The regrettable tendency for audiences when any great artist dies is to hear that person’s music in the past tense. Songs one used to be able to live in actively start to sound more like premonitions or epitaphs, rather than the vibrant, complex worlds that existed before their departure. Though not as widely known as Kurt Cobain or Elliott Smith, Vic Chesnutt’s recent death has already sent fans parsing through songs like “Supernatural”, “Florida”, and especially the recently penned “Flirted With You All My Life” for clues and foreshadowing of his apparent suicide. However, I hope against odds that this is avoided. For all of Chesnutt’s remarkable candidness and honesty in his writing, songs like those mentioned above shined not just as insight into his own mind, but through their craft, idiosyncrasy, and unique style, they succeeded at illuminating countless unarticulated thoughts and feelings in our own lives, whether dark, silly, crass, or poignant. And though Vic’s death has left an unfixable hole in the lives of friends, family, and fans, the truthfulness and relevance of his life’s work endures.
“Flirted With You All My Life”, for example, touches on experiences and people personal to Chesnutt, though I cry whenever I hear it not out of pity, or how it resonates with Vic’s death just months after its release, but out of sympathy and my own experiences with death. In light of his passing, I hope not to fix his songs as finite pieces of his life’s puzzle, but to allow them to continue to be borderless and timeless. In that spirit, I want to indulge in a few of my favorite memories involving Vic’s music, that continue to make me laugh and think, as much to celebrate what was and is, as to grieve what can no longer be.
1. At a concert in Northampton, Massachusetts, the audience is constantly shouting out requests, and one loud, possibly drunk, guy keeps yelling out “Speed Racer!!!” Chesnutt responds by saying that that song is too difficult to perform that night. The drunk fan follows up with “It’s my birthday!” Vic leans forward in his chair, narrows his eyes, and growls, “You lyin’ motherfucker.” Then he plays the song.
2. In Chicago, Vic stops mid-song to burp, then pats his chest and resumes.
3. On a Greyhound trip through the South, I’m pleased to discover that Walhalla is indeed “pinned to the edge of South Carolina”, as Vic sings in “Bug”, playing on my cassette Walkman.
4. As an undergraduate, I try to persuade my poetry professor of Chesnutt’s genius by showing him the lyrics I’ve printed out for “Big Huge Valley” and “Betty Lonely”. These days, I would’ve shown him “Rustic City Fathers” or “What Do You Mean?”
5. Finally, at a performance where Chesnutt and Kristin Hersh play a leapfrogging set, I shout out a request for one of my favorite songs, “Sewing Machine”, and wait to meet the man after the show to thank him for playing it. I’m pretty sure my enthusiasm kinda freaked him out.
Of course, these moments are dwarfed by the amount of time I’ve spent living in imaginative worlds conjured by Vic’s songs, which have made me stunned, scared, inspired, sad, joyous, aching with laughter, which made me think and feel. And though I am sad for his loss, I take comfort in knowing that his music will always be there and continue to engage me, and I will always be thankful and grateful to him for that.