Born yesterday, on the same day as Neil Young, 19 years later, was the late Vic Chesnutt who shuffled off this mortal coil in 2009—Christmas Day, to be exact—after being in a coma induced by an overdose of muscle relaxants. Chesnutt was a one-of-a-kind guy, more or less a defining figure of “indie.” In choosing which song to honor him with, my thoughts went immediately to About to Choke (1996), but that album is so damned good it’s hard to pick just one song. “Degenerate,” “Ladle,” “Swelters,” “Little Vacation,” “New Town,” “See You Around,” the list just goes on. And why not “Myrtle,” the lead-off song, which is eerie and lovely?
So, bested there, I thought about some of my other favorites, like “Supernatural,” “Hot Seat,” “Maiden,” “Parade”—with that irresistible exchange, “a man, dripping with Vitalis, / Said I looked like Joe Namath / He asked me did I use to be famous / And I said ‘Neighbor, I’m famously late.’” Or, from later, “Vesuvius” with its pithy, “Christian charity is a doily on my death boner.” That one was carrying the day because it’s the standout song on Ghetto Bells (2005) and I hear it frequently enough on various playlists on my ippid and love it each time.
But. Then I searched online for links for available Chesnutt tunes—and yes, “Vesuvius” is here, so, enjoy—and came across today’s song, which I had not heard before. So today’s post truly breaks precedent. This is the first “song of the day” that I have heard only and entirely online, via the internet. I’m not going to make overmuch of that, except to say that it’s sorta fitting for any music that dates from the crossing between the first and second decades of this beleaguered century. The song appears on the last album Chesnutt released before his death, In the Cut. And don’t worry, I will be acquiring a more permanent, disc-bound version of that LP at some point, to step beyond Ghetto Bells, which is currently my latest Chesnutt CD.
So I picked “Flirted With You All My Life” not simply because it’s about death and this—as we’ll hear in tomorrow’s song—is “the month of the dead,” and not only because of Chesnutt’s sad demise, but mainly because his expression of being “half in love with easeful death,” as the mighty Keats doth say, is very much on the mark, replicating, a little, the song featured back there in February, “O Death,” with its wry “Won’t you spare me over for another year?” Chesnutt matches this with “O Death, clearly I’m not ready.”
When is someone ready? Chesnutt answers that by remarking about his mother’s death: “When my mom was cancer sick / She fought but then succumbed to it / But you made her beg for it / Lord Jesus, please, I’m ready.” And the way he sings that lets us know that he knows what that plea for the end is like. And, that fast, we understand that death, for all our delaying tactics, can be a sweet release, or “sweet relief,” an end to suffering. And all that “dread of something after life” starts to seem like a form of cowardice. Which reminds me of a remark I heard in a lecture last night: “Courage arrives when all avenues of retreat are closed.” Death, of course, is the one avenue of retreat that is never closed, when one might “his quietus make with a bare bodkin” or a handful of pills or what-have-you.
Chesnutt, as is usually the case with him, gets some good verbal flourishes into his song, getting mileage out of this flirting with death idea. In fact, before he first voices the word “death,” we might think he’s actually going on about someone he’s had his eye on forever: “Even kissed you once or twice” and “When you touched a friend of mine / I thought I would lose my mind.” There you have not simply the eros we might find in thanatos, but the fact that thanatos is what makes eros so intense to begin with. And you don’t have to be a card-carrying member of the Romantics tribe to see that, I think. “You are cruel and you are constant,” Chesnutt says, and that’s a fine formulation. The cruelty is all on our side, in our blind attachment that can’t accept the “why” of the inevitable, even at times aghast at the awful “how.” The constancy is what is admirable, after this manner of speaking. Nothing in life is as secure as death. You truly can bank on it, you truly can trust that it shall appear, and it—unlike others you might be able to name—will welcome you. When you’re “ready.”
Was Victor Chesnutt ready? I have no idea. The sting and sorrow of death is felt by those still here who still wish he were too. In the end, we can be glad, at least, that the corpus survives the corpse.
I am a man. I’m self-aware / And everywhere I go / You’re always right with there with me