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About to folk
Decoding Vic Chesnutt's obscure poetics with the heart
By Aubrey McInnis
Vic Chesnutt with Giant Sand
Calgary Folk Music Festival
Friday, July 25
"God almighty, I forgot about that," chuckles Vic Chesnutt over his song "Guilty By Association" that Madonna and Joe Henry covered for the Sweet Relief tribute compilation.
"Someday when I'm old and depressed and about to kill myself, I'll pop on that Madonna track and crack up," Vic adds in his thick Georgia accent. "It will save me from despair."
Now, Mr. Chesnutt, as revered and adored as he is across the continent, is also known to be as equally obscure as he is talented. Meaning, you never know what he's really saying unless you have a Chesnutt decoder ring, or just a good ear. Chesnutt is the legendary troubadour based in Athens, Georgia whom everyone in the music biz flips over (just ask Shirley Manson of Garbage, Michael Stipe of R.E.M., or Vic's wife, Tina, who plays bass in his band). Many times throughout the interview this legend becomes slightly obscure. Obscurity is the nature of the man's way, from his blurry picture on his latest album, About to Choke, to his responses.
"I've been accused of being obscure, kind of pretentiously obscure. I don't think so, I'm always looking towards something," he explains. "Sometimes they're coded messages, sometimes they're little disguised personal stories, most of the time I just try and make them little parables. Sometimes it is definitely the fault of the song if everybody doesn't get it, but I think even if I wrote a most obvious parable then everybody wouldn't get it so I'm not sure where my responsibility stops. I hope everybody gets 'em."
Vic confirms that there are plenty of recurring themes in his short and not-always-sweet songs. He bases a lot of his poetic songs on family, self-destruction and suicides of friends.
Like his friends, it hasn't been a perfect life for Vic Chesnutt. At age 18, he drove drunk into a ditch nearly killing himself. As a result, he is partially paralyzed and left with a lifelong reminder of the mistake he made.
"I quit drinking a few years ago. I was kind of a notorious jerk for a long time even after my drunk driving accident. In fact, when I met Allen Ginsberg he told me I was an idiot. He told me I was an idiot because I had broke my neck in a drunk driving accident and then I had this new record called Drunk.
"But now, I quit drinking. I hate drunks now - I mean damn! Before I was drunk every minute of every day for my whole teen years and entire 20s. Now I hate drunks, they're obnoxious and stupid. It's so reckless that they can end up ruining a lot for other people because they're having so damn much fun that they don't realize that they're killing babies."
After cleaning up his life, Vic is still struggling to clear up his mind. He says the only way he is able to stay sane is by having a nervous breakdown every two years. He has just gotten over his latest breakdown and claims to be feeling much better. He expects he'll be able to go another couple years before he short circuits again.
The course of Vic's life is dictated by emotional hurricanes that come and go. As a result of what he describes as a "curse of introspection," he is either incapable of or completely disinterested in small talk. During the most serious part of the interview, I ask Vic a personal question that could lead to an answer or end the interview. After an accident of such devastating magnitude, a decade of substance abuse and having close friends kill themselves, I ask him if he has ever contemplated suicide.
"Who, me?" Vic asks taken aback, but hastily adding, "Well, you know." He pauses. "I don't want to...." Another long pause. Just before I begin apologizing, he continues. "Yeah, of course. I'm kind of notorious for my suicidal nature.
"My curse in life is that I'm very introspective. It's my worst affliction. So I'm used to it. I guess that's what makes me feel like myself. It's what my personal identity is like. When I look in the mirror, if I didn't look like that, if I wouldn't recognize myself... perhaps."
Instead of descending into madness, Chesnutt has turned his curse around to lead him to fame and success. A self-described "morbid, scratchy, folk singer," he emanates the brilliance of human nature through simple musical arrangements that he admires. His stories are told without any distractions of "fancy, plastic-y trinkets." What he captures is akin to deep, dark secrets that only a few who are willing to understand will hear.
Musicians who have heard Vic's message and have contributed a cover song for the Sweet Relief tribute wrote thank-you messages to him in the liner notes for inspiration. Vic still has not read them. He refuses to read them.
"I couldn't read it. No, I couldn't, I was too scared." He exclaims in a nervous giggle. "Tina was reading some to me and I ran out of the room. I was scared, I don't know. Like I said, sometime in the future when I really need it, but now it's too much pressure.
"I don't want to know what they think, it's too much pressure."
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