Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Morally Challenged", Brute- Cobalt Blue, 2002 Widespread Records

Vic was a fun guy. He could make you laugh without even trying. He was self deprecating and pleasant (mostly) and always had control of his crowd, no matter the situation. He was very funny... and his humor shone through, not only in his personality, but also in his work, including this song.

Morally Challenged was written during a drive between Austin, TX and Los Angeles sometime in the early 1990s. Vic wrote it on a newly purchased Omnichord. He said he had the "Omnichord in one hand, a joint in his mouth and his other hand on the wheel." The earliest performances start around 1994, and the song didn't receive an official release until 2002's Cobalt Blue album from his Widespread Panic collaboration entitled "Brute."

The song's musical transformation over the years is quite stunning. Whether it be the simple tick tock, Casio type keyboards of the original... to the acoustic stop and go acoustic strums .... to this full out Jam-band arrangement with Brute, the comic tone has remained. Vic really enjoyed playing this and always got a reaction from the crowd.

Lyrically, Morally Challenged is basically a joke song, full of irreverence and blatancy. Vic is the pundit, and each of the subjects, in this southern travelogue, have a commentary made about their social position (save one). The grandmother (convict), the mother (liar), the father (transsexual), and the sister (floozy) each have their dirty laundry vocalized by Vic. The only person not exposed, if you will, is the poet/appreciator and is the only person Vic talks to directly. That person is simply adorned, and highlighted for their love of famed poet W.H. Auden (which was one of Vic's favorites.) I'm pretty certain the song is complete fiction. If it's not however, praise be to Vic for being an astute observer of their 'flaws.'

As with almost all of Vic's tunes, I am more fond of his live solo versions, and this is no exception. I do like the Brute version, but I was always a little put off with that combination. Widespread Panic fans and Vic fans, in my opinion, seldom overlapped, and I wonder what effect it had on Vic. I remember being at several Vic shows and hearing people yell out for Panic songs, and it seemed to be an annoyance to him. Perhaps I am wrong. Nevertheless, Vic solo is 'cherry pie' as Michael Stipe would say.

The live version below, is just Vic and his Omnichord and is a fun listen, replete with 'boop boop be doop' sections, and flubbed lyrics. The essence of the song is intact, and it still remains one of my favorite live Vic moments.



Here's Brute's version:




And here's a very early Omnichord version from Minneapolis 1994:



MORALLY CHALLENGED

She's your gray-haired granny from Gadsden, Alabama, yeah
She's your gray-haired granny from Gadsden, Alabama, yeah
She's your gray-haired granny from Gadsden, Alabama, yeah
You never see her 'cause she's always in the slammer
She's your gray-haired granny from Gadsden, Alabama, yeah

She's your hard-hearted mama from Appalachiacola, yeah
She's your hard-hearted mama from Appalachiacola, yeah
She's your hard-hearted mama from Appalachiacola, yeah
You're daddy's dead, or at least that's what she told ya
She's your hard-hearted mama from Appalachiacola, yeah

He's your long-lost daddy from Union, Mississippi, yeah
He's your long-lost daddy from Union, Mississippi, yeah
He's your long-lost daddy from Union, Mississippi, yeah
He's been with Nelly since nineteen-and-sixty
He's your long-lost daddy from Union, Mississippi, yeah

She's your morally-challenged sister from Albany, Georgia
She's your morally-challenged sister from Albany, Georgia
She's your morally-challenged sister from Albany, Georgia
You never liked her, but you never porked
She's your morally-challenged sister from Albany, Georgia

You're a reader of poems from Slidell, Louisiana, yeah
You're a reader of poems from Slidell, Louisiana, yeah
You're a reader of poems from Slidell, Louisiana, yeah
W.H. Auden wrote all your favorite stanzas
You're a reader of poems from Slidell, Louisiana, yeah

Reader of poems from Slidell, Louisiana
Reader of poems from Slidell, Louisiana
Reader of poems from Slidell
Slidell, Louisiana, yeah

Monday, March 22, 2010

"Rips in the Fabric"- Skitter on Take-Off, 2009 Vapor Records

In July of 2003, I make a trek to catch Vic in Columbus, Ohio at a club called Little Brother's. I had caught him a couple of times previously, that year, with the Amorphous Strums, who were touring in support of Silver Lake, and they were great. However, this night was Vic in his element....he was doing a solo show.

I had made arrangements with New West records to get into the show early, so I got the chance to spend some time with Vic before hand. Laura (my girlfriend at the time) and I had become familiar to Vic so he was in a great talkative mood. At one point, he asked us what we wanted to hear? Laura blurted out her favorite track (Steve Willoughby) as well as a couple more. I mentioned Supernatural, New Town and then I said, slyly, that I wanted to hear a new song, not knowing if Vic would oblige or not.
So showtime rolls around and low and behold...each of our requests became audible as Vic proceeded through the set list. It was a great treat, and a testament to Vic's love of his fans. Anyway, as the night was finishing, Vic introduced a 'new' song... and my face got grin on it as big as Robert Mitchum...if you'll pardon the plagiarism. Recently, Vic's tours had been free of new material... he was supporting Silver Lake so the set lists where basically consistent each evening, save for the encore, but those had been pretty consistent as well. Don't get me wrong.. that tour was fantastic, but Vic, by himself, is such a treat. That evening's new composition was an interesting song about mundanity and life. It was entitled Rips in The Fabric and as far as I know, the only time it was ever played live.

