Monday, July 28, 2008

His Own Devices

Vic Chesnutt - Live at the Knitting Factory, NYC (3/16/97) Part 1

Vic Chesnutt - Live at the Knitting Factory, NYC (3/16/97) Part 2

I'll be honest. I wasn't thrilled with Vic Chesnutt's debut album, Little. It'd be easy for me to lie and say I've been a fan since the first note of the album, but I wasn't. My brother Mike, on the other hand, has always been one. Mike tried to get me to listen to it and fall in love with it, but I just couldn't.

Big part of my problem was the Stipe Connection. I don't like Michael Stipe. I don't like REM, overall, but for a handful of songs and maybe two albums that are pretty good. I never understood the obsessive REM fixation so many of my generation had, when there were so many BETTER bands receiving only a tiny bit of attention and credit.

But, this ain't about REM. I'll vent in a later post about Peter Buck, rest assured; now I guess I'll talk about Vic and how I came to love him. (This is gonna be a long post; ignore now if you want).

We were living in Kirksville, Missouri at the time (1993) and not very happy. The town was as rural as a city of 12,000 could get (they say 16,000 but that's counting the students at the University and the medical college - in summer, that is one empty little city!) and we were pretty stressed about life. I had only a part-time job and couldn't find any better. There was no cultural life of any kind in the town and we knew nobody. We were undergoing culture-shock trying to transition from Madisonia to Missourah and not doing it very well. On top of that, we had no money and lived on a diet of rice and beans (probably a much healthier diet than we currently have!). A visit from family in Wisconsin was exciting because they'd bring us beer and cheese! I remember how daring we felt, financially, when we splurged and bought ourselves an eight-pack of Rhinelander one day for a whole $1.98! I was also going full-time to school, too, which wasn't easy because I hadn't been in a classroom since 1984 and I had to literally re-learn how to read. I didn't know how to read a textbook - non-fiction was a foreign land. I thought one read it like a novel, closely, deeply. Boy, was I stoopid! Wasted a lot of time those first couple of years.

Another care package of a kind came from my brother Mike. He'd come down with all the latest music he'd been listening to and I'd buy cheap tapes at the dollar store or tape over old radio shows and try to get everything he'd brought for later listening. That's how I first heard GBV, but that's another post. One such album was the then brand-new Vic album, Drunk. Mike was really hyped about it and I politely gave it a listen. And another. And another. In the end, I listened to Drunk pretty damn obsessively for months.

Today, I can barely listen to it, because I can't hear the actual album but only my memories of it. Just thinking of it puts me back in that little old bungalow house we rented from that bastard landlord ("Steve!!!!"), sitting in our cramped spare room with two walls made up of nothing but bricks, boards and books and the window wall with my ancient metal desk up against it and my wife's Brother word-processor and it's eight-inch green phosphor screen. That's where I did all my writing for my classes, with the boombox on still another bookshelf behind me, blaring all the time to drown out my anxiety over our poverty and depression.

That later became my favorite room in the house after our son was born in '95, because it got the morning sun. We'd moved out the desk by then and put in a metal and fabric torture device known as a folding bed and for the first six months of my life as a stay-at-home Dad I'd be in that room every morning with The Boy. I'd lay him on the floor on some comfy pillows and sit myself on the bed and play my Ovation for him, making up stoopid songs about alligators and Mark Twain and cilantro and just messing around playing in open tunings. We both loved it. First chord was always a big bright E and he'd grin from ear to ear when I hit that. I can still see that smile, hear that chord.

Fast forward or rewind or something here, to early winter of 1994. To my amazement, Vic Chesnutt was playing on campus - and at a free show. Free was important. Granted, it was in the basement of some building as part of a benefit or something for diversity but it was still several wonderful things at once: it was live music and it was Vic Chesnutt! I couldn't imagine what he'd be like live; I only hoped it would be a decent show. What a putz I was to even think that. Decent? Ha!

It was...I dunno. I wasn't like anything I'd ever experienced musically. Every song was wrenched from somewhere deep inside, every word and every note. He alternated between guitar and a cheap little toy keyboard and I felt like I was hearing an orchestra. I felt like I was reading books of poetry, dozens at a time, with every line of every song he sang. I'm still unable, fourteen years later, to describe this show or its effect on me. He didn't get to the rest of the audience the same way, though. It was a pretty packed room for his first song and by the last there was only a handful of us left. I'll be nice and just call them stupid-ass college kids more concerned with getting to their Friday night drunkfests than experiencing musical nirvana. For a dry campus, a lot of drinking went on there.

After the show, I went up and blabbered a bit to Vic as he was trying to pack his gear away. Standard "Awesome show! You were great!" crap, but I wanted to really talk about something with him, too. Vic had mentioned between songs about being verbally put down by one of his heroes, Allen Ginsberg, who told him that titling an album Drunk was irresponsible of him since drinking had put him in a wheelchair. It was an obviously recent and painful story to tell and it really got to me. I had my own Ginsberg story albeit more amusing and shared it with him (maybe some other time, folks). I could barely find my voice I was so nervous but as soon as Vic knew this was "serious talking" (ie, about poetry), he got animated and we both tripped over our tongues we were so excited.

Eventually we ended up outside. It was cold and clear but thankfully windless. My wife was about eight or so months pregnant (I guess Vic was the first concert our son ever heard!) and I needed to get her home, but she was wonderfully patient and sweet while Vic and I talked. I wanted to invite him back to our house and I could tell that Vic was hoping I would - saving him the cost of a hotel plus continuing our conversation - but I knew that couldn't happen. We were in nesting mode at the house and bringing a stranger in wouldn't have been good for my wife I knew. But before we parted, Vic - who was very excited that my wife was a "library scientist," since she has a masters in library science, something his own wife was pursuing at the time - laid his hands on her belly and spoke a blessing on our Boy. I think it worked - he's the best kid in the world. Smart, funny, handsome and apparently with way more musical talent than his old Dad. Thanks, Vic.

I've seen Vic since and had another chance to talk with him and it was also good. I've actually got that second show but it's not the one I'm sharing today. This is Vic in full band mode, with Brute. And it's an excellent broadcast recording. If you haven't heard "Westport Ferry" before, I envy you. I'm tearing up and getting shivers just thinking about it. I'm not sure if there's a better song in the world.

And buy shit!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember the first Vic gave me....liked it very much.Small,simple,powerful.Reminds me a bit of Ronnie Lane.For some reason.Songs about nothing but everyday things.Folk songs.