I first heard – and saw – Vic Chesnutt not far off twenty years ago, on stage at London’s South Bank in a strange mix of singer-songwriters that included Dan Penn and Guy Clarke and was compered by, I think, Charlie Gillett, who had, I remember, a great deal of difficulty in getting the performers to talk about what they did in much more than grudging monosyllables. Not his fault, simply a bad idea. Chesnutt I’d never come across before, never as much as heard of; this strange little guy in a wheelchair [he was rendered partially paralysed in a car accident at the age of 18] with a whiny voice and off-the-wall, doom-laden lyrics.
I bought his second album, West of Rome, played it quite a lot – some songs, anyway – and then he slipped from my consciousness until recently when I heard a song – “When I Ran Off And Left Her” from the album, Drunk – which lodged in my brain and wouldn’t go away.
When I ran off and left her
She wasn’t holding the baby
But she was holding a bottle
And a big grudge against me
I tried to learn from a psychiatrist
How to stay calm and minimise risk
But I should have kept
All those appointments
I’m gonna need ’em
I’m becoming disjointed
Whenever I would put it on, my partner would have to get up and leave the room. Whatever the opposite of Easy Listening is, this is it. The only comparison I can think of is the late singer and artist, Kevin Coyne, and his album, Marjorie Razorblade. A voice that cuts through you and leaves its pain.
I’ve just been walking on the Heath, listening to a a dozen or so of Chesnutt’s songs, and thank God it’s sunny and blue, beautiful and cold, because that’s the kind of antidote these songs need. In “Flirted With You All My Life”, it’s not a woman he’s singing about but death. This Christmas Day just passed, he stopped flirting, and died from an overdose of muscle relaxant drugs that had left him in a coma. He was 45.
There’s a free six-track MP3 sampler of songs from his last two albums available on his web site – http://vicchesnutt.com/home/