Vic Chesnutt's fourteenth album, At the Cut, released on Montreal's Constellation Records just two months ago, was one of the best records of the year; and the Athens, Georgia-based singer-songwriter's harrowing, hypnotic set at the Crocodile in November was one of most moving live performances I witnessed in 2009. When word of his death at the age of 45 began circulating on Christmas Day, the effects were felt around the world--as well as in Seattle. Though the official cause of Chesnutt's death has not been released, the majority of credible reports from those closest to him indicate an overdose of muscle relaxants led to the brief, deep coma that preceded his death.
R.I.P. Vic Chesnutt: November 12, 1964--December 25, 2009
Vashon Island-based singer-songwriter Ian Moore appeared with Chesnutt in Billy Bob Thorton's Oscar-winning 1996 film, Sling Blade. Moore, who lived in Austin, Texas before to moving to the northwest in 1998, knew Chesnutt prior to filming. "We had a lot of mutual friends, and had gotten to know each other through shows and a couple of late night hangs," recalls Moore. "I got to know him quite a bit better during the filming of Sling Blade. He had an absolutely wicked, perverse sense of humor, and seemed to enjoy the ridiculousness of everything."Chesnutt and Moore portrayed battered members of Sling Blade's loathsome lead character Doyle Hargrave's (played by fellow musician-turned-actor Dwight Yoakam) roadhouse band. "My favorite scene of the whole movie is when Doyle throws the band out of the house," says Moore. "He had to basically throw Vic's chair up against the front door. As he did, Vic would come sailing out of his chair and fly head on into the door. The first time it happened, everyone freaked. Vic laughed."
Moore went on to play live shows with Chesnutt a few times over the years. "I loved watching him play," continues Moore. "When we played together the audiences were pretty reverential to him, but there was always a levity that came from his sense of humor and general disposition."
Similarly impassioned statements about Chesnutt's gifts as a writer and performer filtered in rapidly via the Constellation Records website this past weekend. Punk pioneer Patti Smith said Chesnutt possessed an unearthly energy and yet was humanistic with the common man in mind." R.E.M. leader Michael Stipe, who was responsible for initially discovering Chesnutt in their mutual home of Athens, said, "We have lost one of our great ones." Notoriously reclusive lo-fi legend and former Neutral Milk Hotel leader Jeff Magnum went even further, declaring that "hearing [Chesnutt's] music completely transformed the way I thought about writing songs, and I will forever be in his debt."
Whether Chesnutt's death was an accident or a suicide remains a question mark, given his struggles with depression and mounting medical bills. He recently said in several interviews that he was more than $70,000 in debt, despite being insured.
"[One of the most important stories] here has to do with a broken health care system depriving so many of the help they need to stay around and stay sane, and a society that never balks at providing more money for more wars but fights tooth and nail against decent care for its citizens," wrote filmmaker/record producer Jem Cohen on the Constellation website over the weekend. "Vic's death, just so you all know, did not come at the end of some cliché downward spiral. He was battling deep depression but also at the peak of his powers, and with the help of friends and family he was in the middle of a desperate search for help. The system failed to provide it. I miss him terribly."
Moore shares Cohen's dismay around the institutional circumstances that contributed to Chesnutt's death. "I will say that it pisses me off that another musician I know had to suffer so much because of such a flawed medical system. I'm sure that all the bills he had to deal with didn't make it any easier to just live and write. He seemed like a gentle soul. I'm glad our paths crossed."
Hannah Levin is currently coordinating a tribute/benefit in late February to raise funds to help with Vic Chesnutt's remaining medical bills. Further details will be announced at seattleweekly.com/reverb as they become available.