catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 1 :: 2010.01.08 — 2010.01.21


The spectacular death of Vic Chesnutt

The day I met Vic Chesnutt was very cold, late February in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It had snowed all weekend, and it was quite astonishing that Vic and his cronies from the Undertow Orchestra had made it from their previous gig. Two things stick out in my mind today as I remember this first encounter: the green furry hat that he wore the entire time I was with him, and the way in which we shared a love of profanity. Perhaps we shared more than just a love of the f-word, but I think the profanity explains it all; we share the experience of bodies that inspire profanity. Tender bones arouse rough vernacular.

We ate dinner together and talked about gigs, stairs, un-accessible stages, cigarettes, unreachable bathrooms and the power of music to make all these things disappear. I had been a musician since the age of 15, so clubs and bars of all types informed my understanding of what it meant to play out. But Vic was a real troubadour; he talked of early tours with REM in which he lost the wheel off his chair about 10 minutes before the show.  How could you lose a wheel? I wondered, but didn’t push it.  He had lived pretty hard. And I was jealous. I told him that I chose teaching as a profession in order to be able to play music on the side, a sort of consolation prize. I told him that playing music for a living seemed too rough for a guy with a body like mine, and he looked at me in a way that both understood and chastised. He did it. And he did it well.

After dinner we both had a very quick cigarette in the cool air outside the venue in which he was about to play. Very quick, so damn cold. As we spoke, the words we said were muffled by the snow. Quieted by the environment.
The show was great, but near the end, my wife came into the auditorium to inform me that the gas tank was leaking in our van parked outside the venue. I had to leave the show early, and never had a chance to say goodbye to him. As I waited for a tow truck, I could hear him finishing up a set of haunting songs. The crowd appreciated his music, and so did I.

I think it appropriate, and not at all hyperbole, to say that Vic was one of the most profound songwriters of the 20th century. He needs to be recognized as a postmodern poet who chose to communicate with the help of a guitar, a set of jingle bells at times, and a recorder. I’m not sure why his songs first attracted me. I’ve been thinking about them a good deal in the last week, and I think the only explanation for my initial attraction to his work would have to be the fact that we shared a similar physicality, the same problematic relationship with gravity. Before Vic, I had no role models, musically speaking. Sure, I had my heroes, though I never really connected with Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Cockburn, on any sort of authentic level. I had always been able to paint myself into their pictures, transplant my issues into the systems and layers of their music, but I never actually felt a deep connection. My physical disability was its own narrative, separate from theirs. And so, when a friend bought me Little, his debut, my expectations were high. Finally, a man who ate at the same table I did.

“Isadore Duncan” was the first song I ever heard written and performed by Vic Chestnutt. Such a beautiful, strange song. Nothing about disability. And then the next two songs on that record: nothing directly about being in a wheelchair. The whole record: nothing in particular about living with a body that didn’t work. Certainly, if I dug a bit, did a little excavation, I could find some hints of a disabled voice, but nothing was immediately apparent to the guy sitting at his computer with his earphones on, hoping, longing — finally — for an empathetic voice. But what I couldn’t find in terms of empathy was replaced by what I did find in terms of artistry. The tendencies of his songs were not similar to anything I was listening to at the time; out of place phrasing, strange registers of harmonies and melodies, alternative instrumentation that mocked some of my favorite music. Turn off the digital machines, he said. Pick up that ancient instrument and do something different with it. Five or six listens of the record made me a bit ashamed of my own songwriting, of my own preoccupation with being disabled, of my own musical boxes.

My expectations of a disabled brotherhood were natural, I think; everyone has these feelings about art. We think that origins matter so much.  If we find those who share our own Genesis moment, then the art they make must be my art, our art. In this way we make art a sort of Rosetta Stone, a cure for all that ails. But art can’t do this. It can stagger us, shift us to a new place of understanding, make us feel comfortable but never perfect. This is why art involves the soul, the constantly moving part of us. It must propel us, good art. Because we move with it, we never sit with it. We walk with it.

I decided that I would bring this up in our next conversation; I was scheduled to interview Vic at the 2009 Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College. In preparation for that, he and I started e-mailing back and forth while he was on tour in Europe with Elf Power. Time and again, our conversations ended up in the real, not the aesthetic. In one e-mail in particular, we talked very frankly about how the realities of our bodies always trumped the other stuff, the things we were writing, the performances we would give, the everyday flow of activities. The spectacle of disability that others saw from the outside, those were the realities that carved our abilities, expectations and realities. They were not spectacle to us; they were unabashedly mundane.

E-mail conversations were all that we ended up having. Vic got an infection in his foot and was unable to make the Festival. He was disappointed, but knew that I understood what had happened, why it happened, and how pissed off he was that it did. I said, “No worries, we’ll bring you back soon, and talk about all of this stuff, and get you on stage. My students need to hear you. Cheers.”

On Christmas Day, 2009, Vic died. I don’t know how he died, and frankly I don’t want to know. All I know is that he will no longer play these songs that I had fallen in love with. The curiosity of bloggers, journalists, pop anthropologists have led to curious criticisms and explanations of suicide.  Indeed, it has been a spectacular death for my friend.

Read the obituaries. Listen to his name being mentioned by important people in the music industry: “he lived to fight,” “he was such an inspiration,” “he was one of the strongest people I knew.” All admirable epitaphs, but strangely similar. Some are talking about his music, but most are talking about the spectacle. I’m not willing to deny the fact that Vic Chesnutt lived as a person with a disability, but I am willing, more than willing, to let that only be one part of my memory of him. Like all of us, he was a combination of things, a combination of talents, demons, stories, experiences.

And yet we often choose to whittle people with disabilities down to their physical condition. And we are doing it to Vic. How much does it matter that he was in a wheelchair for all of his artistic life? Certainly It, the spectacle, played a role, but shame on us if we dictate the importance of that role differently than he did. The spectacle of his death comes from a human desire and fascination with difference: the difference of bodies, the difference of minds.  What’s at stake here is the loss of art in place of fitting Vic into generic Western narratives about overcoming, living through and making the best of disability. That’s not what he did. He did so much more.

Take a look at the cover of his record Silver Lake. The wheelchair is there, but it’s not everything. Instead it’s the face, the eyes, the glance of a man who seems to know how we will perceive him. Before we make our efforts to fit Vic into a story that makes sense to us, a story that we are in control of, we should all take a look at this picture. And then of course, listen to the record itself.

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