January 6, 2010

For the good times

Sometime last year, I finally entered the digital age and got a cell phone. How did I go so long without it? Now I can get phone calls any time of day or night, no matter where I happen to be, like on Christmas, as I was walking from my son’s mother’s front porch to my car at about 9:30 p.m.

It was my mom calling to pass on some terribly sad news she received via an NPR update on her cell phone: Vic Chesnutt had died.

Crippled from the chest down in a drunken driving accident when he was 18, Vic proved to be a soldier of uncommon strength and courage. As a young man, he fought to regain sufficient strength and control of his arms and hands to once again make chords and play songs.

There was something odd about his songs. They were often little more than lyrical sketches, sometimes ending, it seemed, before their point had been made. In one early gem, he sang, “I dreamed that I was dancing with Isadora Duncan”; a beautiful song regardless of its origin, it was heartbreaking considering Vic’s paralysis.

In the last year of his life, he released two albums in collaboration with Thee Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra, and another set of spare solo recordings produced by Jonathan Richman. The two extremes fully illustrated his power and potential. The full production albums, North Star Deserter and At the Cut, will perhaps stand as his masterpieces, as they feature his final statements regarding his struggle with mortality.

While “Coward” (from At the Cut) seemed to indicate a weakness of spirit lyrically, the music was fierce, and “Flirted with You All My Life,” another track from that album, documented his relationship with death, denouncing the “sweet relief” that had visited him through the deaths of friends and parents; a survivor of several suicide attempts, he asserted, somewhat matter-of-factly, “I’m not ready.”

I was lucky enough to meet Vic in 1990 when he came to Louisville in support of his second album, West of Rome. It was the first CD I ever bought. There were 14 people at the show. It was the last night of August, and the club was changing hands at midnight. I’m sure Vic and his band (which included his wife, Tina, on bass, and a friend, Jeffrey, on drums) got stiffed for their guarantee. I have a board recording of that show. It is one of my most prized possessions.

Over the years, I saw Vic at least a half-dozen times. I drove through a blinding snowstorm to see him at Bogart’s in Cincinnati when he opened for Soul Asylum (I believe) in the early ’90s. A year or so later, when Darrell Elmore and I took an impromptu trip to Chicago one Thursday afternoon, we arrived to discover Vic was playing that night at Park West. Backstage, he accommodated my desire for an ironic photo and flipped me the bird with his strumming hand.

My favorite show was at Twice Told Coffee House in the late ‘90s; he played a bunch of songs that he never recorded for release. But my favorite memory is when I took my son, Oden, to meet him at Headliners during load-in a few years ago; the two of them took turns chasing one another around the dance floor as I snapped a few pictures. I saw him last, just a couple months ago in early November, at the Southgate House in Newport, Ky. Last week, I discovered someone had uploaded the bulk of that show on YouTube.

Upon his death, I am left to wonder if I would have had the courage to persevere under the same circumstances. He spent 27 years, more than half of his life, in a wheelchair. And while he was able to achieve brilliant success artistically, the wider audience he deserved persistently overlooked him. I can’t begrudge his rest, but I’m gonna miss his quirky, playful, dark and drawling voice.

And meanwhile, I’ll have to remind myself that my struggles are not so great. If any of us ever needed a reason to persist in our efforts, to respond to our circumstances, to use our talents in the best way possible, to make our way in the world, we need do no more than consider the overwhelming achievements of Vic Chesnutt.

This week’s assignment: Get on with it.