In Memoriam: Sweet, Sad Rocker Vic Chesnutt
Vic Chesnutt was paralyzed from the waist down at the age of 18, but he's still a massively productive songwriter. Chesnutt has fifteen albums under his belt and his songs have been covered by Madonna, Smashing Pumpkins, and R.E.M. His new album, At The Cut, is a collaboration with Guy Picciotto of the band Fugazi. (
Other segments from the episode on January 7, 2010
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In Memoriam: Sweet, Sad Rocker Vic Chesnutt
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When songwriter and singer Vic Chesnutt
took his life with an overdose of prescription muscle relaxers, those of us who
work on FRESH AIR were upset and shocked. He died on Christmas Day at the age
At the beginning of December, Chesnutt was a guest on our show, and we were all
very moved by his story and his music. One of the things he talked about in our
interview was his song "Flirted With You All My Life." It's a song about
suicide, and Chesnutt talked about how he had attempted suicide at various
times in his life. But his song was a break-up song with death and had the
refrain: Oh death, I'm not ready.
Vic Chesnutt had been what's called an incomplete quadriplegic since a 1983 car
accident when he was 18. He was in a wheelchair but had limited movement in his
arms and legs and would record and tour frequently.
Today, we remember Chesnutt by listening back to excerpts of his interview and
by talking to three of his close friends: Michael Stipe of REM; Guy Picciotto
of Fugazi, who played on a couple of Chesnutt's albums; and Jim Cohen, who
worked with Chesnutt on many film and music projects. We'll begin with my
interview with Vic Chesnutt and with that song that I just mentioned, "Flirted
with You All My Life."
(Soundbite of song, "Flirted With You All My Life")
Mr. VIC CHESNUTT (Singer): (Singing) I am a man. I am self-aware, and
everywhere I go, you're always right there with me. I've flirted with you all
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, no, no, cold death, cold death, oh
death, really, I'm not ready.
GROSS: Last month, I asked Vic Chesnutt about that song.
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
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 flirted 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
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, you know, the hours and days wear
on, you know, 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
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
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
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.
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
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.
GROSS: We're listening back to an interview I recorded a few weeks ago with
songwriter and singer Vic Chesnutt, who took his life and died on Christmas
Day. Here's another dramatic song from his last album. It's called "Coward."
(Soundbite of song, "Coward")
Mr. CHESNUTT: (Singing) The courage of the coward is greater than all others. A
scaredy cat'll scratch you if you back him in a corner. But I, I, I, I am a
coward. I, I, I, I am a coward. Courage born of despair and impotence
(unintelligible). I, I, I, I am coward.
GROSS: Vic Chesnutt, that is one really powerful song. Let's start talking
about the lyric, which Vic Chesnutt, you wrote. The courage of the coward,
greater than all others. That's a quote. Tell us where it's from and what it
means to you.
Mr. CHESNUTT: It's from "McTeague," a Frank Norris book, and I wrote it down in
my notebook where I write lines that I come across. And it was a very telling
line because I was coming to see myself as a coward, and it was a very
illuminating line in my own personal story.
GROSS: Like, in what sense do you think of yourself as a coward?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, in personal relationships, I don't want to confront my
enemies and things like this. You know, I mean, in many ways, I'm a coward. I
break up in email instead of calling you to your face, that kind of thing. You
know what I mean? And when I came across this line, it felt real and felt true.
GROSS: There's another quote that you use in the lyric: a courage born of
despair and impotence. Tell us about that quote and what it means to you.
Mr. CHESNUTT: Yeah, that comes from "The Radetzky March" by Joseph Roth - Roth
or whatever his name is. It's another line that it felt true. You know, it was
kind of the flip side of this coward - of the courage of the coward. It kind of
- they dovetailed nicely together and helped illuminate this idea I had of, you
know, hello, my name is Vic Chesnutt, and I am a coward.
