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


  1. Oh, that is a good one. I need this song. I also need to go listen to the podcast of that Fresh Air show about Vic.

  2. I love the story of how he wrote it. That Fresh Air memorial show was really good. Sometimes things like that aren't, but that one really was.

  3. I always preferred the studio version of Panic Pure, the atmosphere is just awesome. I especially like the first verse, the perfect summary of childhood innocence.

  4. in the fall of '03, a decade nearly to the day after seeing Vic for the first time, i had what many have referred to as a nervous breakdown. to try to explain how i felt to the attending psych nurse trying to get me to take atavan and go the fuck to sleep on the first night of my scary little vacation, i sang the chorus of Panic Pure to him. he walked away somewhat jarred, and treated me with a great deal of reverence and respect from that point on. he probably thought i was crazy, which i was. but i like to think that Vic Chesnutt and i collectively blew his mind.
    when i first saw Vic in october '93 and then finally tracked down a cassette copy of West Of Rome in December of the following year, that low d of the cello came back to me as if spookily culled from a dream. to me, that part of the song, as much as anything else about it is like a snapshot of who he was. or is. his "jigsaw disposition", his fragments of thought and emotion constructed into these simultaneously ethereal and hard-nosed songs like elaborate puzzles, feels at once like a totally unique disposition and an oddly comforting universal one. ultimately, life is made of billions of little peices, forming some at once perceivable and unfathomable whole. the low drone which follows the chorus almost sounds like an incidental vibration, like an auditory representation of what i feel inside when a song of his ends; this beautiful, singular resonance that is always unraveling, washing over me, revealing itself. when a Vic Chesnutt song is over, a puzzle revealed, the sentiment i get most of the time is, "Oh my God, I can't believe it was PLANNED that way. it's as if he knew better than most just how to swim in that stream of consciousness. as i often feared would be his undoing, though, he got tired and drowned in it. merry fucking Christmas.
    in the last few weeks i have been asking the old God damn, what is it about his songs question. after 16 years, the most appealing answer remains: I don't know.