So long, Vic

The Constellation Records Web site reported the tragic news this afternoon:

“Surrounded by family and friends, Vic Chesnutt died in Athens Georgia this afternoon, Friday 25 December at 14:59. In the few short years that we knew him personally, Vic transformed our sense of what true character, grace and determination are all about. Our grief is inexpressible and Vic’s absence unfathomable. We will make more information available according to the wishes of Vic’s family and friends. Don and Ian”

I “knew” Vic Chesnutt only a short time myself — and I only knew him musically. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I did not pay much attention to his music for years, belatedly discovering only this year how great he was. The two concerts I saw by him in 2009 — a solo set opening for Jonathan Richman at the Empty Bottle, and a set with a full band at Lincoln Hall last month — were two of the strongest performances I saw by anyone in the past year. (And a friend tells me Chesnutt put on yet another top-notch performance in 2009 when he came through town with Elf Power as his backup band.)

My memories of those two shows are still so vivid that it feels as if they just happened — as if I were still standing there in Lincoln Hall, a few feet away from Vic, snapping some photos of him as he sat there in his wheelchair. I loved the quirky wisecracks he made in between songs, and how he gave full voice to his vulnerable, heartfelt lyrics during the songs. When Chesnutt and his band were playing the song “Coward” at Lincoln Hall, the naked emotional power and musical drama of the song literally gave me goosebumps, and I remember thinking at that moment, that it was surely one of the best performances of a single song I had seen in a long while.

I’m only beginning to discover everything Chesnutt accomplished — relearning to play the guitar after becoming quadriplegic in a car accident at the age of 18, releasing 15 albums, collaborating with many varied musicians — but I have no doubt that his death is a great loss.

The exact circumstances of Chesnutt’s death haven’t been officially confirmed, but I fear that his mounting debt for medical bills played some role in it. He discussed this during the recent interview with Terry Gross. The guy owed tens of thousands of dollars, and he was putting off an operation. How sickening that he was in this situation … and ended up dying just as the U.S. Senate was voting on health-care reform.

Chesnutt’s friend, singer Kristin Hersh, set up a fund on her Web page to “accept donations on behalf of his family to defray the expenses associated with his recent hospitalizations and death.”

Hersh also says: “What this man was capable of was superhuman. Vic was brilliant, hilarious and necessary; his songs messages from the ether, uncensored. … I don’t think I like this planet without Vic; I swore I would never live here without him. But what he left here is the sound of a life that pushed against its constraints, as all lives should. It’s the sound of someone on fire. It makes this planet better…” (Read more of her tribute here.)

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