GROSS: Today's show is a memorial for singer and songwriter Vic Chesnutt. We'll
hear more of my interview with him after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're remembering songwriter and singer Vic Chesnutt. He took his life
with an overdose of his prescription muscle relaxers and died Christmas Day.
Let's get back to the interview I recorded with him just a few weeks ago. In
this excerpt, we're talking about the car accident in 1983, when he was 18,
that left him a quadriplegic, although he maintained very limited movement of
his arms and legs.
Can I ask you about the accident? Is that all right?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Sure. Of course.
GROSS: Would you tell us what you know of what happened?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, I don't remember anything of it. I don't remember the whole
day really. I was so drunk. You know, it's quite a clichÃ©: a stupid teenager
out drunk and then I had a drunk-driving car wreck and broke my neck.
GROSS: Was anyone else hurt?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Nobody else was in the car. I ran into a ditch and flipped over
and just, you know, broke my neck.
GROSS: How much movement did you lose?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, I'm a quadriplegic from my neck down. I'm an incomplete
spinal cord injury. That means that I have feeling all over my body, and I can
move my legs a little bit. So it's a very strange, very strange injury. It's
not like your typical spinal cord injury. It's very different.
GROSS: Right. But you play guitar, right?
Mr. CHESNUTT: I play guitar. Yes. My fingers are definitely affected greatly by
my injury. Greatly. In fact, yeah, they - my fingers don't move too good at
GROSS: So how do you manage to play?
Mr. CHESNUTT: I just figured out a way to do it, you know? It's very strange.
It's hard work to do it. It's not easy.
GROSS: Now, I know some quadriplegics don't have a lot of breath support, and
it's hard for them to sing.
Mr. CHESNUTT: Yeah.
GROSS: But you don't seem to have trouble with that.
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, I think one half of my diaphragm is completely paralyzed,
the other, you know, I think that one half of my diaphragm kind of works.
GROSS: How did your music change? Where were you headed before the accident,
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, I played - my chords were a lot different. There was a lot
more kind of odd chords and things in my songs before I broke my neck. I also,
you know, I was 18 when I broke my neck. I didn't really have anything to say
at the time. I wasn't sure - I just didn't know what I wanted to say.
It was only after I broke my neck and after even like maybe a year later that I
really started realizing that I had something to say. And physically, when I
could start playing the guitar again after about a year, I realized that all I
could play were these kinds of you know, G, F, C - those kind of chords. And so
it was going to be - well, that's what I was going to do.
GROSS: Vic, how did you learn to write with chords? I mean, what did you study
that introduced you to chords?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, my granddad taught me how to play guitar in the late '70s.
This is how he taught me how to play guitar. My granddaddy, he would show me
the chords to "Sweet Georgia Brown" in G, and then we would play that song for
an hour without stopping, and while my granddad would play lead over it.
(Soundbite of humming)
Mr. CHESNUTT: And I would play the chords, and then that would be the lesson.
And then a week later, we would come, and we would do, okay, "Sweet Georgia
Brown" in A flat, and then we would do it that way, and we did it until we
played all 11 keys, and that was it.
GROSS: Did you enjoy that?
Mr. CHESNUTT: I loved it. It's so much fun. My granddad was such a great guitar
player that it's fun to listen to him, like, improvise these leads, you know.
He would go play it through pretty much straight, you know...
(Soundbite of humming)
Mr. CHESNUTT: And then he'd go off, and it was pretty much fun to watch him.
And he was having fun doing it. He didn't say anything to me, like good job or,
you know, anything. We just sat there. It was a silent exercise, and it's one
of my great joys of my life - is thinking back on that.
GROSS: I want to play another song from your new CD, "At The Cut," and this is
a song called "Granny." So tell us about the song.
Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, yeah. This is a very strange song. This song is the only
one I've ever done this with, but I dreamed it. I dreamt it completely as is on
this album. I was in a hotel room in Toronto and I dreamt this song. I was
looking at my granny. She was at the kitchen sink, and I was looking up at my
granny from the perspective of a child. And I was crying in my dream. And then
I woke up and my - the pillow was sopping wet. My face was all wet, and so
obviously I was actually crying. And I realized: Holy moly, this is a great
And so I reached over, and I got the hotel stationery and pen, and I wrote down
the lyrics as - exactly as they were in my dream. And then I reached over and
got my guitar, and I figured out the chords. And wow, there it is. Straight
from my subconscious to the recording tape. I mean it's an incredible thing
that's never happened to me before.
GROSS: And does the song come out of real life?
Mr. CHESNUTT: I mean it's pretty much, I mean, something I could sing to my
granny. I mean, in my dream, I was singing it to my granny. The last line about
you are the light of my life and the beat of my heart, she always told me that.
And it's about, you know, she said that I came around just when, you know, not
a year after her husband died, and like I had a special place in her heart
because of that. So I mean it's really, you know, very much straight out of my
life and straight out of my subconscious.
GROSS: Okay. This is Vic Chesnutt with his song "Granny" from his new CD, "At
(Soundbite of song, "Granny")
Mr. CHESNUTT: (Singing) Granny, oh Granny, where did your husband, my
granddaddy go? Where did your husband, my granddaddy go? She said he went off
to heaven just before you were born. She said he went off to heaven just before
you were born. She said he went off to heaven just before you were born.
And she said you are the light of my life and the beat of my heart. She said,
you are the light of my life and the beat of my heart. She said, you are the
light of my life and the beat of my heart. She said, you are the light of my
life and the beat of my heart.
GROSS: That's Vic Chesnutt from his new CD, "At the Cut." And that song is
called "Granny." So, were you very close with the grandmother who you wrote
that song for?
Mr. CHESNUTT: Yeah. My - that granny, it's my dad's mom. She lived in the house
with us. And so, you know, she kind of took care of us. My mom and dad were
commuters. They had a long drive from Pike County to the Atlanta airport and to
downtown Atlanta. So, they were gone before I got up in the morning, and they
came home late in the evening. And so my granny was there to take care of me
and my sister. And yeah, she was great.
GROSS: Vic Chesnutt, recorded last month. Our memorial continues in the second
half of the show. Chesnutt died Christmas Day. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today's show is a memorial for
songwriter and singer Vic Chesnutt. He died on Christmas Day, taking his life
with an overdose of his prescription muscle relaxers. Chesnutt had been what's
described as an incomplete paraplegic since 1983 when he was in a car accident.
He was 18 then. He was able to transform his struggles with depression and
other demons into moving and dramatic songs.
We're going to hear from three of his close friends who also worked with him.
Michael Stipe of R.E.M. discovered Chesnutt playing at a bar in Athens,
Georgia, and produced his first two albums. Guitarist Guy Picciotto, cofounder
of the band Fugazi, played on Chesnutt's album "North Star Deserter" and on his
final album "At the Cut." He also toured with Chesnutt. Filmmaker Jem Cohen
collaborated with Chesnutt over the years on many film and music projects.
Michael Stipe, Guy Picciotto, Jem Cohen, welcome to FRESH AIR. And I'm so sorry
for your loss. I know how close you all were with Vic. I'd like to start by
asking you, if you wouldn't mind, to share a favorite memory of Vic.
Mr. MICHAEL STIPE (Lead Singer, R.E.M.): I can start. This is Michael. This is
such a silly thing, but from time to time, I'll write a lyric and I'll think
that I might've stolen it from someone that I know. There's a point where I
wrote a song called "New Test Leper" which takes place in a television studio,
like a talk show, and I wrote the lyric seven times before I got it right. I
finally got it right and I ended it with this beautiful line kind of commenting
on this talk show and the people that were involved and, what a sad parade,
what a sad parade repeated over and over again. After I wrote the song, I
realized that what I had done was I had stolen a line from Vic Chesnutt.
