Kristin Hersh is well-positioned to write a biography of Vic Chesnutt. Not only were the two longtime friends, but they also frequently toured together. So Hersh possesses no shortage of Chesnutt tales that range from sweet and charming to painful and infuriating. Hersh may have known Chesnutt as well as anyone, but to a large degree, Don’t Suck, Don’t Die finds even her wrestling with the big questions about Chesnutt: who was he, really? what made him tick?
If Hersh left such questions alone, Don’t Suck, Don’t Die, would hold up just fine as a sort of biographical travelogue as it crisscrosses the United States and Europe via a variety of vehicles, dark motel rooms, and stages. She shows a knack for describing the transcendence that Chesnutt could evoke as a performer:
The first time I saw you play, I watched snowy white wings unfold behind your wheelchair, poking out of your lumberjack plaid, as a six-year-old boy morphed into ninety-year-old man and back again… your rumpled self in rumpled clothes playing rumpled-up songs like you’d just grabbed them out of a corner of your bedroom and stuffed ’em into your suitcase before you left on tour.
Then, of course, there are her first-hand accounts of Chesnutt off the stage, charming waitresses, soaking up praise when he’s recognized on the street, sinking into depression, or abusing an intern backstage. Indeed, by his actions alone, even on a surface level, Chesnutt presents a complicated, mercurial figure. It’s stating the obvious to say that the car wreck that left him partially paralyzed as a teen affected everything from his outlook on life to his playing style (Hersh herself was hit by a car at 16, changing the way she heard sounds and music, so the links between Hersh and Chesnutt started before they even met), but Hersh knows that everything about Chesnutt, gallows humor and uncanny ability to turn everything into a song included, forms a giant feedback loop where different things bubble to the surface at different times.
He’s an outsider in nearly every sense of the word, which suits Hersh just fine. Much of Don’t Suck, Don’t Die is an extended meditation on themes of isolation, of not fitting in, of feeling at home only on the road or at Chesnutt’s home. This applies to Hersh as much as Chesnutt, and its obvious that the two are kindred spirits in so many ways.
So it’s no surprise that Don’t Suck, Don’t Die arguably gets stronger and more compelling when Chesnutt is out of the picture and these kindred spirits are separated. Hersh’s evocative writing style, presented here as an ongoing dialogue with Chesnutt as she relives memories, gains strength and clarity when she’s left alone to sort it all out. The book’s early sections, heavy on tour anecdotes, successfully convey what it must have been like (awed, frustrated, angry, off-balance) to be around him. Images of white wings turn to images of dirty feathers falling off, descriptions of cherubic smiles give way to impish grins. Anecdotes abound where Hersh watches Chesnutt fight seemingly meaningless battles, gaining victory from the sense that he’s imposed chaos and his will on the proceedings.
Late in the book, Hersh and Chesnutt have a falling out. Hersh doesn’t know what it’s about, only that Chesnutt doesn’t contact her or return her messages for an extended period. It’s here that Don’t Suck, Don’t Die performs its heaviest lifting, as Hersh listens to Chesnutt’s records and pieces together a working picture of the man and his music.
In one particularly powerful sequence, Hersh lists all of the times she saw Vic Chesnutt die. One is a conversation where Chesnutt seriously contemplated taking “the weird out” and making a commercial record. Another was his divorce from his wife, Tina, whom Hersh saw as instrumental to keeping Chesnutt healthy, focused, and moving forward. Then, of course, there’s the coma caused by overdosing on muscle relaxants, followed by his physical death at the age of 45.
In an epilogue of sorts, Hersh ultimately finds herself alone as a performer. With Chesnutt’s death, Tina is no longer tied to the troubadour’s life. Billy’s (Hersh’s husband) “hammer came down” in the form of their 25-year marriage breaking up. The tight group of four that rambled through so many crises and adventures is suddenly gone.
“I’m the only one of the four of us still living our life”, Hersh writes. “I still go to scuzzy church, still stare out over our drunken congregation and make ’em listen … I sit alone backstage, then I sit alone on stage. Sometimes I laugh, telling the stories that used to crack us up, sometimes I wipe away tears while I pretend to reach for a bottle of water or my set list Cuz music hurts so goddamn much, always did.”