Glimpses of a musician’s life and death.
When the singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt (1964-2009) committed suicide with an overdose of muscle relaxants, he left behind an acclaimed, if not widely known, body of work and a devoted following, particularly among fellow musicians. One of those musicians is Hersh (Rat Girl: A Memoir, 2010, etc.), leader of the alternative rock band Throwing Muses, who became close friends with Chesnutt and, as a solo artist, toured with him often. Her book, a combination of memoir and prose poem, is an occasionally cryptic and often oblique elegy for the man with whom she shared many hours onstage and off, touring small venues for little pay where a certain principled indie rock still thrives. Chesnutt, who was paralyzed and used a wheelchair, appears here as cantankerous, outrageous, vulgar, and brilliant; Hersh, whose devotion always triumphs over her exasperation, also emphasizes his moments of kindness and humor. Wisely, the author does not linger on the sound of his music or his two-finger guitar playing—that is best left to the recordings—but she does capture his incessant wordplay and talent for pulling perfectly formed lyrics and melodies seemingly out of the air or, more often, the conversations around him. Chesnutt’s banter—with Hersh, himself, or anyone in earshot—can be quite funny, and even when it borders on inside-joke territory, it makes the author’s account more endearing. But this is hardly a fond remembrance, as Hersh’s portrait of Chesnutt is colored by pain, frustration, and, ultimately, heartbreak. Despite the author’s best efforts, Chesnutt remains a somewhat inscrutable figure—though there is no mistaking the rareness and depth of their friendship.
The book’s great sadness is matched by the skill and vitality of Hersh’s writing; it will make treasured and troubled reading for fans of Chesnutt and the author alike.