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:


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:


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 :


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:


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:


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

Friday, January 8, 2010

"Sqeak"- Left To His Own Devices, 2001 Spin Art

In 2001, Vic released a 'solo' record, if you will, of 4-track demos, pro-tooled arrangements and other various sundries. It was in stark contrast to his two previous albums, 'The Salesman and Bernadette' and "Merriment' which both featured big production and very polished sounds."Left to His Own Devices" is one of my favorite albums. It feels very personal and has this beautiful raw quality to it. The songs are a varied collection of old and new material- ranging from quirky (Deadline, Caper, and this one) to morbid (My Last Act) to social commentary (Distortion) to nostalgic (Hermitage, Look At Me.)

Squeak is an old song. The only live recording that I have dates back to 1992. The album arrangement sounds like it could be a demo from that period, as well. It's a simple acoustic song, probably recorded on a four-track, with slight overdubs, including some whistling, and guitar noodling.

Lyrically, it's a funny little song that's very observant and reflective. One can only speculate to the references in this song, but I believe it focuses not only on the 'on stage' side of playing, but the 'off stage' side too. The verses seem to refer to the downtime experienced when not on stage- the 'sitting around, watching TV, observing people' time. Vic was amazingly adept at highlighting situations like those, and he could turn a phrase with such ease. By focusing on little details, or drawing the essence from a situation, he was able to make his lyrics come alive.

The chorus is an obvious reference to Vic's uncomfortable stage presence. Anybody who ever saw him perform knows that he was self deprecating and nervous, no matter the setting. That was part of his charm. He wasn't unable to command the stage, or control a room, though. He may not have seen his appeal, but no matter how "bleak" his situation, or "squeaky" his performance...Vic was a one of a kind showman, and always worth the effort. That is what I miss.

Here's the studio version:

And the live 1992 version:


the wall came down,
yes I saw a kid chiseling.
the reporter is a new age junkie,
keeps his needles in a pyramid

camera on his shoulder
and chips on the pavement
a hundred german dollars,
well don't that just about pay my rent

yes I am weak,
outlook is bleak
yes I'm on stage
commencing to squeak
yes I'm on stage
commencing to squeak.

well the picture is flickering
a surge of some kind
if you shake that thing more than 3 times
you're liable to go blind
pretty shoes and a sparkly hat
eyeballing crass commercialism,
well I couldn't live like that

I am weak,
outlook is bleak
yes I'm on stage
commencing to squeak
yes I'm on stage
commencing to squeak.

the picture is flickering,
a surge of some kind
if you shake that thing more than 3 times
you're likely to go blind!
allies, enemies, summits to climb!
warsaw pacts,
remaking maps,
yes it's all pink on the inside!

yes I am weak,
outlook is bleak
yes I'm on stage
commencing to squeak
yes I'm on stage
commencing to squeak

Thursday, January 7, 2010

"Flirted With You All Of My Life"- At The Cut, 2009 Constellation

In the catalog of Vic's compositions, this song will undoubtedly be remembered as his final reflection on death. The subject matter of suicide is something that Vic has dealt with many times in his songwriting (Florida, Bakersfield, etc) but this song in particular is a direct reference to his personal struggle with it.

Just before his death, Vic was interviewed for NPR's 'Fresh Air' program, by Terry Gross. In that interview, he addresses this song...and suicide in general...

GROSS: Vic, let's talk about the lyric. The song is about flirting with suicide, but from what I've read, you've done more than flirt with it. It's something you've tried.

Mr. CHESNUTT: Right. Well, this song is a love song. It's a suicide's breakup song with death. You know, I've attempted suicide three or four times. It didn't take. And this is really a breakup song with death. You know, it's talking about flirting with, you know, flirting - I had flirted with death my whole life, you know. Even as a young kid, I was sick and almost died a few times. And then suicide attempts - it's a kind of - you know, it's a breakup song.

GROSS: Did you try to kill yourself even before the accident?

Mr. CHESNUTT: I did, yeah.

GROSS: And after the accident?

Mr. CHESNUTT: I did, yeah.

GROSS: And each time when you came through, when as you put it, death didn't take, were you relieved or sorry?

Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, you know, it's more complex. You can't... I couldn't say either. I mean, you know, sometimes I'd be angry.