Fast forward six years. Vic has released, what I consider, two of his finest efforts... one a energetic, loud, emotional album entitled At The Cut (with Guy Picciotto and Silver Mtn Zion) and the other, a surprisingly stripped down affair, called Skitter on Take-Off, which is essentially, a solo album. He is backed by Tommy Larkins and Jonathan Richman, but their sparseness and subtlety only emphasis Vic's lean arrangements. I really like the album. Vic's songs always had a basic simplicity to them that made them honest, and funny and viable. The big production efforts like At The Cut, Silver Lake and even my favorite The Salesmen and Bernadette are fantastic, and very enjoyable, but the real heart of a Vic song is his ability to pull so much out of sparsity.

Rips in the Fabric feels like an observation about humanity, religion, free will and public opinion. I think Vic's 'moral' is that people just go through their lives, despite their mortality, unaware of their insignificance, in the scheme of the universe. Humans are, essentially, in control of their own existance, even though there are people (preachers, or teachers, or hipsters) who would have the collective conscienceness believe otherwise. Interestingly, in the original version (featured below) Vic only addresses the theological opinions... and not the academic or popular.

Skitter On Take-Off is a release of grave importance, just as Little was in 1990. In fact, Skitter is an appropriate ending to a very storied career. Others may look at At The Cut as more relevant given it's lyrical association with Vic's final days, but I for one find the sparseness and pureness of Skitter comforting. For Vic to come full circle at the end of his 20 year career is amazing. It’s as if he had the foresight to reflect back, on his beginnings, and to harness that creativity to create his ultimate finale. I am glad he did.


Vic and Laura at Little Brother's- July 2003



Here's the studio version:



And the live one from Columbus 2003:



RIPS IN THE FABRIC



She was walking down the sidewalk
Sniffing swiftly in the wind
Thinking of everything and nothing
Just another flighty human being

And satellites where arcing
Undetected overhead
Her cells were busy splitting
And jettisoning the dead

Beauty is as beauty does
In the eyes of the beholder
Or collectively in all of us

She was waving to a cyclist
As he went coasting by
Through a lazy intersection
Towards the remainder of his life

And a feral cat went diving
Behind a dumpster there
Which displaced a big brown rat
That went fleeing with a comical flair

We are trapped, but we are free
To go through the motions
And be just as happy as we can be.

And later on I held her
In my skinny arms
My chapped lips were whispering
Esoteric alarms

But her warm breath assuaged me
And the music returned
Our dancing continued
While big forest fires burned

Space is spooky
And time is a trip
Don't let the preachers and teachers and hipsters fool you
There ain't no rips in the fabric.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

"West of Rome", West of Rome, 1993 New West Records



The title track from one of Vic's most celebrated albums is bittersweet for me today. Mark Linkous, of Sparklehorse fame, committed suicide this past weekend, in Knoxville, TN. Not only was he a fantastic musician, an artistic genius, and one of my favorite all time performers, but he did a amazing cover of West of Rome, for the Sweet Relief 2 compilation.

Ironically, the last time I ever saw Mark, he and Vic and I were chatting about this specific track.

It was in Asheville, NC. I had mentioned to Vic that it was the only song off of the album West Of Rome that I had never heard him perform. He told me that he hadn't played the song in years, but would try and work out an arrangement. At that point, Mark very humbly offered that if I wanted to hear a 'terrible' version that he had one on the Sweet Relief compilation. I sort of laughed and said that it was a fantastic cover and that it was my favorite track on that specific album. Afterwards, Mark and I sat together and watched Vic perform his magic. That was February 2009.


I never saw either of them again after that night.


West of Rome was inspired, but not directly, by the book of the same name by John Fante. The book, which features two novellas, is about a father's reflections on his own life and that of his children. Vic read the book and then wrote the song. The two have only that relation. Also, despite thoughts to the contrary, the song is not about Rome, Georgia, although Vic had mentioned that is could have been because it has some Georgia imagery in the lyrics.

Speaking of lyrics, West of Rome has some of Vic's most narrative lyrics. The scene is set, from the first line, and in just five minutes, Vic has presents an interesting character study of the protagonist, and his environment. Lines like "a childhood of dry goods and wet neglect" and "polishing his boots and pummeling his liver" are so simple yet descriptive. Just another facet of Vic's incredible talent and ability.
I miss him still. In fact, I miss them both.




Further reading:




http://www.amazon.com/West-Rome-John-Fante/dp/0876856776




Here's Vic's version:








And Mark's from the Sweet Relief 2 Tribute









WEST OF ROME


west of Rome, just east of the border

in a static-y ramada inn

polishing his boots and pummeling his liver

steeped in the dark isolation

just what business does he have around here

credentials are wearing out with each little bit of cheer

yes it's a bad scene we're convening

brushing his teeth and milking his ulcer

preparing to waste another wily morning

stroking himself and them phoning up his sister

he tells her their life would make one whale of a movie

yes a childhood full of dry goods and wet neglect

the father they now sponge off they have no absorbing respect

yes he's a glad boy to have such a void

yes he's a martyr crawling accross cobble stones

from his cozy cottages just west of Rome

yes its a sad state for great suffering

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"This Cruel Thing" (Live)- Amazing Little Parlor Games... A Collection of Live and Unreleased Songs- Volume Four, 2005

I made the trip a week last, to the Vic Shows at the 40 Watt, in Athens. It was a fascinating, albeit emotionally exhausting tribute to the man whom was loved by so many. The performers where an array of national acts, Athens' locals, fellow songwriters, musical friends and former collaborators...each of whom had a special connection with Vic and his art.

