Sunday night after I’d had my fill of a largely unsurprising Oscar ceremony, I returned to my steady diet of Nick Drake’s impossibly melancholy Pink Moon. As soon as the weather grew nasty and cold again, I turned to Drake’s final record as a source of strange warmth. That warmth still circulating through me, I struck up a conversation with a close friend of mine regarding the tortured folk-singer. It began with photographer Keith Morris’ quote “working with Nick Drake was like working with still life,” and further tiptoed into the shadows from there. “Every time I listen to Nick Drake, specifically Pink Moon, I feel like I’m trapped in that God damn room, stuck in time with him,” my friend bluntly put it. To which I could only respond, “He’s just one of those people that doesn’t feel like he was meant for life on Earth at all.” My friend seized at the chance to listen off others in that dire pantheon, beginning with Elliot Smith and then moving on to Athens, GA folk/alt-country singer Vic Chesnutt. The Smith reference I fully comprehended, but Chesnutt’s name was alien to me. Out of embarrassment I let the conversation move forward until I couldn’t bare it any longer. I had to know who he was.
An adopted son raised in Zebulon, Georgia he began writing songs by age five and picked up guitar from his Grandfather. At thirteen he had his “conversion” to Atheism, written about in the spellbinding “Speed Racer” off of his first album Little (produced by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe.) A car accident at 18 that rendered him paralyzed and able to play only rudimentary guitar chords emboldened his disbelief.
Still Chesnutt couldn’t stay away from music. Between 1990 and 2009 he managed to issue 17 records, working with: the aforementioned Stipe, Widespread Panic (under the name brute.), alt-country group Lambchop, Beach Boys writer Van Dyke Parks, Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse/David Lynch under the Dark Night of the Soul banner, Elf Power, members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. That final group of collaborators would be the last backing band Chesnutt would work with, as he died from an overdose of muscle relaxants three months after the release of At the Cut.
Even if Chesnutt hadn’t committed suicide, “Flirted With You All My Life” would be one of music’s most overlooked “haunted” songs. The mysticism immediately begins with the dull kick and light patter of David Payant’s drums. They’re all that keep Chesnutt company as he sheepishly enters, “everywhere I go, you’re always right there with me.” Then a bluesy guitar lick and minute organ appear, and like the unnamed subject stick around for the whole show. The show is one of misdirection and deception though; surviving on more illusions than a Copperfield routine. We’re lead to believe this great enchantress is another woman, who kissed Chesnutt “once or twice” and “touched a friend of mine” leading to Chesnutt’s deep resentment. “I found out with time, that really, I was not ready,” Chesnutt sullenly admits and just as we’re expecting a cautionary chorus about the price of romantic jealousy, he addresses death. “Oooooh death, oooooh death, oooooh death, I’m not ready,” he warbles. It’s not any blighted romance he’s tortured by, but death itself. Death is the only constant, always teasing with “sweet relief.”
In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Chesnutt shared he’d attempted suicide three or four times before and it “didn’t take.” He “flirted with it” and after every dalliance realized, “I don’t deserve the sweet relief of death yet, because I haven’t accomplished my tasks yet.” Such an admission comes wrapped in tremendous pain, particularly that of his mother who died of cancer in his mid-20s. “You made her beg for it, Lord Jesus, please, I’m ready,” Chesnutt relays; reminding us how unrelenting death can be.
For all death’s cruelty, it inspired Chesnutt in an honest, beautiful way to pen what he referred to as a “break-up song.” And while it’s easy to freak out about “breakups or deaths,” to worry we’ll never be able to recover, it’s important to consider Chesnutt’s own words about “Flirted With You All My Life”: “this song is a joyous song.” Sure they’ll “hector” us from time-to-time, but there’s no permanence to them. And in that impermanence we can find “sweet relief.”