GROSS: Angry that...

Mr. CHESNUTT: Angry that they revived me, you know? I'd be like, how dare you? You know, how dare you people interfere in my, you know, what is obviously my life, my wish? But you know, of course, as the hours and days wear on, you realize well, there is joy to be had. I mean, this is how I - I'm sure everybody's different, you know, just how I, how it struck me. You know, when the days would wear on, you know, I would start to, you know, see some joy again in the world and be like whew, I eked - I squeaked that one out.

GROSS: This is such an emotionally heavy album. Is it hard to write a song like this, about flirting with suicide, or is it therapeutic to write it, or you know...?

Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, it occurred to me that I would like to sing this song where at the first half of it, you think I'm singing it about a lover, and then it becomes obvious that I'm singing about death. Death is my lover. And it took a bit of time to get it to fit just right and to work. And when we were actually cutting the track, it was hard to make it through without kind of breaking down emotionally and just crying. You know, it's a heavy song, no doubt about it.

GROSS: Now, one of the heavy lines in it is about your mother. You write, when my mom was cancer sick, she fought but then succumbed to it, but you made her beg for it. Lord Jesus please, I'm ready. How old were you when she died?

Mr. CHESNUTT: I was in my mid-20s. And that's the thing about a suicidal person, I think, is that, you know, I mean, right after my mom died was, like, one of my last suicide attempts. It really destroyed me. My dad had died a year before, and that was the end of my whole close family, who had all died off within two or three years of each other: my grandpa, my grandma, my other grandma, my mom and my dad. They all died off in a couple of years. And so I felt lost, and I was depressed. But also you see - a suicidal person, when you see somebody else die of natural causes or whatever, for me it's also a kind of wakeup call.

GROSS: Tell me more about what, the effect that had?

Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, like when my friends have died or something like that, it made me feel silly. My sorrow seemed silly and that I'm not ready to go. As I said in the song, the sweet relief, I'm not - I don't deserve the sweet relief of death yet, because I haven't accomplished my tasks yet.

GROSS: Um...

Mr. CHESNUTT: But I do want to say one thing, though, about this song.

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. CHESNUTT: This song is a joyous song, though. I mean, it's a heavy song, but it is a joyous song. This is a breakup song with death, you know what I mean?

GROSS: Right, because you're saying clearly, I wasn't ready.

Mr. CHESNUTT: I'm not ready to kill myself, you know. It's a joyous song, so -and it has these very heavy aspects, you know, but it's a joyous song.

I don't feel it's my place to add to Vic's comments, so I won't.

Musically, the song has changed since it's initial performance. It was just a simple acoustic song, with such power and weight to it. It felt more heartbreaking than joyous. In the studio, the artists which played on the album, including Guy Picciotto and members of Thee Silver Mt. Zion turned the arrangement into a light, flow-y song that truly belies the lyrical depth and focus.

I will always be partial to Vic's original version. Just him, his guitar, and that special intimacy of his relationship with life, albeit broken and strained. I'm sorry that he decided that he was ready after all.

Here is the original version. (This version just cuts me deep..)
(Thanks to Kathi for recording and sharing it.)

And here's the studio cut.

Also, here's the full interview with Terry Gross from NPR's Fresh Air's December 1st, 2009 broadcast.


i am a man

i am self aware

and everywhere I go

you're always right there with me

i flirted with you all of my life

even kissed you once or twice

and to this day I swear it was nice

but clearly i was not ready

when you touched a friend of mine

i thought i would lose my mind

but i found out with time

that really, i was not ready

o' death...i'm not ready

o' death you hector me

and decimate those dear to me

and tease me with your sweet relief

you are cruel and you are constant

when my mom was cancer sick

she fought but succumbed to it

but you made her beg for it

"lord jesus, please i'm ready"

o' death....clearly i am not ready

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"In My Way, Yes"- Silver Lake, 2003 New West

The last song on Vic's 2003 release 'Silver Lake' is a lovely, poetic reflection on life, and an uncharacteristically direct admission of worthiness to those things that make it worthwhile.
The album, which garnered critical acclaim when it was released, is one of Vic's slickest productions, and was recorded, essentially live, over a two week period, at the historic Paramour Mansion in Silver Lake, California.