One of the many highlights, on Saturday, was a special performance by Silver Mtn. Zion and Guy Picciotto...Vic's partners in crime on At The Cut. Sitting in on vocals was Vic's niece and an amazing vocalist in her own right, Liz Durrett. This ensemble performed, what I consider, the best song of the evening, and a song that Vic never committed to a studio album... This Cruel Thing.
This Cruel Thing is a rather old song. The earliest performances dating back to the early 1990s, and even though a studio version has yet to surface, the song isn't completely unknown. Vic licensed it for the soundtrack to the movie A Slipping Down Life where it was performed by actor Guy Pearce. I like that version and it's included below.

Lyrically the song draws heavily from a sentimental Civil War ballad entitled Weeping Sad and Lonely (When This Cruel War is Over.) The ballad, penned by Charles Carrol Sawyer, is considered to be one of the most widely adored songs from the period, despite critical opinion to the opposite. Most critics panned the song as being "commonplace" and having a musical structure that was 'flimsy' and unmelodious. Not everyone agreed, however. It was heralded as "the greatest musical success ever known in this country" by the Cleveland Leader when the song was still contemporary. They went on to add that the "melody catches the popular ear and the words touch the popular heart." Despite that digression, the song sparked numerous musical replies, parodies and became popular on both sides of the battlefield.

Vic's deference is lyrically comparable, and melodically it has its similarities as well. The first line, for example, is almost identical to the title of the former composition. The original focused on the thought of the time in which it was written, and the hope of no more conflict or battles. Vic took that idea and ran with it, crafting a beautiful lyric around a touching melody and a song which becomes bittersweet with the foreknowledge of the events that occurred last Christmas.

Vic always felt in battle with life...whether it be physically or otherwise. He always seemed to make the best of his situation, but the conflict always seemed to be prevalent, and I can see why he would be drawn to the emotion of the original.

This song has always been a personal favorite of mine, and the version at the 40 Watt tribute validated that opinion. Vic's live versions are a fantastic listen, but Liz singing her version, backed by Vic's final band, caught my ear and touched my heart.

Whether a studio version, by Vic, will ever surface or not is unknown (Edit: it does exist and it is fantastic.) It's also just been recorded and is intended for inclusion on the upcoming album by Vic's former collaborators Widespread Panic. I'm glad that it wont be forgotten. (Second edit: That version is included here as well.)


Here's a live version by Vic:


Here's Guy Pearce's version:




And here's the version by Silver Mtn. Zion featuring Guy Picciotto and Liz Durrett:




And here's Widespread Panic's version:




THIS CRUEL THING

Weeping sad and lonely
When this cruel thing is over
Hopes and fears... How vain?
When this cruel thing is over

And often dreams I see you
On the battle plain
Sadly breathing...falling
When this cruel thing is over

If a mid din of battle
Nobly you should fall
I'll whisper words in honor
When this cruel thing is over.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Independent Bookstore" (Live)- Josiah Meigs and Me- A Song Cycle for Puppets, November 2001 (Unreleased)

In November 2001, Vic performed a handful of shows, in New York, that were entitled "Josiah Meigs and Me: A Song Cycle for Puppets." The shows featured words and music by Vic, and a stage production by filmmaker Jane Geiser, one of the country's most foremost puppeteers. The stage show, which was called “a grand little live-action silent movie,” was elaborate and artistic, and was well received by both press and fans alike.

The cycle revolved around the man Josiah Meigs; an academic, writer, lawyer and former President of the University of Georgia. His influence was great, and even though he was unlamented as President, his name is still prominent at the University, and in Athens.

Vic recognized similarities between Josiah and his late father. The biggest being that both were ousted from their jobs due to corporate and political idealism. Josiah resigned his duty as President in 1810 after several disputes with the Board of Trustees. In Vic's father's case, he was let go from his job at Eastern Airlines, and died within a year as a result. His death is something that Vic never let go of, and rightfully so.

When asked about his fascination with Meigs, Vic was quoted as saying:

"He was a smart man with deep convictions, and he was surrounded by political opponents. I had a dream in which he was talking to me. I don't remember what he said, but it was my late father's head he was talking with. That's what really hooked me- he'd climbed deep into m psyche and hooked up with my father. This song cycle is about finding Meigs and what that led me to discover about myself and my country."
The concerts consisted of Vic on stage left, with an array of different sized puppets,
each of which representing a character from the cycle, rotating through the storyline center stage.There's was a three-quarter sized Vic marionette animated to relay his memories and thoughts (including both a rowboat and dreaming sequences), a life-sized, large headed Josiah Meigs cranking a wheel of a printing press, a miniature reenactment of the founding of UGA, and other assorted puppets.

The song cycle included all new compositions (save one- Flying, which was an old track about Vic's father.) The story starts with the discovery of a book, by Vic, at a used bookstore about the history of UGA. There he discovered the history of Meigs and understood the correlation between Josiah and his father. The storyline develops into the telling of his heritage and about how that knowledge changed his perspective on life.

The song that is included here is first song of the storyline. It tells of the discovery of the above mentioned book, and is a fun listen.

I know that Vic held this production as one of the high points in his performance career, and I'm glad that a document of the evenings exist. Vic's music has always been theatrical and imaginative. This production is proof of that.



