There was sad news for indie- and folk-rock followers over the long Christmas weekend: Vic Chesnutt, the plainspoken but poetic singer-songwriter from Athens, Ga., who battled longtime paralysis to become one of the most beloved cult figures of his generation, died on Christmas Day. He was 45.
As the New York Times reported in its thorough obit, Chesnutt had been in a coma all last week after taking an overdose of muscle relaxants. An avowed atheist (as noted in one of his more famous songs, “Speed Racer”), the offbeat performer, wheelchair-bound since a drunken car accident in 1983, had attempted suicide several times in the past. He addresses his long-held desire to end it all — and why he’s pulled himself back from the brink more than once — in the song “Flirted with You All My Life,” from his September release “At the Cut.”
That 12th Chesnutt disc (not counting live ones) is among the songwriter’s best-reviewed releases, building off the buzz for 2007’s “North Star Deserter” and the following year’s “Dark Developments,” a collaboration with fellow Georgians in the band Elf Power. Chesnutt, whose earliest works were produced by another Athens native, uber-fan Michael Stipe of R.E.M., initially came to wider prominence in 1996 via two titles, his own critically heralded “About to Choke” alongside the tribute album “Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation.” The latter featured notable remakes by, among others, Garbage, Madonna, the Smashing Pumpkins, Live, Cracker, Indigo Girls, Sparklehorse and the first Sweet Relief subject, Victoria Williams.
Either album is a fine place to start discovering the simple but profound power of a songwriter whose every new release seemed to sneak in from nowhere like hidden treasure. He never was the instant-wow sort; he’s the sit-and-ponder type. How I’d pay my respects: Download some of his best, crack open a bottle of wine at midnight, and settle in for a few hours of sublime surprises.
Also in recent rocker deaths: James Gurley, guitarist for seminal San Francisco band Big Brother and the Holding Company, died last week after suffering a heart attack two days before his 70th birthday. “He was very influential to the whole band early on, and even later, just by being a guy who had strange tastes and played guitar in a very bizarre manner,” Big Brother bandmate Peter Albin told the Associated Press.
Gurley, of course, played on the 1968 classic “Cheap Thrills,” which introduced the world to a new Texan blues belter named Janis Joplin.