And so I had to call Vic on the phone to say, tell me what song of yours has
the line, what a sad parade in it repeated over and over? Vic said none of
them. And I said well Vic, I know this is such a Vic Chesnutt lyric. I'm pretty
certain that I stole it from you. You know, think hard. And he was like I never
wrote that line. That's yours, which to me was funny and sweet because I had to
kind of kiss the ring of his brilliance and his brilliance as a songwriter, as
a friend, and as someone who clearly had a massive influence on me in what I
GROSS: That's a really nice story. Does anyone else want to go next?
Mr. JEM COHEN (Filmmaker): This is Jem speaking. One memory I have of Vic that
I really love and I don't, I can't pinpoint it in time, but he often played a
kind of undersized essentially acoustic guitar that almost look like a toy
guitar because that was part of his being paralyzed was that he couldn't really
handle a big one. And I just remember being completely bowled over by seeing
him take this little tiny acoustic guitar and he plugged in like one or two
pedals and out of him - out of the amplifier came the roar of a freight train
like the craziest...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COHEN: ...most amazing distortion I've ever heard. You know, I mean it was
like Neil Young's "Crazy Horse" packed into some, you know, invisible pocket on
Vic's person. And I just thought that that was the wildest and most hilarious
thing. But it was also an indication of how savvy he was about music because he
really knew how to make minimal means do extraordinary things, and so just the
image of him playing this tiny guitar and then having the option of making that
incredible wallop come out of it is something that's very dear to me.
GROSS: Guy, is there one you'd like to share?
Mr. GUY PICCIOTTO (Musician): We had just finished, we just came off tour on
December 6th, so I just finished doing a couple months of touring with Vic. And
the days on tour were, you know, particularly with Vic more than with any band
that I've been with, they were really long. We would spend from the morning
when he woke up to 4 a.m. in the morning hanging out in his room, we just, the
way he hung out with the band or the way he hung out with us was, it was really
constant so it was kind of like a thing where it was just being immersed in
Vic, you know, in such an intense way.
And the thing that I think people might not know about Vic but was so powerful
for me was the fact that his mind was, he was always processing and always
working on stuff to the point where at the end of the night - in the past
sometimes he'd be like yeah, let me have my guitar in my room or something like
that, but on these last few tours he would be like, do not let me have my
guitar in my room tonight because it meant if he had the guitar, he would stay
up until dawn and past dawn writing. He couldn't stop and it was a kind of
thing where it was like, you know, it's like Odysseus tied to the mast or
He was like, do not let me at my guitar so I can try to get some sleep because
he was just on such a burn, you know. And in the last period of time that I was
working on him, I've never seen anybody just have such a creative gushing
happening where he just was so in some kind of zone like that I've never seen
before. You know, just music was just pouring out of the guy and yeah, to the
point where he was like, you know, please take this out of my hand for a while.
GROSS: Excuse me for bringing this up, but could that have been the kind of
manic side followed by a depleted depressed side?
Mr. PICCIOTTO: No.
GROSS: No? He was just that way?
Mr. PICCIOTTO: I don't think so. I think, because Vic was like that. I mean I
wouldn't try to put a pathology on his creativity at all.
Mr. STIPE: He also, I mean Vic also loved words so much and I think I would
listen to his songs and I would listen for the one word that he would try to
shoehorn into a song. And if you listen to each of his songs, you'll find one
word that probably has never been put into a pop song before. Vic loved using
words like rascally or - what is the word that - every single song has some
crazy word often....
Mr. PICCIOTTO: Latitude or squirrely or...
Mr. STIPE: Seven syllables squirrely, some weird word that he would try to cram
into a lyric and try to make it rhyme and I loved that about him as a writer.
He loved his craft and he turned it into something that was much more than
GROSS: Can I ask you to each choose a song that you particularly love of his
and that you'd particularly recommend to our listeners?
Mr. STIPE: Well, it's hard because there are two songs that - there are three
songs and I told Jem about one of them, the song "Panic Pure" for me is one of
my favorites. I think about the lyrics of "Miss Mary" and how absolutely
brilliant they are and the perspective that he was writing from when he wrote
that song. And I think about the song "Lucinda Williams," and settled down on a
hurt as big as Robert Mitchum, just that that in my lifetime that someone put
that thought together and put it into a song that I can now sing in my head
over and over and over again, that's a great gift. I'd love to write a song
that is one tenth that brilliant.
