The day before Christmas songwriter and musician Vic Chesnutt took his own life. I was hesitant to write a memorial to him because I was so disappointed and hurt that he’d decided, again, to try to commit suicide. CelebStoner editor and Hempilation I/II producer Steve Bloom brought Vic’s death to my attention during the last week of 2009 and he wrote a nice memorial to Vic here.
Vic was one of dozens of major musicians who volunteered and lent their talent to creating Hempilation I and II (benefit compilation albums), two separate CDs of great cannabis-related music. Vic Chesnutt had been confined to a wheelchair as a partial quadriplegic since a 1983 car accident. He suffered terribly at times from never-ending chronic pain, infections, failed surgeries and bouts with pain medication addiction. He was a regular user of medical cannabis to help control his chronic pain, spasticity and inability to sleep through a night.
Vic’s contribution to Hempilation II was a little pro-medical cannabis diddy called ‘Weed To The Rescue‘.
The reason why I say that I’m disappointed and upset with Vic taking his own life is that, by many accounts from his friends, co-collaborators and his last CD (released late this past fall), he’d finally gotten over his dark desire to prematurely end his life. Many of the songs on At The Cut, including the haunting ‘Flirting With You All My Life‘, seemed to strongly signal that Vic wanted to live, more than he wanted to die.
In my view, one the best interviewers in the media is WHYY’s Terri Gross, host of the NPR-carried show ‘Fresh Air’. I was fortunate enough to catch her interview with Vic in early December, talking in detail with him about his difficult life, muses, multiple suicide attempts and the redemptive nature of his latest album, notably the amazingly personal song X.
After listening to the interview, I was happy to hear what I thought was the resolution in Vic’s voice that any more suicide attempts were things of a difficult past that he had finally gotten beyond the day in/day out pain of his physically limited existence.
When I received the email from Steve indicating that Vic tried suicide again, and it unfortunately took this time, again, I became confused, disappointed and even a bit angry with Vic. I was not sure that I wanted to publicly acknowledge his passing.
But, then I listened on Thursday to Terri Gross’s ‘tribute’ show to Vic, featuring many of his fellow collaborators, and like me, they’re still equally confused and stinging from Vic’s death.
The last time I saw Vic was at a performance in Washington, DC a few years ago. He’d called me a few hours before the show and asked if I wanted to ‘hang out’ (our code for smoking a couple of joints before he went on stage to perform). When I arrived at the venue’s VIP dressing room area, Vic fired up a joint that smelled like burning human hair and ‘harshed’ my throat seriously. I suggested we try one of mine…after Vic’s first inhalation he coughed like he was going to collapse a lung…then he looked up at me, with his eyes watering and a huge grin creeping up his elfish face, he exclaimed “Holy shit…that must be NORML executive director-quality weed!”
After the warm-up act ended the venue’s staff came into the haze to inform Vic that he was up next, but they’d arranged for him to sit in a chair to perform on stage, rather than bring him up there in his more comfortable wheelchair. He asked me if I could pick him up and bring up on stage.
I’m not a terribly strong person, and I wondered whether I could actually lift him out of the wheelchair and bring him up onstage. I was amazed at how light he was and as I started to put him down into the chair at center stage and I said something to him like “Man, you weigh next to nothing!’
A roadie handed him his little guitar, and as he plugged into the sound system and pedals he looked up at me, smiling, and said “I guess I’m only made of blood, sweat, tears…and THC.’ Then, this little, totally frail, meek body started to create a wall of noise, sounds and electronic distortion that filled the entire concert hall.
I always marveled at how much life and enthusiasm seem to explode from Vic’s voice and guitar, considering his severe physical limitations, and it always gave me a strong degree of hope regarding the resilience of the human spirit.
I still believe in the power of one’s own existence to touch the lives of others in positive ways, but Vic’s death presents for me a new and challenging way to view life.