Flirting With Death: What Vic Chesnutt Can Tell Us About the State of Healthcare
Vic Chesnutt couldn't be described as a "star." Most likely, he would have bristled at the term. First and foremost, he was a songwriter. And though he never reached the heights of fame and fortune, the seventeen albums he released during his twenty-year career earned him the undeniable respect of critics, fellow musicians, and just about anyone who heard his songs. When he died of an apparent suicide this past Christmas Day, he was a solid fixture in the underground and indie scenes. Some of the major newspapers were forced to take note with a short piece buried in the entertainment section, but next to the Jacksons, Cronkites and Kennedys that shuffled off this mortal coil in '09, his death seemed a blip on the radar.
He was no less important, however. In fact, Vic Chesnutt's name and story should be etched into each of our brains. As congress sputters toward a health care bill that seems likely to do more harm than good, his relative anonymity should make his tale hit very, very hard.
For most of his forty-five years, Chesnutt was wheelchair-bound. A car accident at the age of eighteen left him mostly paralyzed from the waist down. A few weeks before his death, on an appearance on NPR, he told host Terry Gross that he had no real use of his legs and only partial use of his arms and hands.
Chesnutt had been a musician before the accident, and he was relieved to realize soon afterwards that he could still play guitar (though his playing was limited mostly to simple chords). After leaving his hometown of Zebulon, Georgia he moved to Nashville, Tennessee and spent the next several months voraciously reading the work of such poets as Whitman, Dickinson and Auden. In interviews, Chesnutt would cite these writers as a key influence in his own vivid lyrical style.
By all accounts, his passion for music was left unbowed by the accident. In 1985, he moved back to Georgia--this time to the thriving underground rock scene of Athens. A short stint in a band called the La-Di-Da's was followed by a string of solo performances at the city's 40 Watt club. It was here that he came to the attention to none other than REM's Michael Stipe, who encouraged Chesnutt to record. By 1990, the two had completed Chesnutt's first album, Little--a folk-and-country tinged piece of contemporary alt-rock--in less than a day.
Little stands apart for its simplicity and beauty. Though the album rarely consists of more than acoustic guitar and vocals, there is an eloquence in its content. Already apparent in Chesnutt is a rare talent that no amount of physical dexterity or musical virtuosity can bring: the ability to bear your soul and pour your heart into every note you sing. Chesnutt's vocals are raw, fraught with emotion and passion throughout every single line.
The compelling nature of Chesnutt's lyrics came from his ability to mix bleakness and beauty with seemingly little effort. Though it would be wrong to boil this down to the accident alone, one can't help but get the sense that this is a man who understands the inevitability of death and ugliness, but nonetheless soldiers on for the tiny slivers of light that are bound to peek in. "Other people write about the bling and the booty," Chesnutt would say in 2005. "I write about the pus and the gnats. To me, that's beautiful."
It was this wry honesty that ultimately made Chesnutt's songs so relatable. In 1998, he told Rolling Stone how shocked he always was to learn of his songs' profound impact on countless fans. “I guess the very emotional nature of my songs attracts emotional people, and they become quite, um, emotional,” he said. “They come up to me after the shows, and I don’t know what to say to them. I don’t want to be an asshole or anything, but I think I do my best communicating alone in my room, when I’m writing songs. But I do appreciate them very much. If it wasn’t for them, I would’ve killed myself a long time ago.”
As his career progressed, his musical palette would expand to include full bands, and he would frequently collaborate with groups as diverse as Widespread Panic and Elf Power, but his lyrical abilities and gut-wrenching stories would never get lost in the shuffle.
Music might have provided an outlet for Chesnutt's demons--something we should all be so lucky to find--but that didn't help him overcome the simple reality of his disability. His physical condition required constant medical care--medications, doctor appointments, physical therapy, operations--and it didn't take long for the bills to pile up.
In 1996, Chesnutt's story became widely known with the release of Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation, with proceeds going to help artists and musicians struggling with the costs of health care. Showcasing the amount of support and sympathy his case had garnered, Sweet Relief featured such artists as REM, Garbage, Indigo Girls, Smashing Pumpkins, Soul Asylum and even Madonna all covering Chesnutt's songs.
By the time the twentieth century ended, despite never getting much airplay on MTV or mainstream radio. Chesnutt's had become a staple. His prolific output continued, and his shows continued to bring out healthy crowds of loyal fans.
Looking back on the twenty years that his musical career spanned, it's quite stunning how much music has changed--and not often for the better. In a musical landscape that had all but eliminated the phenomenon of "singer-songwriter," he seemed unfazed by the changing of the times. His work never failed to provoke, never stopped exploring the dark depths of human existence while reminding us that through all the shit, there remains something pure and worthwhile.
Still, it would be hard to chalk the darkness of his work up to mere existential waffling. By the time Chesnutt his 2009 album At the Cut, despite being insured, he had racked up a staggering $70,000 in medical debt. Even with a robust catalogue and respectable living he had made off his music, this was simply too much to pay.
Upon At the Cut's release, Chesnutt shared with the Los Angeles Times how infuriated he was by the situation. "I'm not too eloquent talking about these things," Chesnutt said. "I was making payments, but I can't anymore and I really have no idea what I'm going to do. It seems absurd they can charge this much. When I think about all this, it gets me so furious. I could die tomorrow because of other operations I need that I can't afford. I could die any day now, but I don't want to pay them another nickel."
This kind of calm defiance is evident throughout At the Cut. After he died, many journalists seemed transfixed by the uncanny nature of songs like "Flirted With You All My Life," which Chesnutt described as "a breakup song with death."
A organ-driven, almost Dylan-esque roots song, the lyrics can easily be mistaken for a run-of-the-mill heartbreak song if not for the third verse:
"Oh death, you hector me
Decimate those dear to me
And tease me with your sweet relief
You're cruel and you are constant"
"I've been a suicidal person all my life," said Chesnutt, who also admitted to having attempted suicide three or four times in his life. "And that song is me finally being 'screw you, death.'"
Comments like this made Chesnutt's own suicide all the more shocking. On December 23rd he took an overdose of muscle relaxants and remained comatose for two days before passing away.
Calling Vic Chesnutt's story tragic or heartbreaking would be insufficient. More accurately, it's such an outrage that anyone with a heart should be seeing red. Chesnutt was a man whose voice helped others come to grips with the turmoil and tragedy in their own lives. His death is heartbreaking because that voice is now snuffed out. It's outrageous because it didn't have to be this way.
At the time of his death, some of Chesnutt's bandmates were from Canada. These bandmates were, according to Chesnutt, perplexed. “There’s nowhere else in the world that I’d be facing the situation I’m in right now. They cannot understand what kind of society would inflict that on their population,” he said. “It’s terrifying.”
Chesnutt's music, with its frank, no-frills emotive power, makes it easy for us to see him as one of us. His art didn't buy him mansions and caviar, and it sure didn't buy him a gold-standard healthcare plan. How many more people like Chesnutt have fallen victim to the same willful neglect of the insurance industry is a number no history book can ever hope to calculate.
As for the health care "reform" working its way through congress, it might be best to give Vic's pull-no-punches approach the last word: “What will pass will be weak, the powers that be will be happy and the insurance companies will be thrilled."
Alexander Billet, a music journalist, writer and activist, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com) and is a columnist for SleptOn.com and the Society of Cinema and Arts. His articles have also appeared in Socialist Worker, Z Magazine, New Politics, PopMatters.com, CounterPunch, MR Zine and Razorcake.org.
Contact him, or subscribe to his mailing list at email@example.com.