Further reading:






INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORE

Once I found myself in Oxford, Mississippi
One sunny summer afternoon
I was hungry, hungry downtown on the square
But all the restaurants were closed

Well just when I felt on the verge of blasphemy
I realized it was a Sunday
And that is the one day
When around there all the restaurants would be closed
(Spoken: Baptists don't eat on Sunday, ya know?)
I was starting to swoon, yeah.
The sun was doing more than loom
When out the corner of my eye
Something sparkled.
It looked like and then proved to be a great little independent bookstore sign

Well, I guess for a heathen like me, that's a steeple beckoning
So I started in over towards it, but as soon as my hand hit the door
Every single author I had ever come across or, especially the four or five that I'd been dying to read...

They flew right out of mind
They flew right out of mind
Yes, They flew right out of mind
They flew right out of mind
They flew right out of mind

So, where oh where would I start to look,
in all those stacks of dusty books
For the one of many that I know was there
that even I could appreciate

I used my eagle eye
to spy the table 'Marked to Move.'Then I sorta sidled over
I stuck in my thumb and pulled out like a plum
a text with a title that took me aback.

It was entitled, "College Life in The Old South- as Seen at the University of Georgia."
Well, that's kind of like my Alma mater
Seeing as I've lived in that historic college town ever since I dropped or flunked out

And the book is only three dang dollars
The book is only three dang dollars
Yeah, the book is only three dang dollars
Yeah, the book is only three dang dollars
Yeah, the book is only three dang dollars...
and I'm a cheap fucker...
It's only three dang dollars

Yeah, the book is only three dang dollars
The book is only three dang dollars
Yeah, the book is only three dang dollars
The book is only three dang dollars

Yes, the book was only three dang dollars so I didn't have to shoplift it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

"It is What It Is"- At The Cut, 2009 Constellation

Throughout Vic's career, he often composed songs that where relative to his situation, or revolved around circumstances that where part of his life. These songs often felt inspired and deeply personal, even if they were non-specific or unclear. No song, however, felt as honest and as autobiographical to me as "It is What It Is."

Lyrically, it's so detailed and poetic, while at the same time, vague and ominous. There are references to his physical disability, his adoption, his career, his disposition, his beliefs, his heritage and his death. In his poetic verses, Vic created a beautiful 'self portrait.'

The song was first performed in Newcastle Upon Tyne, in England in May of 2005, and then dropped from set lists by the end of that year. It could have been forgotten... another lost Vic masterpiece. Thankfully, it was resurrected and formulated for release on At The Cut.

In an introduction to this song at the Tribeca in New York in 2005 (featured below), Vic said the following. "You know how in hip hop, these days, ...it's, um, a very popular form of music. I don’t know if you've ever heard it....but they, um, often like to brag about themselves. This song is not like that."

There are numerous references to “hideous” characters like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the ‘speckled monster’ Caliban (from Shakespeare's The Tempest), and the Phantom of The Opera. As unfortunate as it is, it appears that Vic did see himself as some sort of deformity, or creature.
His reference to Henry Darger suggests that Vic considered himself in the same light. Both were adopted, both were sarcastic and sharp witted, both were outsider artists, and both suffered from mental disorders (Darger from paranoid schitzophrenia and Vic, of course, from clinical depression.) He also highlights (lyrically) W.H. Auden, one of his favorite poets, and someone whom I believe he tried to emulate on several occasions.

All in all, this song feels like a reflection back on a life that was not as the writer had once envisioned. It’s sad and aware, while at the same time being nostalgic and confused. I do enjoy this song, but it’s also a very hard listen, knowing what happened in the ‘looming blackness.’
The fact that he uses the word obsolescence saddens me most. For Vic to think that he was was no longer viable hurts my spirit. There are so many people who would have disagreed with him, and I hope it was just a lyrical turn of phrase, and not a dogmatic principle in his life.

Vic was what he was…and what he was was great.
Further info:
Here's the album cut:

And a live version:

IT IS WHAT IT IS

I am a monster

Like Quasimodo

Or Caliban the natural man

Giving wild ripostes to my reflection

One ugly morning

In a rage

Father threw an apple

Into my carapace

And like the invisible man

Directing traffic

I’d be ineffective

No matter how enthusiastic

Amid the masses’ frenzy

Participation

In this massive

Separation

Appearance is everything

Nothing is how it seems

And civilized society

Is calm civility

I’m the phantom of the opera

Singing beauty and at ease

Or Henry Darger’s

Autobiography

And that is curt clues to my essence

Planned obsolescence

Appearance is everything

Nothing is how it seems

In a market economy

It’s called marketing

And not exactly clawing my way to glory

Nor whimpering in the wind

But once positively

I’m teetering on the brink

Of an all-out breakthrough

But sometimes clear headed

Sometimes a doofus

Sometimes very cordial

And sometimes aloof

I am syrupy optimistic one moment

Then gravely pessimistic the next

Irritable as a hornet sometimes

Then agreeable as it gets

I’m not a pagan

I don’t worship anything

Not gods that don’t exist

Nor the sun which is oblivious

I love my ancestors

But not ritually

I don’t blame them or praise them

For anything that they passed along to me

I don't need stone altars to help me hedge my bet

Against the looming blackness

It is what it is

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"Object With Two Heads" '(Live)- Amazing Little Parlor Games... A Collection of Live and Unreleased Songs- Volume Two, 2005

In 1994, Vic started playing a song entitled "Object With Two Heads." The song was a peculiar little ditty that featured strange lyrics about a two headed dragon, and was performed with his 'Skiffle Group' for a couple of years. The song, it turned out, featured lyrics by Ernest Noyes Brookings, with music arranged and written by Vic.