GROSS: Let's hear that Vic Chesnutt song that Michael Stipe was talking about.
This is "Lucinda Williams."
(Soundbite of song, "Lucinda Williams")
Mr. VIC CHESNUTT (Musician): (Singing) Imports, altercations, my faculties on a
shoe-string vacation. I settled down on a hurt as big as Robert Mitchum and
listen to Lucinda Williams. Oh, convenient lies, rubber knives. I'm a dastardly
villain and I'm doing belly dives. I before an E except after me. I'm dowsing
my vitals at break-neck speed. You and your little entourage...
GROSS: That's Vic Chesnutt performing his song "Lucinda Williams." We'll
continue our Vic Chesnutt memorial with his friends Michael Stipe of R.E.M.,
guitarist Guy Picciotto and filmmaker Jem Cohen after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
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: That'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?
GROSS: Here's the song Jem Cohen was describing, "Panic Pure," from Vic
Chesnutt's CD "West of Rome."
(Soundbite of song, "Panic Pure")
Mr. CHESNUTT: (Singing) And so all you observers in your scrutiny, don't count
my scars like the tree rings. My jigsaw disposition, its piecemeal properties
are either smoked or honey cured by the panic pure. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, by the
panic pure. And so all you observers in your scrutiny, don't count my scars
like the tree rings. My jigsaw disposition, its piecemeal properties are either
smoked or honey cured by the panic pure. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, by the panic pure.
GROSS: That's Vic Chesnutt singing his song "Panic Pure." Chesnutt took his
life and died on Christmas Day. We're talking with three of his close friends,
Michael Stipe of R.E.M., guitarist Guy Picciotto, cofounder of Fugazi, and
filmmaker Jem Cohen, who collaborated with Chesnutt on film and video projects.
Now I don't know if any of you will have a memory of this, but since he was
always writing songs about everything, is there a song that comes to your mind,
any of you, that you wouldn't put on record that like his friends knew but no
one else would know?
Mr. COHEN: You know I think he certainly at sound check he would just invent
stuff on the spot and it was always just absurdly profane.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COHEN: And no matter the context or the venue or what it was. To me it was
sometimes like he would delight in how much pain it would cause me. Like if a
parent of someone in the band was at the gig, like let's say you know, the
drummer's mom was there at the sound check to come and say high, he couldn't
help himself. He would just start saying the most just completely over the top
foulness and you would just be dying. And you, you know, you'd see the confused
look of the parent in the crowd and you'd just be like just - like I saw him at
the Kennedy Center, like this was in the...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COHEN: ...Memorial Hall of the Kennedy Center the summer, a free concert
series. It's just, you know, it was just every kind of humanity you would ever
imagine at the Kennedy Center: tourists, children, old people, a giant bust of
JFK's head there. And he just went on this insane profane riff about JFK being
a horn dog and Jackie O being incredibly hot.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COHEN: And everybody was just, nobody could, I was just like burning. My
face was just so hot. And then when he does the show he just breaks everybody's
heart like crystal. You know, that's his thing. He would just - he had these
incredible poles in his personality you know, and he was a true punk. He would
truly - he had no fears about being provocative or pushing people past any kind
of sensible limit. You know, that was his thing.
GROSS: On his last album, which Guy, you worked on with him, you performed on
it and did some of the arrangements. He has a song called "Flirted With You All
My Life," which he described as his breakup song with death, the song about
flirting with death and then deciding death, I'm not ready. And after hearing
that song, a lot of people, a lot of listeners who - like myself, people who
didn't really know him but who would listen to him thought, well, that's
probably - those thoughts of suicide are probably behind him, at least for a
time. And when I interviewed him in late November, which we ran in early
December, the impression I walked away with is that he was in a good space and
that, at least for now, he was going to be in a good space. And that's part of
why it was so shocking that he took his life. I mean, you know, people - his
fans and certainly his friends knew that he'd tried before. But did you know
that he was in a bad place now that, you know, before he took his life, that
things were bad for him?
