Vic Chesnutt

Bitter Sweet

Amongst the mountain: Vic Chesnutt pens long ballads of doubt and loss.

Vic Chesnutt lets some light shine on his dark, pained lyrics

By Gina Arnold

FOR SOME STRANGE reason, tokenism is generally considered a bad thing. The only gay cast member of a sitcom, the only Asian in the election, the only woman at the top of the masthead–these distinctions, though necessary, often imply a type of favoritism that reflects poorly on the unwitting object.

Take Vic Chesnutt, who is a member of a minority himself, one that is seldom represented in rock and roll. He is a paraplegic. Happily, you could see him sing–and certainly you could listen to his records–and though you’d definitely think, “Wow, this guy’s on a bum trip,” you’d probably never suspect that he is, as they say, “differently abled.”

The Salesman and Bernadette (Capricorn Records) is Chesnutt’s sixth and most accomplished record to date. Chesnutt’s previous albums have been unrelenting downers, full of long, sad, slow ballads about doubt, loss, and disaster. They have their occasional humorous moments, but in general they are emotionally and texturally similar to the work of ex-American Music Club frontman Mark Eitzel.

Chesnutt’s new CD, however, is more upbeat. The overall tenor is not exactly sunny (“quirky” is about as good as it gets), but Chesnutt’s songs are no longer quite as painful to listen to as they have been in the past.

Of course, Chesnutt’s pain is all too easy to understand. Unlike most of the white-boy whiners of rock, he speaks from a place of literal, rather than mental, suffering. A native of Athens, Ga, he was in a drunken-driving accident at the age of 18 that left him without the use of his lower limbs.

Onstage, he sits in his wheelchair, head askew, muttering cynical remarks between songs. He has been known to abuse alcohol during concerts, making his shows somewhat uneven. He sings, plays guitar, and, on record, piano. On The Salesman and Bernadette, he is backed by members of the Tennessee-based band Lambchop.

Chesnutt was discovered by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and recorded for the Stipe-affiliated label Texas Hotel before gaining wider notice. (He’s now on Capricorn, a Capitol affiliate.) Although his voice is not particularly memorable, he does have an unusual presence–part Southern Gothic, part Tom Waits, part Victoria Williams (another artist who has benefited from Sweet Relief, an organization that supports musicians with no health insurance). He has been covered by artists like R.E.M., the Smashing Pumpkins, Madonna, and Live, who did his song “Supernatural” when it appeared on MTV Unplugged.

Perhaps because of his chronic health problems, Chesnutt has created an oeuvre–drunk, despondent–that is pretty much the rock equivalent of Malcolm Lowry’s dipsomaniacal novel Under the Volcano. Although Chesnutt’s songs are sad and pretty, earlier records like Drunk, Little, and About to Choke were also unbelievably bitter. The Salesman and Bernadette contains some similarly grim moments, but the mood has lightened perceptibly from earlier days. “Until the Led,” for example, is downright jaunty. Only “Square Room” degenerates into the kind of self-pity and self-absorption that characterized his early work.

CHESNUTT’S forte is his lyrics, which are compelling enough to read like novelistic prose. Indeed, he has much in common with minimalist writers like Raymond Carver. “Duty Free” is a brief portrait of a business traveler caught up in the dullness of an airport wait, where “he beats a stampede toward the duty-free/ Using up all his old currency.” “Scratch, Scratch, Scratch” depicts a day of jury duty in cold, unerring detail: “The crowd at the courthouse passed around the flu … then we were dismissed.”

As those example indicate, mere snippets of his songs will make you want to read the rest: “She said her father looked like Woodrow Wilson, presiding from behind prescription lenses”; “Remember the time you took me to see Harold and Maude because I didn’t know the meaning of ‘catharsis’?”; “I could see there in the sun-room, the growing storm of disapproval”; “You’re up there amongst the mountains, and I am drinking from this nasty water fountain.”

Any one of these lines could serve as the lead sentence to a gripping short story. Allied as they are to Chesnutt’s quiet folky music–the kind that was once aptly described as “difficult country”–they are quite haunting.

Now that Chesnutt has rid himself of all that bitterness, there’s no need to even mention his disability in a review. Nevertheless, I think it’s important, because to me, Chesnutt really exemplifies how a truly committed artist, even one with severe impairments, can take advantage of the power of music and its lack of limitations.

Vic Chesnutt’s songs don’t shy from life’s tragedies, but his very existence is a blow against the harshness of reality.

From the December 17-23, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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