Ernest Noyes Brookings was a resident of the Duplex nursing home, in Boston. He rose to fame, when the facilities' activities director, David Greenberger, approached him to be involved in a homemade magazine entitled Duplex Planet, which revolved around day to day specifics of the residents of the complex. The zine became a cult classic and Ernest, specifically, became popular among the artistic, poetic types and soon became the subject of several compilation discs that featured his words put to music.

Vic once mentioned, in an interview, that he would like to record this song for one of those comps. I'm not certain if he ever did, but several live recordings exist. I like the song. It's fun, whimsical and, honestly, in stark contrast to Vic's other work from that period. Hopefully, if there is a studio cut, it will be let out of the vault.


Below: David Greenberger and Ernest Noyes Brookings


Further information can be found here:
Here's a live version from Ulm, Germany, 8/17/95

https://soundcloud.com/chazarrelli/alpg2-d1t6-object-with-two-heads

Lyrics below reproduced from Duplex Planet No.73

Sunday, January 31, 2010

"Hey Bulldog", Buddha in A Raincoat- Volume 3, 2005 Fan Project


Apart from the live Amazing Little Parlor Games sets that I compiled over the years, I also offered a series called Buddha in A Raincoat. The focus of that series was to make available studio tracks, covers and collaborations of Vic's songs that didn't appear on his official releases. Now in it's sixth volume, 114 tracks have been made available via this series.

Included here is one of those tracks. It's a cool cover that Vic made in his attic studio sometime in the mid-2000s. He put it up, on his old website, as a free download, along with a plethora of other various demos and outtakes. It's a real treat to listen to Vic cover a song by one of his favorite bands.

The Beatles version was recorded in 1968, and original appeared on the album Yellow Submarine. Their version, an accidental classic if you will, is a bit more lively, eccentric and 'fab' than Vic's. The original take (entitled You Can Talk To Me) just featured John Lennon on piano and isn't too dissimilar, however. John Lennon wrote the lyrics and the band fleshed the song out in the studio, in just one evening. Lyrically, its a tour de force of lunacy, yet still profound. I love the lyric, "Some kind of solitude is measured out in you" and the line seems somehow fitting in Vic's life.

Vic once referred to the Beatles as his only friends while growing up in Pike County, Georgia. It's not hard to understand that he would have been influenced by the songwriting of Lennon and McCartney. They wrote catchy songs, had amazing lyrics and the vocal structures are very detailed and unique. Hey Bulldog has been characterised as having "lyrical impressionism." In other words, the song focuses on atmosphere and suggestions, rather than focusing on story lines and emotion. Some of Vic's lyrics revolve around that same idea, especially on some more reason albums.

I love the tone and the atmosphere on Vic's cover. It's very simple, yet affective...and very haunting. I would have liked to hear him tackle some other Beatles classics in the studio as well, but I'm more than content with having just this one.


Here's Vic's version:

And the version by the Fab Four:



HEY BULLDOG

Sheep dog standing in the rain
Bull grog doing it again
Some kind of happiness is measured out in miles
What make you think you're something special when you smile
Childlike no on understand
Jack knife in your sweaty hands
Some kind of innocence is measured out in years
You don't know what it's like to listen to you fears
You can talk to me
You can talk to me
You can talk to me
If you're lonely, you can talk to me
Big man walking in the park
Wigwam frightened of the dark
Some kind of solitude is measured out in you
You think you know but you haven't got a clue
You can talk to me
You can talk to me
You can talk to me
If you're lonely, you can talk to me
Hey Bulldog

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Panic Pure", West of Rome, 1993 New West

Panic Pure is one of Vic's most widely regarded compositions, and rightfully so. It's beautiful, haunting, nostalgic, candid, and includes some of Vic's most direct lyrical output.

The song was written after Vic attended an Augusta workshop in Elkins, West Virginia. The workshop focused on folk arts and artists. He had been nominated, by some of his friends, to partake in the songwriting part of the workshop. One night after a session, Vic rolled down a large hill, got drunk, and then proceeded to crawl back up the hill to his van, which was parked on the street. The song apparently was formed during that "Sisyphus-ian" journey. Vic ended up sleeping in his wheelchair, in the van, on it's hydraulic lift, and when he awoke the next morning, he had this song.

I absolutely adore every aspect of this song...the atmosphere, the tone, the low drone of the cello, the lyrics and the vocals (which are superb.) Apparently, Vic recorded them in one take, surrounded by candlelight, after a long day in the studio. Jem Cohen (who was present filming the documentary "Speed Racer...Welcome to the World of Vic Chesnutt") described it as "hearing dusk itself turn into sound." I concur.

The first person narrative of the lyric focuses on Vic's personality..reckless, naive, reflective and scarred. However unapologetic the words may be, Vic's statement feels comfortable and familiar to me, and perhaps is why I am drawn to it.

During a recent NPR special, Terri Gross asked Michael Stipe, Jem Cohen and Guy Picciotto (from Fugazi) about what their favorite Vic songs were. Both Michael and Jem listed "Panic Pure." Here's a transcript:


GROSS: Today's show is a memorial for songwriter and singer Vic Chesnutt, who died on Christmas Day, taking his life with an overdose of his prescription muscle relaxers. My guests are three of his close friends: Michael Stipe of R.E.M., guitarist Guy Picciotto, cofounder of Fugazi, and filmmaker Jem Cohen. When we left off, I had asked them for their favorite Chesnutt songs. Jem Cohen's choice is one that Michael Stipe just mentioned, "Panic Pure."

