Cracked Actor

With new album, Vic Chesnutt moves from lonely troubadour to pop-art master

There is a moment during "See You Around," the final track of Vic Chesnutt's 1996 album About to Choke, where he sings "I must admit I'm flattered by your consecration/It's a mind-numbing spine-chilling/But nevertheless heartwarming gesture/As you make your advances so clumsily/I'll save us both the hassle and leave."

It must have seemed a fitting valediction to Chesnutt, who, during a tour for the record, left his wife and band stranded in Milwaukee, taking off with the van and tour money, and proceeded to a seedy Florida hotel room where he spent the next few days contemplating suicide. Although his behavior was fueled in part by an undiagnosed and painful kidney stone, Chesnutt's near plummet into the abyss was not his first such trip.

Chesnutt is a man who has long trod the line between life and death, sanity and normality--it's a large part of his work, and what has made him one of the most compelling phenomena to emerge from the American musical underground in the last decade. One senses that he values his own ability to flirt with the edges of emotions and blur the distinctions between tragedy and comedy.

"I hope with my stuff that looking at the lyrics or even after hearing it, you're still not sure how to feel about the songs, you know, whether to be happy or sad," Chesnutt says, on the eve of a tour to support his new album, The Salesman and Bernadette.

No profile of Chesnutt fails to touch on--or would be complete without mentioning--"the accident." A native of Pike County, Georgia, Chesnutt was an aspiring 18-year-old musician when a drunken car crash on Easter morning 1983 left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Doomed to spend the rest of his life confined to a wheelchair, he recovered enough mobility in his hands to strum a guitar, and he returned to performing. Playing with a number of pop and punk bands in and around the growing Athens music scene, Chesnutt eventually began appearing on his own, singing his brand of idiosyncratic neo-folk.

He developed a growing reputation as a local curiosity, as well as a massive drinker. Regular appearances at Athens' famed 40 Watt Club brought him to the attention of local hero Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who was so taken with Chesnutt's singular songcraft that he helped secure him a deal with the tiny Texas Hotel label, even producing his first two albums, Little and West of Rome.

If it seemed a bit unlikely that Stipe (an artist who's been fairly derided for plunging alternative music into its current state of lyrical decay by selling millions of albums full of "mumbled non sequiturs") would champion an often complex--even cryptic--wordsmith like Chesnutt, then what happened next was even more surprising.

The intervening years saw Chesnutt release two more critically lauded collections of songs--including the stellar 1995 album Is the Actor Happy?--but more significantly, word of his talent began to spread among artists and music aficionados. Indie heroes and pop stars alike sang his praises in print. He was given slots opening for artists ranging from respected punk icons like Bob Mould to mall-ternative bands like Live; and Hootie and the Blowfish even covered one of his songs during their performance on MTV's Unplugged.

In 1996, things took an even more dramatic turn for Chesnutt. It was the early part of that year that saw the release of a benefit/tribute album in his honor. Sweet Relief II: The Gravity of the Situation brought together many of the biggest names in the rock and pop worlds, all of whom were eager to pay homage to the unassuming Chesnutt. Along with hometown backers R.E.M., artists ranging from Garbage to the Smashing Pumpkins to Madonna (in a duet with her brother-in-law Joe Henry) adopted the laconic Georgian as something of a cause celebre. In the album's liner notes, Chesnutt was given almost embarrassingly glowing praise by many of the artists.

For Chesnutt, the unusual outpouring of attention, if somewhat discomforting, was still greatly appreciated. "I am really proud of that, very much so," he says. "I think we helped a lot of people, and it was fantastic to hear all these people singing my songs. Even now I'm still very proud about that experience," says Chesnutt.

Instead of basking in the glow of his newfound celebrity, or succumbing to the easy temptation of making an "accessible" album of folk-pop, Chesnutt went the other way. For Choke, his major-label debut on Capitol, Chesnutt endured an agonizing recording process before producing an album that hearkened back to his 1994 effort Drunk (until then the high-water mark in Chesnutt's discography). The bulk of the material found Chesnutt alone, with little instrumentation, alternating between the themes of melancholy and humor--frequently in the same song and often in the same line. In the autobiographical "Hot Seat," Chesnutt turned his focus toward the tragedy of his accident with the kind of acute lyrical intensity that left listeners confused as to whether they should laugh or cry at a verse like "Ventolin and Vivarin and Primatene/Secret tequila shots and a patch of morphine/In mourning and in the throes/What a great day to come out of a coma."

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