Mr. PICCIOTTO: Yeah. I did. And a lot of his friends and families did.
Mr. COHEN: Can I jump in on this a little bit?
GROSS: Go ahead.
Mr. COHEN: Vic was very open and honest about whatever state he was in. And so
we knew that he was having some kind of a mental breakdown. There were, you
know, bouts of terrible depression and insomnia and, you know, in between, him
being his usual funny and smart Vic. But this was serious, and it was clear to
people, and people scrambled to get help for him. And he was actually quite
open to it. He was open to help. And so I think, you know, for people to think
that maybe he rejected that or that he just simply wanted to kill himself, I
don't think that's right, personally.
He tried to get better, and the people around him tried to help him. You know,
there was a local nonprofit health care center that tried, and a lot of steps
were taken right away. But he was in a serious crisis, and when it came to
dealing with a certain level of crisis, in my opinion, the system failed him. I
mean, there were limits to what the emergency options were in his city, for one
thing, like there used to be a psych ward at the hospital and there isn't
anymore. And then, you know, there were bureaucratic tie ups and things are
always made harder for people in wheelchairs, and so on. And, you know, in the
course of that struggle, Vic took an overdose of the prescription pills, the
muscle relaxants that he had to take everyday, you know, that he'd taken for
many, many years. You know, and that's what happened.
GROSS: In the interview that he recorded for our show, he said he was worried
about the possibility of loosing a kidney because he didn't have adequate
health care coverage, and he owed a lot of money to the hospital. He was afraid
he was going to lose his house. He - because he had, you know, a preexisting
condition, because, you know, he was paralyzed from the waist down, it was very
hard for him to get health insurance. The health insurance he did have was very
limited. It covered hospitalizations, or at least certain hospitalizations. He
said it didn't cover his medication. It didn't covered doctors visits. Soâ¦
Mr. STIPE: My understanding of Vic's insurance was that it only covered
catastrophic conditions or emergency kind of situations, and Vic would wait and
wait and wait and wait until he couldn't take whatever compounded things were
going on with his body. And then he would be taken to the emergency room, at
which point his insurance would kick in and pay for part of the cost, but I
think that these compounded other issues and other problems that he had and
made it very difficult. And as Jem said, we have a system in this country that
completely - absolutely and completely failed him as a person, and I think
fails many people.
Mr. COHEN: You know, Terry, I think one of the things that we've all talked
about is that we feel that to just say, okay, poor health care killed Vic
Chesnutt - that no. I mean, that would be very reductive, and I don't think
that any of us would say that. But it - did it add to the weight that he
carried? You know, did health care problems add a lot to his stress, to the
load that was on his shoulders? To me, the answer is undoubtedly yes, you know.
Mr. STIPE: Absolutely.
GROSS: We're remembering singer and songwriter, Vic Chesnutt who died Christmas
Day. My guests are three of his friends, Michael Stipe, Guy Picciotto and Jem
Cowen. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Today's show is a memorial for singer and songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who
took his life and died Christmas Day. My guests are three friends who work
closely with him, Michael Stipe of REM, guitarist Guy Picciotto, co-founder of
Fugazi, and filmmaker Jem Cohen. A few weeks before Chesnutt's death, I
recorded an interview with Chesnutt and Guy Picciotto, who had recently
recorded and toured with Chesnutt.
Guy, can I ask you something? You're part of the interview I recorded with Vic
in late November and he sounded so good in that interview. I mean, he just
sounded really together and reflective. And he sounded like he was in a good
place at that moment. Was he just rising to the occasion for the interview? Was
he already really depressed?