Mr. COHEN: In "Panic Pure," I think in a way it's germane to this whole conversation because in that song, you know, you see this balance of light and darkness and also this kind of declaration of his own complexity. You know, he says, and so all you observers in your scrutiny, don't count my scars like tree rings. My jigsaw disposition, its piecemeal properties are either smoked or honey-cured by the panic pure.

Mr. STIPE: Aye aye aye.

Mr. COHEN: It's hard...

Mr. STIPE: It's amazing.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. It's hard to get through it because it's so heavy, but it's also, it's just such beautiful weird words, you know. And again, I think that he was always coming around to saying yeah, there's this panic pure in me but that's not the only force. There's also all of this other curiosity, and all of this other drive, and all of this other intelligence. And I just can't believe that he pushed as far as he did, you know, and kept delivering, you know?

Another reason for my fascination with this song comes from one of my proudest moments. After graduating from college (where I received a BFA in printmaking), I spend a long time not being creative. For whatever reason, my thought process had been stifled, and my output was zero. Around 1996, I had been listening to and absorbing West of Rome on a daily basis. It struck a chord with me, during that period, and specifically "Panic Pure" had such resonance.


One evening, while listening to the album on repeat, I felt inspired to create my first 'real' painting, as an artist.... not a student. It was entitled 'Panic Pure' and was directly influenced by that song. Several years later, I had the desire to give that painting to Vic, as a thank you for inspiring me. He graciously accepted it and hung it over his fireplace, where it still hangs. I've always been proud of the fact that he was enjoyed it enough to displayed it in such a place of honor. The painting is below.

This song will forever epitomize Vic's personality, his talent and his musical ability, for me. Even after the countless number of times I listen to it, something fresh and new always reveals itself to me. That is what makes a good song.



"Panic Pure", 32"x48", Mixed Media on Canvas, 1996



And on display in Vic's home.





Here's the studio cut:



A live version by Kristin Hersh (w/ Vic):


And a solo live version by Vic:






Panic Pure



my earliest memory is of holding up a sparkler

high up to the darkest sky

some 4th of July spectacular

I shook it with an urgency

I'll never be able to repeat


at times i might be accused of being

painfully nostalgic

but as of late i'm looking forward to the future

thought i've never been much of a planner

throwing caution into the fan

catch as catch as catchers can


and so all you observers in your scrutiny

don't count my scars like tree rings

my jigsaw disposition, it's piecemeal properties

are either smoked or honey cured

by the panic pure

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Vibratile Nerves"- Distortion Pedals (Unreleased), 2006 New West


In 2006, Vic was working on a new album for New West. The album had the tentative title "Vibratile Nerves" and was an interesting album chocked full of keyboard samples, orchestral arrangements, 'Garage Band' compositions, and crazy titles like "Horny as Hell", "Uh!", and "This Is How We Dance, Ya'll." It would have been a cutting edge release in Vic's catalog. Unfortunately, Vic was dropped by New West, and the album became shelved. Fortunately, I was sent a copy of the album before it's shelving.

I listen to this album often. Apart from the experimental, home recordings there are a few gorgeous instrumentals, that would be best suited as soundtrack material, rather than filler. I wish that Vic would have had the chance to do something with this album. He had mentioned to me once about making a vinyl only release of some of the tracks. That would have been nice. Hopefully, it will see the light of day, sometime in the future.

"Vibratile Nerves" is a good example of the tone of the album. It's experimental, melodic, and includes some pre-Darkside Floyd keyboards. The voice is altered, distorted and creative. Lyrically, it's very enigmatic and the overall feel is spacey and airy. A far cry from the original acoustic versions that Vic performed live in 2005.

The song did get an 'official' release as a download on the website 'emusic', as well as on a SXSW Music promotional sampler that New West released in 2006. Both of these releases confirmed that the proposed album would in fact be titled "Distortion Pedals." One can only surmise that an official release would have been evident if Vic hadn't been dropped.






Here's the album version:





And the live version:




VIBRATILE NERVES


I was hiding in the guilded crendenza
While the evil influenzia wiped my people out

Not to emerge until Europe was on the verge of
Positively purging its memory of the Kaiser

Tulips pushing through black moist earth
Students riding bicycles...their faces marked by verve

Cows stepping through shadows of durigables
I had learned to steady my vibratile nerves

The years roll like a velvet millstone
That grinds us... but is still somehow sexy

And I have watched them through the careless keyholes
And their chockablock larders

Glutony loves company

Friday, January 22, 2010

"My Last Act"- Left to His Own Devices, 2001 Spin Art



After a recent discussion with Sam Mixon, 'My Last Act' has been in my head non-stop, so I felt it necessary to return to the album Left To His Own Devices.

'My Last Act' is a morbid little tale of sadness and suicide...common themes in Vic's music, unfortunately. The story is universal...a man loses his lover to another man. Unable to deal with the loss, the man concocts a plan to end his own life. This is where the story deviates from the universal to the deranged.

The man's plan is to methodically, one by one, instrument his own demise, by herding up a nest grandaddy long legs, plucking the legs off of them, blending them with some liquor and drinking the concoction. Its part Grimm's Fairytale, part Suicide Handbook...and 100% Vic. Regardless if that could kill you or not, the results sound gruesome, and the desperation is very evident.

