Monday, December 28, 2009

Hey Everyone! Here's A Dead Indie Musician For You to Canonize! Remembering Vic Chesnutt.

If there's one thing people on a whole seem to love to do, it's lionizing the dead, particularly the dead that die under tragic circumstances after leading what was, overall, a tragic life.

Few people lead a more tragic life than Vic Chesnutt. He became paraplegic at eighteen, after a car accident. He attempted suicide countless times and wrote about it frankly. On December 24th, he overdosed on muscle relaxers. After landing in a coma, Chesnutt died on Christmas day.

The news hit twitter almost immediately and I started spreading the news amongst my social circle that things were looking pretty bad for Chesnutt. Almost everyone's reaction was "Who's Vic Chesnutt?"

For those of you who don't know anything past my brief introduction to Vic Chesnutt a few short paragraphs up, let me google that for you. Is that better? I sure hope so. With any luck, you opened Chesnutt's Wikipedia page and now you have rudimentary knowledge of the musician and his catalog which is something I've had for quite a few years now. Chesnutt was a musician I feel like I've been aware of since my initiation into the world of indie rock, all those twelve years ago, but for some reason, I never actively pursued an interest in Chesnutt's career. There's no real reason why and I feel like I probably missed out on someone who I would have absolutely loved. Let's face it - A sad white guy with a guitar singing about mortality? That's right up my alley!

I don't want to sound like I'm better than anyone by playing the "I knew who Vic Chesnutt was before he died" card because it really doesn't matter all that much and I'm not better than anyone. I'm just a girl with a few blogs, a couple opinions, and an ear to the ground, but I can't help but feel like Vic Chesnutt's death is going to eerily mirror that of Elliott Smith, which is quite a sore subject so far as musicians are concerned for me. Why's that? Here's the situation in a nutshell:

I grew up in Detroit, Michigan and lived within walking distance of a record store called Repeat the Beat. Repeat the Beat has since become a Jimmy John's and as much as I like a good unwich, I like music more so I have bitter feelings towards that particular Jimmy John's. Back in the day, when I discovered that there was music outside of the modern rock radio of the mid-1990's, I would walk to Repeat the Beat and get recommendations from the college-aged, post-grunge, pre-hipsters that worked there. The first recommendation was Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. Promptly after that, I invested in Either/Or by Elliott Smith, a record that greatly affected my life, easily earning Smith the honor of being my favorite artist of the 1990's and early 2000's. When Smith died under questionable circumstances, however, I went from loving an artist no one seemed to care about (Other than my high school friend Chelsea Ardnt, I was the only person I knew in my peer group who has even heard of Smith) to being another sad hipster seemingly canonizing a dead musician. Suddenly, everyone was buying his records, everyone was graffiti-ing his wall, everyone was blogging about how important he had been, and everyone seemed to be insisting they "loved him for years". Really? Really? Honestly, if everyone who claims to have "loved him for years" actually, oh, I don't know, bought his records when they came out instead of waiting until after he kicked it than maybe things would have turned out a little different.

Do I sound bitter? Well, I kind of am. It still irks me that Smith only got the attention he deserved after a few fatal stabs to the chest.

That sentence could easily be reconstructed to be about Chesnutt. Give it two months and I'm sure an onslaught of "cool kids" will be all about At The Cut and Skitter Take Off, Chesnutt's two incredibly solid, incredibly overlooked 2009 releases. And I'm sure a good portion of them will insist they downloaded the albums upon their releases, despite popular blog aggregator Elbows showing a distinct lack of Chesnutt's work until after it was announced he was in a coma. Just check it out - Sandwiched in between Jay Z and Phoenix as a "hot artist" on Elbows is Chesnutt.

Despite the fact that he never ranked on Elbow's "most blogged about" list before.

I'm not completely innocent here and that does make me feel guilty - Chesnutt deserved more attention than he got. Sure, I owned five of his fifteen records before his suicide but did I listen to them? Eh, not really. I'm a little angry with myself that his albums have gotten more spins in my household over the past three days than they had in the past eight years and I didn't even bother downloading Chesnutt's Daytrotter session with Elf Power until postmortem. (That one makes me feel especially lame on account of my pre-discussed adoration of the Rock Island music site)

There are a lot more reasons to listen to Chesnutt other than the fact that he's dead and soon, all the cool kids that will have the vast majority of his albums memorized, word for word, will know just that. Vic Chesnutt was a mean and hilarious motherfucker. His songs dealt with his suicide attempts, politics, and love tinged with an overwhelming sense of loss in a morbidly funny way, over a back drop of intricate and gorgeous folk music that will probably earn Chesnutt the honor of being known as a "trail blazer". It's only a matter of time, I think, before I interview a musician (That's what I do, by the by, for TRACER Magazine), ask them about their influences, and Chesnutt's name is dropped. With any luck, Chesnutt will join the ranks of Smith, Neutral Milk Hotel, and David Bazan as universally beloved and influential musicians amongst modern indie artists.

What it comes down to is the fact that I could complain for hours about Chesnutt 's lack of recognition pre-coma- Over the holidays, I think I have complained for hours about just that but I was drunk for a vast majority of these "holidays" so I don't have a complete recollection of it. - but the fact of the matter is that, at the very least, people are going to listen to him now, something that didn't happen nearly enough while dude was alive.

So that's something.



  1. "as much as I like a good unwich" made me laugh very hard indeed.

  2. I'm glad you wrote up this one. Personally I never heard of Vic Chesnutt before and found the sudden deluge of commentary kind've unnerving, especially since the blogs that never were interested in him felt a pang of 'jumping on board' for news sake and news sake alone. Granted, it is news, but to me it felt almost forced, like sending unaccustomed contributors digging into his catalog to piece together their own take. It's bizarre, in my opinion. Like you mentioned, he never ranked on Elbow's "most blogged about list."

  3. It's funny and true! I DO love a good unwich! The beach club unwich is my favorite, followed closely by the BLT unwich. That deliciousness, however, doesn't wash the taste of Repeat the Beat out of my mouth. When visiting Michigan, that particular Jimmy John's seems to taste like death and anger.

  4. John - What pisses me off is the fact that EVERYONE in the hipster/indie clique is going to not only jump on the Chesnutt bandwagon but if Vic's death is anything like Elliott Smith's, a good portion of them are going to insist they liked Vic Chesnutt for YEARS. Which is total and complete bullshit. Yeah, it's awesome that people's tastes are going to be bettered by having North Star Deserter in their library but is it honestly fair that Chesnutt had to die before people paid attention?

    I wrote up a brief blog about it for RFC and tomorrow, I'll be getting something together for TRACER. I feel like I'm making the rounds everywhere, spreading the news but honestly? This is the only thing I've written about Vic that sums up my feelings on it honestly because here, I don't have to worry about alienating readers. Chances are, if they're reading BIF, they're here to laugh at what dicks we can all be.

  5. Boil It First isn't for being careful, it's for being right. Right on, Amber.