"I lie. I lie all the time. I lie to you, I lie to me, I lie to every-freakin-body. And that's the truth."
In his forty-five years on this planet, Vic Chesnutt wrestled with his ability to grasp the quintessence of a moment, a story, a trauma, an image. Something to which we all aspire and yet...really? What would it be like to live face to face with reality and fundamental truths without the ability to look away?
The truth hurts. So much so that Vic seemed to take it in stride that he was compelled to couch his cutting vision of this world in color, half truths and mythology. Oddly, the effect was one of transparency. When he told me the truth was that he lied, I wrote it down in my tour itinerary:
I lie to every-freakin-body. And that's the truth. We were on tour together, yet another tour, another bundle of lost and amazing days, sitting in the parking lot of another cheap motel. Vic often sat in parking lots, worrying about the people who lived next door, off the highway, who weren't allowed to drive away like we did. Every single day, we left and they stayed. The rushing to and away, then sitting and staring, informed his sensibilities - as it does every musician's - to the point where he seemed to feel like a hover person. Never landing. It didn't occur to him that we were just driving to the next motel off the highway. That we were people to worry about. He was too concerned with the safety of the people next door. Vic wanted desperately to be dark, to be disliked, but it was never going to happen. He simply cared too much.
A drunk driving accident at the age of eighteen left Vic a quadriplegic, his wheelchair an iconic image of a broken man with super powers. His guitar playing - switching fluidly from bass to rhythm and lead in the same song - would have been an extraordinary feat for anyone's hands. Yet he accomplished this with the use of only two fingers. On his right hand, he wore a driving glove with a pick superglued to the palm. He not only strummed chords this way, but coaxed heartbreaking melodies out of his grandfather's tiny nylon-stringed acoustic guitar, hung over his shoulder with an actual piece of string. His inimitable timing captured the force behind a rest, behind silence heard as a musical note. Which is telling. Vic Chesnutt songs are often funny, occasionally anthemic, and always lonely. Though Vic felt life acutely and observed the world with a keen, unfaltering eye, he seemed ever the outsider. "Slammed on my ass," is how he put it. "Watching."
I wrote that sentence down in my tour itinerary, too. Watching. After all, what could a musician be here to do but watch...and listen? The noise Vic made was an ode to his own story but also to a heartfelt appreciation of his fellow humans. Born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1964 and raised in Zebulon, Georgia by adoptive parents, Vic wrote songs from the age of five. When I asked him why he did this, he answered, "My grandfather. But also, it's like, what do you do about this?" By "this" he meant the everything he couldn't shake, the feeling too much and caring too much for those humans out there, trapped by the side of the highway.
Settling into the vibrant Athens, Georgia music scene, he began to make noise about "this" and we are so lucky he did. This was important noise. There he met Michael Stipe, who produced Vic's first two records. He traveled the world, playing solo or collaborating with his many admirers. Vic was a songwriter's songwriter, a musician's musician. We all clamored to grab him, keep him here, play with the broken super hero. I never did hear him lie. He seemed obsessed with truths much deeper than most of us are allowed to go.
Vic was more than a dozen releases into his twenty year career, still making important noise and playing his grandfather's guitar, when his glowing enthusiasm dimmed, clarified itself and calmed into a plateau where Vic stayed until he ended his own life at the age of forty-five. His last musical ventures were steady, settled and oblique. A surprising curve for the man who surprised everyone. I guess because we all saw Vic as fiery, explosive and passionate. This new stability suited a different Vic. In retrospect, one who was shutting down, cleaning house, getting ready to leave. That's a kind of power, I suppose. A heavier one than the light, hilarious bastard we'd all known and feared for. Maybe Vic felt his mayfly days coming to a close. Hopefully he made a better peace with his end than those he left behind.