During the conversation that I had with Sam, he enlightened me about some of the songs performances. Apparently, Vic loved performing the song first in the set. He did this for several reasons. One being because other people hated the idea. He liked the fact that he could 'bug' them by doing so....sounds like something Vic would do. Another reason was that it was a good vehicle for Vic to get his 'stage legs.' Vic was nervous at the beginning of shows, and that song allowed him to ease into a set, and also gave the sound guy a chance to adjust levels, etc. while the band jammed on what Sam called 'one chord."

The album version is just Vic, of course, and has a creative and spacey feel to it. I love his vocal overdubs, and the crazy instrumentation that he was able to achieve. Live, the song did become sort of a 'jam band' type song, and was/is often played by Vic's buddies and sometimes band mates Widespread Panic.
The song can get stretched out and feel very intense. Rightfully so. It's melodic, and gruesome all in one. Intensity naturally will follow that combination.


Here's the studio version:




And here's a live version from 2002 :



MY LAST ACT



Fill the basin with my hands

Your strong shoulders in my head

Soft soap splashing on the rim

I keep wishing I was him



Cobweb fluttering twelve feet up

Above the basin where I violently scrub

Can't scrape away with soap and fingernails

Dirty imagined intimate details



I go to the garage where on the wall

A thousand granddaddy long legs crawl

A crazy notion cracks through my mind

An electrical shudder shoots up and down my spine



I run to the kitchen, grab a pot and lid

Then I rushed to the garage before I knew what I did

I was raking the gentle spiders into that pot

Then I was sitting at the kitchen table

Feeling so cold and so hot



In a moment I move to get a cereal bowl

Then I'm back at the table and before I know

What exactly I had done, I pulled the legs off of every one

The little round bodies in front of me

It looked like a bowl of black-eyed peas

Well, I take them over to the counter

Poured it into the Cuisinart

I reached in the cupboard and I grabbed a fifth
Of Tequila and I pour that in

Push the button and it starts to chop

My heart can hardly contain my thumping heart



My last act on this earth

Will be to chug-a-lug a mixture and hope for the worst

My last act on this earth

Will be to chug-a-lug a mixture and hope for the worst



My last act on this earth

Will be to chug-a-lug a mixture and hope for the worst

My last act on this earth

Will be to chug-a-lug a mixture and hope for the worst

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Over"- North Star Deserter, 2007 Constellation

I remember when I found that Vic and Tina were separating. It was in October 2005, at a show in Asheville, NC. I was catching up with Vic, and I noticed that Tina wasn't around. I found that unusual, so I ask how she was. In an uncharacteristically sad voice, Vic answered "She's divorcing my ass." And that was it. He proceeded to ask how I was, and whether he was feigning interest or not, he seem more comfortable talking about me at that point, so I dropped it. I felt saddened and awkward all evening. Even though his performance was still excellent, I knew that things would be different, for Vic, from that point.

Tina had been a staple in his life for many years. She was his wife, his manager, his caregiver, his partner in crime, his confidant, his sometimes bass player, his sometime drummer, his lover, and I would imagine a lot of times, his voice of reason. In a 1995 interview, by Emmanuel Tellier, for a French article, Vic was quoted as saying this-


"As long as my wife is there looking over me and removes all pointy objects from the room, I can write the most beautiful songs under the influence of alcohol. A bottle, pen, and pad is all I need......I love the idea of over-indulgence. It's in my nature. For example, I'm intrigued by Kurt Cobain's destiny, one of my good friends. Fascinated and terrified at the same time. Kurt and River Phoenix, whom I knew thru Michael Stipe, kinda freak me out because they went all the way. At the time, when they were shooting up, I was doing the same. And because of this, death now frightens me because contrary to Kurt, I've done nothing with my life. I've no desire to leave behind three second-rate records as my only achievements. There's still lots for me to do until I can consider death. In the meantime, what's keeping me on the ground, are dreams.......such as displaying my art in a gallery, to do better musically, and a tremendous responsibility towards my wife. She's saved my life over 100 times in the past 5 years just being there, close to me, by my side."


Tina's role in Vic's life cannot be underestimated. She was as important to his music as his wheelchair was, or even his upbringing, or his personality. If it wasn't for Tina, Vic wouldn't have been where he needed to be, in my opinion.


I expected that his next album would be sort of his "Blood On The Tracks," if you will. His divorce album. That wasn't exactly the case. However, some very pertinent, heartbreaking songs did come out of the experience, and "Over" is one of them.


It's a sad tale of loss and despair, and a chilling peak into the psyche of a man whose dealing with loss. Not just loss of something, but loss of everything. The remaining pieces are 'dust.' The most chilling thing to me is Vic's adoration for death is very present here. His says he 'loves the dust.' He embraces it. It's such a sad and beautiful song, and having the knowledge of the unfortunate events in Vic's life, makes this song even more chilling.


I did get to speak with Vic about it much later, and even though he had dealt with it, musically or otherwise, there was still that look in his eye that let me know that he would forever be changed by the situation.... and ultimately, so were we.

