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My first ever white Christmas also turned out to be the saddest, with the news of Vic Chesnutt’s death by suicide on 25 December. He was 45 years old. A car accident at age 18, which left him partially-paralysed and confined to a wheelchair, is often credited for sparking his true creative flowering, as during his convalescence he devoured literature & poetry and had to relearn how to play the guitar with fingers that didn’t work so good no more. I’d assumed that his physical disability was also responsible for his complex relationship with death and mortality, seemingly flailing out at it one moment, calmly inviting it in the next. But a look at this biography shows that the first of five (suicide-attempt-caused) comas happened in his 16th year – the man clearly struggled with pain most of his life, his quadriplegia providing the emotional torment with a tangible sting.

Emasculate me with your biology.
Bend me, break me, I’m worthless.

(from “Arthur Murray”, on “The Salesman & Bernadette”, 1998)

Although his name was one I’d seen bigged-up for some time – he was clearly a songwriter’s songwriter – my first acquaintance with his music was 2007’s “North Star Deserter”, his stark songs given added ferocity by a backing band of Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto and members of A Silver Mt. Zion. This is a collection of blackly humourous musings on the nature of death & decay, backed with the apocalyptic guitar hurricane and mournful strings of early GYBE!, and made me an instant convert to one of our time’s most unique voices. I was privileged to see him play in Amsterdam in early 2008 – so fragile and small in his wheelchair, the lay of his guitar looking uncomfortable, the strumming of his two working fingers seemingly painful – yet so defiant, spiky and larger than life. He, and the songs through which he laid his life & struggles bare, easily filled every nook of the Paradiso hall that night, ably supported by what he called “the greatest backing band in the world”. It felt as though everyone present in that old church was in tune to the fact that we were witnessing something special. When I look back on a life of amazing live music experiences, that night will always stand out.

Vic Chesnutt live at Paradiso, Amsterdam (13-Feb-2008)

Chesnutt certainly didn’t let his disability hold him back in sharing his songs with the wider world – he has released some 15+ albums, culminating in 2009’s  “At The Cut” and “Skitter On Take-Off” (both released just a few months before his death). “At The Cut” again has Picciotto & the ASMZ’ers fleshing out Vic’s spare compositions. It is another set of literate dark-heart-on-sleeve contemplations, the stand-out track being “I’ve Flirted With You All My Life”, which Vic himself described as “a love song. It’s a suicide’s breakup song with death.” Although Vic’s multiple suicide attempts heightened the possibility that he could take himself away from us at any time, I had thought that the hope displayed in that song – “Oh Death, really, I’m not ready!” – meant that Vic had truly turned a corner, no longer wishing to die. It was a naïve thought – the struggle with manic depression is characterised by its peaks and troughs, following no linear path…

Why do I insist on drinking myself to the grave?
Why do I dream of a cozy coffin?
I had all these plans of great things to accomplish,
but I end up totally pathetic more than often.
(from “Old Hotel”, on “The Salesman & Bernadette”, 1998)

It’s at times such as these that you wish that people like Vic could see themselves as the rest of the world sees them, not just how they see themselves. Listening to his self-confessionals it would seem he considered himself a coward, weak, invisible – something worthless, small & broken – yet all the tributes flowing in provide a completely contrary view, best encapsulated by this one quote: Vic was “a tiny giant of a man”. In the words of his great friend Kristin Hersh (Throwing Muses, 50ft Wave): “what he left here is the sound of a life that pushed against its constraints, as all lives should. It’s the sound of someone on fire. It makes this planet better.”

You can listen to a 6 song sampler of Vic’s work with Picciotto/ASMZ here.

The Six Strings That Drew Blood (Rowland Around In That Stuff)

To add to the anti-festive mood round NarcoAgent Towers, I learned on New Year’s Eve that Rowland S Howard had passed away the day before. He’d fought a long battle against liver cancer, finally succumbing at age 50. For me Howard is one of the all-time greats of post-punk guitar – it’s his searing riffs that gave the swaggering, menacing The Birthday Party much of its swagger and menace. And what’s not to like about a man that listed his influences as “Hanging out with girls, smoking, fraternizing with girls, talking to girls on the telephone while smoking, smoking with girls.”

Howard joining proto-Birthday Party band The Boys Next Door in 1978 is credited with sparking that band’s transformation into something truly unique, and after the Party was over he pursued a varied solo career, collaborating with Lydia Lunch, Nikki Sudden, and also doing a stint in an early incarnation of Crime & The City Solution (after which he formed These Immortal Souls with other ex-Crims). His first solo album in 10 years – “Pop Crimes” – was released in late 2009. RIP.

Here’s the Boys Next Door/Birthday Party song “The Friend Catcher” performed live in Bremen, Germany sometime in 1982 (taken from “Live 1981-82“), as good a showcase as any for Rowland’s talent.

The Birthday Party – The Friend Catcher (live in Bremen 1982)

See also Toilet Guppies

Go to your favourite record shop and pick up some of Vic & Rowland’s rekkids – because as long as you’re listening, they’re still somehow alive.

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