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


  1. I remember when I first heard the song at a concert in Vienna in 2008. I assume my recording of that night is what you put up here as "original version". It was an odd show, only started shortly before midnight in front of a very chatty crowd that mostly came because it was for free. By the time of the encore, when he played it, most had left. I didn't particularly like the song (and also never got to like it afterwards) but I was glad that Vic was feeling that way about his life. I guess I never saw it as a very dark song. That all seems so long ago now... I don't think I will ever be able to listen to this particular one again…

  2. It's hard to listen to, but thanks for posting it.

  3. It's a gimicky song. It's a joke. There's the set-up, which uses misdirection, leading to the unexpected punchline. Ha-ha, but once you've heard a joke once, there's rarely any need or desire to listen to it again.

    And yet, Chesnutt makes it work, because that's what geniuses do- they can invest even the tiredest cliches with new life and deliver them afresh with unexpected power.

    I think many of us had the same reaction to this song the first time we heard it. It's just devastating. It's like a club to the head when halfway through the song the punch-line is first revealed. Then near the end comes that heart-wrenching verse:

    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"

    It seems almost underhanded of Chesnutt to subject us to such painfully candid lyrics. They are unexpectedly personal, even by his standards. The veil has been cut away and we're no longer viewing this from the safe ironic distance established in the first half of the song.

    Unusually for a Chesnutt composition, there's nothing ambiguous about this song. There's no mystery- everything is explained and Chesnutt even underlined the song's meaning in his last interviews. 'It's a break-up song with death'- a song written by a person who has never been reticent about his past attempts at suicide.

    It's a good song. It's probably a great song, but all the same- I find it unfortunate that people will now think of this song as his epitaph. God knows, Chesnutt wrote enough of those, but this song isn't it. Far better I think to remember him by 'Granny', the last track of 'At the Cut' in which he managed one more time to perform the alchemy of turning a collection of apparently mundane recollections into a piece of brilliantly perceptive yet surprisingly tender poetry.

    But, again, that's what geniuses do.

  4. Terry Gross can go suck an egg..this was the most boring interview --she is too dense to pick up on practically any of Vic's most cherished qualities of double-entendre..hell, this isn't even double IS a break up song. Why did she continue to focus on events of 20 years past instead of his artistry and body of work? vic was a true gentleman to put up with her self-indulgent and stupid preoccupations with his past...
    No wonder she had to make up for it after the fact ofhis passing...