagrin. I remember seeing it, didn't get it, forgot about it. But I will!