Oxford American magazine once said that "Where Bruce Springsteen was born to run, Vic Chesnutt was born to curl up in a ball and cry." On previous releases, that may hold true. However, Silver Lake is a far cry from that declaration. In fact, the songs on Silver Lake are less dirges and more anthems. The song is an open conversation between Vic and what he playfully referred to as his 'Greek Chorus.'

"(In My Way, Yes) is a love song," Vic uttered in an introduction of
this song in Knoxville, TN, in 2003.

The crowd "Awwwwed."

"Well," Vic continued. "At least there's some fuckin' in it!"

Again, the crowd reacted. This time with 'whoops' and laughter.

"There's also some songwriting going on in there, so don't confuse the two, or else, you make me sound like a pervert, or you might think I'm a pervert."

"Never!" retorted a female spectator.

"We love you Vic!" and "We love perverts!" shouts also fill the air.

Despite Vic's tossed off intro, he was correct. There is indeed some songwriting happening in this song. The first stanzas in this song relate to the the creative process, and the technique and dedication needed to produce something artistic or worthwhile. When the chorus asks Vic if he thinks it makes a difference to the outcome, his response is "Yes."

Secondly, Vic focuses on relationships, and the intimacy involved. Poetically, he addresses the physicality of the act of love. When asked if he feels silly (or embarrassed) of course he says "No."

The last stanza of this song focuses on finding happiness in the smallest things. Again, a question is posed, as to whether he deserves happiness. Without question, Vic answers correctly.

I find this song to be an emotional upswing for Vic. He finally has come to the realization that he deserves the happiness, success and love that he has been blessed with. Honestly, during that time, Vic was the most pleasant, and charming that I think I've ever seen him. Things seemed to be good in his life, and this song is a direct acclamation of that fact.

It's unfathomably sad the way things ended up with Vic, but I take comfort in the knowledge that he, for a brief moment, at least, was able to find solace and be happy in the fact that he was, and is, deserving of such things.

I've attached two songs below. The first is the studio cut for the album. It's beautiful, and uplifting. The second is a demo version, with a sparse arrangement and an unfinished feel. The demo comes from a book of poetry entitled "Isn't It Romantic- 100 Love Poems By Younger American Poets." The book came with a bonus CD which included the track, as well as songs by Doug Martsh, Chuck Prophet, The Silver Jews and Magnolia Electric Co.

Here's the studio cut.

And the demo.


Do you think it makes a difference?
I say yes

Taking my time
Working on lines
Fingers in clay

Head in the clouds
Moving my mouth
Spreading the grout
That's holding it down

Do you think it makes a difference?
I say yes
In my life yes

Cuddling up
Declarations of love
Squeeze and a hug
A kiss and a rub

Faces opposed
Eyelids closed
Nuzzling nose
Like eskimos

Don't'cha' feel silly?
I say no
With my love no

I never ever thought
I'd ever have a life like this
I never dreamed
I'd be alive
I never considered
Such as these surroundings
Effectually pulling it off

Watching the cops go by
Seeing a falcon fly
Reading a history book
Wetting a tiny hook

Driving fast all night
Bursting into song at first light
Sharing breakfast from one plate
Holding hands over loved ones graves

Do you think you deserve it
I Say Yes
In my way Yes

Monday, January 4, 2010

"One of Many", Drunk 1993 New West

This first of many covers that I will include in this blog, 'One Of Many' is a lovely take on a writing by English poet Miss Stevie Smith. This is one of two poems that Vic attempted by Stevie, the other being 'Not Waving But Drowning' (which can be found on Little.) Both poems can be found in print on the 1962 New Directions Paperback Selected Poems, and in the case of "One of Many', on a record entitled The Poet Speaks.

Florence Margaret "Stevie" Smith was a British born poet whom, not unlike Vic, would set words to introspective topics such as death, loss , love and religion. She also could be both intimately funny and serious all at once in her poems. She also was very clever and inventive. It's easy to see the attraction that Vic had in her.

Vic often credited his mature, ruminative writing style to a (famously shoplifted) edition of "The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry." His discovery of Stevie probably also came from that misdemeanor.