Mr. PICCIOTTO: No, I don't think so. I mean - but, I mean, I think we probably
said it a hundred times today. Vic was an incredibly complicated person with -
just had very - with all kinds of things in him at all times, you know. And, I
mean, I've worked with him a lot in the last few years, and I've - I mean, to
his capacity for joy or for bringing joy or for, you know, certainly for being
creative, his - you know, his love of conversation and community and friendship
and all those things, I - you know they - I don't think they ever ebbed.
I don't think they ebbed at the end. And it makes it very confusing for us, I
think, who are still here, because it's just that light that was in him, I
don't think that light ever went out. I talked to him every day, you know, on
the phone, and there were some very hard conversations. And then we would all
be laughing, laughing our asses off, you know. And that was Vic, you know. He
had a very different - I think he had a very different balance between light
and dark and life and death and all these things than many people do, you know.
I think throughout his life, even when he was a kid, I mean, he had experiences
up to the edge of death through his whole life, you know.
And he had experiences through his whole life of really - and again, I'm not
talking pathologically, but just really intense highs and really intense lows.
And he lived in those moments very, very deeply and he processed them very,
very artistically. In a way, to be privileged to have been next to him to see
some of that was, you know, it's one of the great, the great pleasures of my
life, you know.
And so, no. I don't think he was putting on a good face. I think Vic was always
in the moment, very genuine and very true and very sincere and very, very
complicated, you know. It just is - that's - he was one of the kind like that.
Mr. COHEN: I just - I feel like if there's - when you did that other interview
with him, there was a discussion about this song of his, "Coward."
Mr. COHEN: And he, you know, Vic was saying to you directly in this interview
that, you know, he feels he's a coward. And what I want to say - and I said
this to Vic - is, hey, you know, I beg to differ. Because I think that what we
have to look at here is 27 years of this unbelievable life force operating
against really difficult odds. You know? And it's not a coward that looks that
hard at all these things that other people don't want to look at and then makes
16 records, full of, like, poetry and humor and, you knowâ¦
Mr. PICCIOTTO: Yeah.
Mr. COHEN: â¦and yeah. And also this kind of unflinching, sometimes devastating
honesty, you know. And then there were film and theater projects. And, you
know, right at the end, he's like, Jem, I'm writing a screenplay, you know. And
so I think that that's courage, and that if there is anything that comes out of
this whole situation, for me, it's that that has to be the focus, is that life
force. He could have gone at many, many other moments, and if everybody now is
going to just sort of obsess over like the details of his death or if they're
going to see it as this kind of another one in a line of sort of, you know,
cliche musician deaths, I think that's really missing an enormous opportunity
because I think that we're talking about one of the great songwriters, here.
Mr. STIPE: I agree.
GROSS: I know he was in a coma before he died, and you were - the three of you
were with him, I believe, when he died. And it sounds like you are still very
deep in mourning for him. I just really want to say how sorry I am for your
loss and how much I appreciate you talking about Vic Chesnutt with us. So,
thank you very much andâ¦
Mr. PICCIOTTO: Thank you, Terry.
Mr. STIPE: Thank you.
Mr. COHEN: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: That was three of Vic Chesnutt's close friends. Michael Stipe of REM,
produced Chesnutt first two albums. Guitarist Guy Picciotto, cofounder of
Fugazi, played on a couple of his albums and toured with him recently.
Filmmaker Jem Cohen collaborated with Chesnutt on film and video projects. Vic
Chesnutt took his life and died on Christmas Day. Right after we recorded that
interview, Guy called our producer, Amy Salit. He said he thought of the song
he'd really like us to play, "Sewing Machine," which Vic would often play solo
as an encore at the end of their sets on the last tour. Guy described this as
maybe the most perfect of Chesnutt's nostalgic songs about growing up in Pike
I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of song, "Sewing Machine")
Mr. CHESNUTT: (Singing) Suck in your gut, clench your fist, just finished
scaling a big black fish, on a bench out behind the tool shack in a patch of
poison sumac. Mama ordered us some catalogue jeans. She made the cuffs on the
sewing machine. Sewing machineâ¦
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