LISTENING TO A LOT OF LITTLE: MEMORIES OF VIC CHESNUTT
By Daniel Hutchens
Those of us who showed up in Athens during the 80ʼs are starting to feel our age. A few years back we lost Porn Orchardʼs Ted Hafer, back in 2002 we lost Bar-B-Q Killersʼ Laura Carter and Widespread Panicʼs Michael Houser, and earlier this year Pylonʼs Randy Bewley, among others. Also this year we lost three members of the extended Widespread Panic family; Forrest Vereen, Wayne Sawyer, and Denise Jordan. Now on Christmas day, we hear that weʼve lost Vic Chesnutt, who by nearly universal consent amongst the Athens music community, was the best of us.
Vic was born in 1964, and raised in Zebulon, Georgia. He was partially paralyzed in a car wreck at the age of 18. In the mid-80ʼs he moved to Athens and formed The La-Di-Daʼs with Todd McBride, who would later co-found The Dashboard Saviors. Before too long the La-Di-Daʼs split; by 1990, Vic was releasing a debut solo album, Little, produced by R.E.M.ʼs Michael Stipe, and in ʼ92 McBrideʼs band released their own debut, Kitty, produced by R.E.M.ʼs Peter Buck.
During the 90ʼs Vic went on to ever-wider exposure with the release of Sweet Relief II: Gravity Of The Situation, an album featuring a variety of bands and solo performers, including R.E.M., Soul Asylum, Cracker, and Madonna, performing covers of Vic Chesnutt songs. The album benefited the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, a non-profit charity benefiting professional musicians unable to afford medical care (Vic would continue to speak out about health care reform, and struggle with health insurance problems, for the rest of his life.) In ʼ96 Vic also had a cameo appearance in Billy Bob Thorntonʼs film Slingblade. These events amped up Chesnuttʼs career, and he went on to release 17 albums, by my count, including collaborations with musicians and writers such as Widespread Panic, Lambchop, and Van Dyke Parks, who famously wrote the lyrics for the Beach Boysʼ Smile.
I used to hang out with Vic a little bit back in the late 80ʼs...I remember one night during a party at the house on the corner of Prince and Harris, Vic and I were talking and heʼd heard about another party a few blocks down the road...somewhere on Meigs Street...and he wanted me to push him over there in his wheelchair, across some pretty uneven, cracked stretches of pavement...so we started out, and my girlfriend Paige came with us too. She was wearing a long sparkly silver ballgown type outfit, and she was struggling to keep up, because now Vic kept yelling at me, “Faster, man! Faster!” I was literally running, had his wheels kicking gravel behind us as we flew, and then Paige stumbling along behind us with her long platinum blonde hair and high heels...it was hilarious, a bizarre Athens scenario of the sort that...well, back then, happened practically every night. And it was just the sort of thing Vic would do.
Then flashing forward to 2002, Vic, Jerry Joseph and I played Michael Houserʼs 40th birthday party. I say with no small sense of abashment that Mikey often called us his three favorite songwriters, and that birthday party was one of the proud moments of my life. Less than a year later, at Mikeyʼs funeral service, I sat and cried while Vic pulled himself together, went up front and played a song. And now Iʼm sitting here listening to the wind and rain whip around outside my window, and suddenly remembering that only a few nights ago, I stopped by my bandmate David Nickelʼs house, and as I stuck my head inside the door I said, “Whatʼs that music youʼre playing?” David said, “Itʼs Is The Actor Happy.” One of the few Vic releases Iʼve never owned or at least lived with for awhile...so I guess my point in all this is, itʼs just dawning on me how twined through my life Vicʼs musical presence has been...
Because I, like lots of other folks around the world, really came to know Vic best through his music. In day to day life we were only acquaintances, but in the realm of music we were contemporaries, born the same year (he was 23 days younger), and as young songwriters back in the day we cheered each other on (thatʼs a time-honored tradition in the Athens music community, one I believe still exists, one I hope always will). I remember once telling him some other newer band was trying to use my bandʼs name, and he shook his head and said with sincere disgust, “Those fuckinʼ bastards.” We talked a few times about getting some kind of band or project together, but it never happened. And I used to go see him nearly every Tuesday night, the summer of ʼ88 I believe, during his residency at the old 40 Watt (in the space thatʼs now the Caledonia Lounge)...one of my favorite moments was when someone yelled out, “Free Bird!” And there was an electric piano set up onstage, so Vic rolled himself over to it, and with one hand pounded out a simple version of the descending chord progression, and at a painfully slow tempo sang the entire fuckinʼ song. It was beautiful. It was in your face. It was rock n roll.
Vic of course was a major league poet, but he also had a strong streak of absurdist punk rocker running through him...he certainly didnʼt take shit from anybody. (Iʼm also reminded of a story told me by Todd Nance: Vic had played a show with Live, who that night covered one of his songs, and afterwards asked him what he thought of their version. Vic replied, “I think you guys need to practice some more.”) When Vic released Little in 1990, well, a lot of walls came down for a lot of people who heard it, including me. It reaffirmed a whole universe of options as far as songwriting. I spent one of my best Athens summers in the early 90ʼs listening to a lot of Little, in a rented house on King Avenue with another girlfriend named Leah––I recall long afternoons in that living room with the wood floors and high ceilings––those cool but rundown old rental properties that everyone I knew lived in back then, very Southern and very charming and very infested with cockroaches and mice. But Iʼd just sit on the couch and knock back a vodka and lemonade, and listen to that record, while Leah floated around the house in one of her peacock-eye patterned sundresses––we were young and careless and filled with possibilities.
And across all the years since, Vic put out so many great records, I mean not one of them was a notch less than great, and his artistry certainly grew and deepened over the years––his most recent releases, At The Cut and Skitter On Take-Off, truly contain some of his best songs ever, and “Flirted With You All My Life”, a kind of lovesong to death, is particularly overwhelming given current circumstances––but my personal favorite remains Little. Of course my opinion has everything to do with the romanticized memories, the time and place that record came into my life––but if Vic had never written another song after “Isadora Duncan”, I think he would have left behind a perfectly respectable artistic legacy.
well I dreamed I was a-dancing with
in a silver cafe
it was a cafe that was not at all near here...
The simple, aching beauty of the melody, the stripped-down-next-to-nothing production that held the jewel-like lyrics in a kind of bas-relief spotlight...it just made me happy to hear, not that the songs were necesarily “happy” in subject matter of course, but they were executed with such precision and craftsmanship and care, I remember thinking, “Yeah, itʼs possible...it can be done, after all...despite all the obscenities perpetuated by the music business, maybe you can just say ʻfuck all thatʼ and pursue your art.” It was a liberation, and it was plain gorgeous fun, getting a good buzz on as sunset approached, spinning that piece of vinyl over and over, making decisions about which rock show to attend downtown later that evening...itʼs a cool memory, from a cool little crossroads of my youth.
Thanks, Vic, for providing the soundtrack to that memory, and so many others.
Daniel Hutchens lives in Athens and plays in the band Bloodkin.