The poem (as well as her 'performance') both have a sense of mortality and remorse to them. The story is a telling of an incident in which a boy is told that he's nothing special, lumped into a category, and made to feel anything but unique. That 'knowledge' worked his mind "into such a pitch", enraging him to finally murder his friends. It's a poetically social satire, and quite understandable that Vic would choose to cover it.

The album Drunk was released in 1993, originally on the now defunct Texas Hotel records. It was, at the time, Vic's dark record, and reeks of boozy arrangements and self serving lyrics. It was an appropriately titled album. Several standout track emerged from all the cacophony, however, including Supernatural, Kick My Ass, and this one.

I'm partial to this track and especially the fact that Vic left Stevie's introduction intact. The result is a moody and somber cut among several upbeat, raucous tracks. It sticks out like a sore thumb...which is a good thing.

Further reading:

Here's the version by Stevie from The Poet Speaks:

And here is Vic's version:

you're only one of many

of small account if any

you think about yourself too much

this touch the child with the quick touch

and worked his mind to such a pitch,

he threw his fellows in a ditch

this little child who was so mild is grown too wild

"murder in the first degree," cried old fury

recording the verdict of the jury

now we come to the execution tree

the gallows stand wide on me

"Christ died for sinners," explained the prison chaplain

from his miscellany

weeping bitterly,

the little child cried," I die one of many"

Saturday, January 2, 2010

"Unlike Joni Mitchell" (Live)- Amazing Little Parlor Games... A Collection of Live and Unreleased Songs- Volume Two, 2005

Several years ago, I started a project to compile and collate songs that Vic had performed live, but never recorded or released. That collection is called "Amazing Little Parlor Games" and, as of this blog, is in it's seventh volume...with an eighth soon to be released. So far, a total of 110 songs have been put out for mass consumption due to this project. Vic himself was very pleased with the idea, and often asked for copies.
Some of these songs actually ended up being recorded for subsequent studio releases. In fact, whenever Vic would release a new album, it inevitably would have a song that was on a previous volume of "Parlor Games." All total, around twenty songs from those compilations made their way onto an album. Coincidence, or not...I was always thrilled when that happened. Vic did used to joke that often got song titles wrong (and I did), and this song was no exception.
I initially had titled it 'Party Potential' when it was put on Volume Two. I've since been told that it is called 'Unlike Joni Mitchell'. It was recorded in Madison, WI, in April of 1999, on a tour that had Vic opening solo for the band Wilco.
I like this recording for two reasons. First, it captures Vic stage presence in a very accurate way. He was always tried to be humorous, and self deprecating, regardless of the crowd or the venue. His charm and wit are very evident here. Secondly, the song, is an unapologetic, open letter, if you will, and Vic's word choices are very forward and telling, and the phrasing is very much his.
Take for example the line, "But you never knew the sciences, and you hardly ever touched the tools...except for those funny weapons used defending your honor in roommate duels."
I also love how the antagonist is basically called out for her behavior, and're out..."you've reached your party potential....unlike Joni Mitchell."
Vic doesn't do that sparingly or with kid gloves. He is very direct and to the point. However venomous and tactless, Vic has succeeded in writing a song that expresses, what would be predictably, an uncomfortable conversation with an elegant beauty...and a sour tongue.
Cover art created for this project by Franck PĂ©rigny. Examples which can be viewed here:
On a side note, and for the sake of accuracy, this song did get an official release, sort of. A live version did appear on a compilation entitled 'Live at the Lobby: A Collection Of Bands Playing Live at 90.5 FM WUOG, Athens, Ga' That version was recorded
in September of 1998. It was such a rarity, and wasn't an official Vic release that I still consider it largely unreleased.

