By Mark E. Smith
I had a lot of respect for Vic – that is, until he downed a fist full of muscle relaxers on December 23, 2009, at age 45, dying two days later in the hospital, surrounded by his horrified family and friends on Christmas Day. Now, I’m just sorrowful.
The back story to Vic’s suicide would have made the actual event less surprising – but, Vic had to throw in a final torturous twist to those who loved and admired him. See, it was no secret that since the car accident that left him a quadriplegic at age 18, Vic wanted to die – at some points more than others, where lows in his life were punctuated by suicide attempts. And, in that context, Vic’s suicide would have been viewed as his finally succeeding at his long-time wish – popping a bottle of pills, checking out once and for all. End of story.
But, in the time just prior to his suicide, Vic Chesnutt made it known that he was finally past wanting to die, that one of his latest songs, “Flirted With You My Whole Life,” was his letter to the world that he finally wished to live, that suicide was behind him. And, the lyrics read true to his word:
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
Really, I’m not ready
In a November interview, just weeks before his suicide, Vic discussed his now-prophetic song with NPR: “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…. You know, I’ve attempted suicide three or four times. It didn’t take. And, this is really a breakup song with death.”
So, Vic made the rounds in summer and fall 2009, describing himself publicly as a man who’d learned his lessons and grown – and he was arguably at his peak in the music industry. No, you may not have heard of Vic Chesnutt, as he never achieved Billboard-type success or radio airplay in rotation. But, for 20 years, Vic was a musician’s musician, idolized by contemporaries like Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Madonna, and even alternative bands like Garbage. As an indie artist, Vic was known for his true talents as a writer, singer, and musician with longevity – which commands more respect among many in the music industry than one with a sole Top-40 hit. And, Vic was a relentlessly-working musician, always writing, always recording, always performing. As a lyricist, his work wasn’t from the soul, but it was the soul, itself – the trials of humanity at its core.
Despite Vic’s professional success, many still believed that Vic’s personal life was tortured and tragic, his disability a cross to bear, a seemingly horrible plight that they have ultimately used to justify his suicide. One of Vic’s fans wrote, “I am not sure that Chesnutt’s death is tragic. Maybe it was his life that was tragic. But before he left, he blessed us with a poignant firsthand picture of that tortured existence. Anyone who would judge his last act should realize that they never walked in his shoes – or sat in his chair.”
I’ve known many who have sat in wheelchairs as Vic Chesnutt did – some with physically and socially tougher plights than his – and they didn’t take the sorrowful way out by overdosing, devastating all around them. Why, then, did Vic choose at this point in his life to commit suicide, once and for all?
My speculative answer from what I knew of Vic, from what I’ve since learned of Vic, and from what I’ve witnessed and experienced in my own life, is that I believe that the unique pressures of living ultra-successfully with disability caught up with him, where he wasn’t able to cope with the extreme fluctuations in his life. See, when you have an exceptional level of success like Vic did while living with a disability, it can become a tale of two cities. On the one hand, publicly, everyone’s telling you that you’re a huge success and inspiration, putting you atop the world. Yet, on the other hand, you’re a real person, with real-life issues toward health, relationships, and finances. And, when all isn’t kept in balance, you can go from extreme highs to extreme lows in literally a matter of moments – in the time it takes to go from on-stage in front of a cheering crowd to a lonely hotel room where you’re left to face the realities of your everyday life. Truly, when you have such extremes in life – and you’re emotionally unable to center yourself – it’s just as easy to get consumed by the lowest of the lows as the highest of the highs, where the healthy middle-ground needed to survive doesn’t exist.
And, that’s where the tragedy in Vic Chesnutt’s life occurred – not in his literal disability, but in his inability to find that middle ground of understanding and comfort in life as a whole, where, by all accounts, he lived a tormenting oscillation between the highest heights of elation in his work, and the deepest plunges of despair in his personal life, with no middle ground to just be at peace.
Indeed, Vic left us with a remarkable catalog of the human experience as voiced through his music. And, maybe as some have pointed out, his suicide – that is, his final choice – isn’t to be judged by anyone. Yet, I can’t help but think that Vic called it quits too soon, never to find his middle ground, as when we find it, we realize that while life can be full of ultra-highs and super-lows, all of it is of value, never to be squandered, and relished everywhere in-between.
I wish to include the following two videos of Vic that personify him better than any writing can. The first video, “Everything I Say,” demonstrates the Earth-moving force that was Vic. The second Video, “Flirted With You All My Life,” is, in many ways, Vic’s prophetic letter to the world regarding his ultimate act of suicide. When you watch the videos, I think you’ll be left speechless, simply wondering what many of us wonder: How does such a life force just cease? …Or, maybe it doesn’t.