Here's the studio version:

And a live version:




OVER


it ain't over til it's over
just like some joker said
when it's over it is done
and when it's done it's as good as dead


when it's good it sure is good
yes and when it's good it's great
when it's great it's oh so wonderful
but when it ain't it ain't


it sucks when it's over and you can't get it back
why do we all want to like a pack of necrophiliacs

when the fat lady sings
it's all been sung
collect up your belongings
and clear the auditorium


it was fun while it lasted yes it was
it was fun while it lasted
now it's all turned to dust


it was fun while it lasted i must say
it was fun while it lasted
now it's all blown away


everything blows away someday
everything turns to dust
big ol' mountains do
as well as everyone of us
and i love the dust

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Onion Soup"- Is The Actor Happy?, 1995 New West

Is The Actor Happy? is Vic's fourth album. It was originally released on Texas Hotel, and by Vic's own description was a "fake concept album." The goal was to amass an album of songs that could be played live...with large guitar solos and whatnot. Is the Actor Happy? is just that album.
'Onion Soup' is lyrically, as Pitchfork once referred to it, "a travelogue-via-epistolary song that crafts perfectly understated tragedy from an unsent letter: 'I wrote you an eloquent postcard once/ About this most exquisite onion soup/ But of course I never mailed it, though/ 'Cause it was your turn in the loop.'"
The wording is so unforced, and the references to varied situations or random observances are again very classic Vic. It just feels natural, at least to me.

I completely love Vic singing style on this song. I love the way he wraps his mouth around words like "cosmopolitan', 'participle' and 'maudlin' and how 'visible' his elongated Southern drawl is. 'Onion Soup' is the quintessential Vic song, lyrically, as well as vocally. This song was a live staple for many, many years. From 1992 to at least 2004.
The studio version below feature the Scared Skiffle Group...which was a group that consisted of Tina Chesnutt on bass, Alex McManus on guitars, and Jimmy Davidson played the drum. The video was shot at Vic's house in Athens, by Peter Sillen, and was included as an add-on to the documentary 'Speed Racer'. It's a long time favorite of mine.
Also, I've included a live version from 1993, with the same band. It gives a good example of the "guitar solo" type song that Vic compiled to tour with.



Live from 1993

EDIT: Here's the Gotenburg version from 1997 that my friend Kathi referenced.

Thanks Kathi!




Onion Soup

Thin and unshaved
Drunk and mysterious
Oh, I must say
Lifestyle is curious

With a little touch of the sniffles
And filthy socks
Gnawed, crumbled fingernails
Never doing tomahawk chops

Flaky head
Dandruff is distinguished
Lacquer is red
Vain is the varnish

"What is at the root of this?"
She'll say "whatcha got?"
"What participle do you possess?"
She'll say "which I have not!"

One blustery day
We rode out to the meadow lands
We saw and were amazed
Then hauled it back into town again

Mississippi is a mess sometimes
And not only when it rains
How come you went back to that malaria island?
'Cause our friendship is strained

Those were the days
When you were so cosmopolitan
These are the days
My letters they're so increasingly maudlin

I wrote you an eloquent postcard once
About this most exquisite onion soup
But, of course I never mailed it though
Cause it was your turn in the loop

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Square Room"- The Salesman and Bernadette, 1998 Capricorn

'The Salesman and Bernadette' is my all time favorite Vic album. In fact, I find it nearly perfect. The songwriting is exquisite, the story is fluid and the music, which is supplied by Nashville's avant garde country band Lambchop, has such a layering and texture to it, that the resulting compositions are a perfect compliment to Vic's "lovely story of loss and longing and sloppy satori."

The stories on this album are varied. They were all written during different times in Vic's career. In fact, the song 'Bernadette and her Crowd' dates back to Vic's first recording session back in 1988. 'Old Hotel' is also an older song. Despite that fact, the assemblage of these songs together, to create a motif, works very well, and the resulting album is a masterpiece.

Of all the great songs on this album, 'Square Room' is my favorite. It is, by no means, a happy song, but it has such a strong emotion to it, that the listener can't help but be drawn in. The earliest performances that I have date back to 1996, two years before the album's release. That version, which I've included below, is a little more up tempo and doesn't contain the turn around segment at the end, in which Vic (or in this case 'The Salesman') is questioning the doings of his life.

Lyrically, it revolves around the solitude, alienation and loneliness that encompasses the life of an alcoholic. The protagonist in the song is alone. His separation appears to be not of his own making, and he is depressed, reflective, and pines for his rustic home. His only desire is to drink himself to death, or at least to ponder that idea. It's a very sad tale of despair, dependency and isolation.

I can't help but listen to it and think of it as Vic's tale. He travelled a lot, battled his own alcoholic demons, and being from rural Georgia, it's very likely that he pined for the country side on more than one occasion. Add to that his own personal struggle with success, and talent, he may have just viewed himself as a pathetic drunkard, whose only comfort in life would be to leave it.

Whether this song is just a character study or not, the circumstances that surrounded Vic's life, make it a poignant, albeit difficult song to wrap one's mind around. I choose to embrace it because to me, it feels like a Vic song. Its emotional, well crafted and highlights Vic's uncanny ability at word play.

Further info:

Here's the Studio cut with Lambchop:




Here's the short live version from 1996:



And an a very moving live version from 2003:



EDIT: Here's the version (with Old Hotel) from Rote Fabrick, with Lambchop, that Ivan referenced:


SQUARE ROOM


sitting in a square room
my voice is freezing
and the beams that are bouncing off the moon
are hanging from my window like icicles

just a tired old alcoholic,
waxing bucolic
shivering and homesick
staring at a wooden floor

last night I nearly killed myself
chasing rum with rum
there were crows flying all around my head
and I sure caught and ate me some

it's funny how I alienated
those who I was trying just so
so hard to impress
now half those fuckers hate me
and I'm just a fool to all the rest

why do I insist on drinking myself to the grave?
why do I dream about cozy coffin?
I had all these plans of great things to accomplish
but I end up purely pathetic more than often