Unlike Joni Mitchell

well I know today looks gloomy
against the acid fired haze of last night
and the power that you felt yesterday
today sure is out of sight
but its so hard to go back
to your daddy's little row of corn
and you want to invent something
to prevent you from being born

but you never knew the sciences
and you hardly ever touched the tools
except for those funny weapons used
defending your honor in roommate duels

you've reached your party potential
unlike Joni Mitchell
you know you can't hang
better put your boots to the clay
better put your boots to the clay

for one season, it was raining boys
and you quickly blew through some
as you searched for your Svengali
I guess you never ever tasted of one

and you proudly liked to admit
the depths for which you knelt
and you loudly like to account
the great sadness that you felt

but we're all bored with your stories
and we're sick of picking up
the rosy path is laid
surely your silent fathers foot will drop

you've reached your party potential
unlike Joni Mitchell
you know you can't hang
better put your boots to the clay
better put your boots to the clay

"Soggy Tongues"- West Of Rome, 1992 New West

One of my all time favorite Vic memories revolves around a show in Knoxville, TN in October 2004. I had arrived to the venue early, and Vic and Tina (his wife) invited me to hang out with them before the show. The three of us sat around for a couple of hours, caught up on life and just chilled. During that time, Vic decided that they needed to prepare the set list for that night's show. Tina was playing bass with Vic for that show, and they had a handful of lyric sheets with them...each of them in Vic's scrawled handwriting, with chord references and music addendum scribbled among the pages. I was awestruck. Here were the actual lyric sheets for a ton of my favorite songs the original handwriting, in the possession of the man who wrote them . Amazes me still.

Anyway, so while they were contemplating over the nights play lists, Vic would ask my opinion from time to time. Of course, I was biased and sad that I loved them all. One song in particular though I had direct influence on. Tina had pulled out the lyrics to "Soggy Tongues', and Vic said that he didn't know if they could play it. He said it had been too long, and indeed he may had been right. The last documented performance was from around 1992. Anyway, I interjected that I really would like to hear that song and since up to that point, the set list seemed to revolve around songs from Vic's first four albums (which were just reissued on New West), that it fit perfectly into theme of the evening. They mulled it over for a second, and then agreed. Vic was always like that, at least to me. He was inviting and generous and I will cherish those memories and experiences.

The performance of 'Soggy Tongues' from that night was far from perfect (and I've included it below for your enjoyment). It was, however, such a treat to hear... not only because of the song's rarity, but also because of Vic's banter onstage as the song's quick collapse, after just a few measures. His prophetic divorce joke notwithstanding, the recording perfectly displays Vic's sense of humor, stage presence, and ability to reel in the crowd, even during an awkward performance like this.

The original studio version was released on 'West Of Rome', or as Vic called it, his "second squirt"...or his "sophomore slough." That album is widely hailed as one of Vic's best, if not THE best. The song is his retelling on the events immediately surrounding his marriage to Tina... a ceremony which, incidentally took place at the counter in 'Rip Griffin's World's Largest Truck stop', just outside of Dallas, TX.

From the documentary 'Speed Racer- Welcome To The World Of Vic Chesnutt', by Peter Sillen...

"Tina and I got married, and we came back to Athens after I lived in California for a while. And, oh the stories where a flyin' about, you know, what the deal was. Everybody was like, um, all mad that we got married or something? I don't know what the deal was? But there was like the sordid little theory mill, and little rumors were going crazy about what the, you know, because the various involvements or something, ya know? Athens is a small town, you know, everybody is involved with everybody. So, anyway, I wrote 'Soggy Tongues' in about five minutes,and it's um, the perfect summation of us gettin' married."

Musically, the song has an 'airy' production, quality vocals, and benefits greatly from some staccato strings (aptly performed by Vic's young nieces- Liz and Mandi Durrett.) Arranged (or heard) and produced by Michael Stipe, 'Soggy Tongues' is very melodic and Vic's inflections, with his unique drawl and elongation of phrases, is at a pinnacle here. All in all, not too bad for a song which was defiantly written in about five minutes.

Here's the live version that I referenced. (Warning: Explicit content)

And the studio...

Soggy Tongues
narrowed eyes and soggy tongues
beautiful rumors are flying about the ugly ones
the girl she is by the pool
yellow journalists' jewel
and all those wagging fingers are silly little stingers
rabbits are cooking breakfast
the fog is fragrant
the girl she is waking up against the famous vagrant
the cool council is tallying fines to be levied
the girl she is tightly grinning
the vagrant thinks it's all too heavy
presents are presented and bribes reluctantly taken
summer's sweetie iced a cohort while the rest of the town was baking
traffic is light and appetites are hearty and tongues are soggy
accusations are tossed like darts
at the good little girl who is groggy