The stories surrounding the passing of Vic Chesnutt are getting more complicated and the tragedy keeps compounding as more details, which I will not go into here so don’t ask, are revealed. So many longtime friends and collaborators of Vic’s have written gorgeous, emotionally bare remembrances and tributes. A few sincerely choked me up.
Unlike a lot of you, I don’t remember the last time I saw Vic Chesnutt. But I do remember the first time I saw him.
And that’s what I want to talk about.
When I first moved to Athens I walked everywhere. I had a car but rarely used it. I was living in the then-all-male Russell Hall up near the peak of Baxter Hill. Wuxtry Records was across the street and Ruthless Records briefly operated a location next door to the bookstore on the same block so there were two record shops within a stones throw of my window. Downtown was quickly accessed by cutting down Finley Street through the Parkview Homes housing project and, once downtown, well, everything was there. The Downstairs, The Rockfish Palace, The 40 Watt on Clayton Street (now The Caledonia), The Potter’s House Thrift Store (now the 40 Watt), Herbie’s, the main locations of Wuxtry and Ruthless, Paul Thomas’s Spend Money Here, the original Go Clothing and a few other places that have slipped into the ether.
My roommate, a burly corn-fed guy named Steve Ritchie who worked in the meat department at the Alps Road Winn-Dixie and hated all my records save Elvis Costello, would regularly tell me “Gordon, you don’t need to be going downtown and seeing those bands every night.” His alternative for me was to stay in the dorm and drink smuggled beer with him and this guy that lived across the hall who played Eagles and Steve Miller records all the time. Now, Mr. Ritchie was a sincerely swell guy (no, for real, he was old-school Alpharetta country boy through and through; The cow-pasture and farmland Alpharetta that really existed once upon a time. The one no one knows about.) and we got along great even though to look at our room, with his Budweiser girl posters on one side and my Siouxsie & The Banshees posters on the other side would seem to witness otherwise. But as much as we got along, we were worlds apart in some ways. I did need to go see those bands every night.
(Above: The Grit, Hoyt Street Station, Athens, GA. 1989. Credit: Ian McFarlane.)
This was the fall of 1989 and the weather was the normal Georgia autumn.Warm days followed by alternating cool and balmy nights. The Grit was located at the Hoyt Street Station back then, occupying the far-right end of the building (the same spot that would hold the essential Hoyt Street North club in its immediate future). The whole damn thing burned down years ago and a parking lot is in its place. The Grit at that time would be unrecognizable to The Grit now. It had a very limited menu and was open quite late. I mainly went there to drink coffee and read books. (One time they featured “All Night Movies” and were gonna be open for 24 hours straight. I showed up around midnight and the place was pretty empty except for one guy asleep in the loft upstairs [where the “movies” were being shown on a TV with a VCR. What it wound up being was movies dubbed onto videotape with porn spliced in between scenes. The whole thing was a gag/art project. Welcome to Athens, little buddy] and a few regulars hanging out playing chess or whatever downstairs. )
Anyway, it was on a pretty regular night that the following happened. I ate dinner at Bolton Hall, went back to the dorm and slept for a few hours, got up and started walking downtown. Through the project, across Broad Street, down Hancock to Hull and then down the pitch-black stretch of Hull to where it connected with Hoyt Street, past T.K. Harty’s and on down the front deck of the station. I went into The Grit and, again, the crowd wasn’t huge. I’d seen the place filled up before but this night wasn’t one of them. On the floor over to the right side (using the front door as a reference) was a guy in a wheelchair, drunk as could be, banging out song after song on his little blue guitar. A pint of whiskey was cradled between his knees and after each song he’d yell out something/anything to the folks who weren’t there to see him in the first place and then pull several-second-long slugs from the bottle. This went on for a while. Eventually, he finished a song, went to drink from his bottle and the bottle was empty. He rested his student-size guitar on his right knee, held the bottle up with his left hand and declared, “That’s it! I’m not playing anymore until somebody gets me some liquor!” No one did and he stopped played.
That was the night I met Vic Chesnutt.
After catching him a few more times and knowing he had recorded some stuff I asked him about his upcoming album and what the title was going to be. His one-word answer that I’ll never forget was, “Little”. I can still see him saying it and knowing what to look forward to. So, 1990 rolls around and Texas Hotel releases Little and I pick it up at Wuxtry and take it back to Russell Hall. It remains, by leaps and bounds and any other magnitude you care to imagine, my favorite record of his. Consummately Southern and written with point-blank directness, Little is such a massively impressive piece of work that I could write for hours dissecting it. The recording is spacious in that you can hear tape-hiss all over it and real distance between Vic and his background singers (“Stevie Smith”). It’s also claustrophobic (“Bakersfield”) but, most often, heavy-sighing (“Independence Day”).
But my favorite was always “Rabbit Box”. It’s two stories in one song, each beginning with hopefulness and curiosity and each ending with mixed results. They’re lonely stories of a boy creating his own world and having adventures and having to deal with fear. Admittedly, I may be making the bad mistake of confusing aloneness with loneliness. Indeed, the boy is alone but there’s no clear desire for company, either. And his aloneness isn’t akin to emptiness. And I never built a rabbit box or hid in my neighbors pasture but I did discover my daddy’s tools and built bicycle ramps in my backyard and swung from branches in the overgrown field next door only to find that the neighbors had a bad habit of dumping junk appliances there. I played by myself for many years; adventures that sometimes ended in inarticulate disappointment. Vic’s adult-self finds the words with the final line of the song:
“Well, they sure looked like doves to me.”
And, that’s it. That’s the story of the first time I saw Vic Chesnutt and how that unplanned walk to The Grit one night 20 years ago led me to a single song I’ll never forget and the one that has remained the first thing that comes to mind whenever I think of Vic.
Now it always will be.
Rabbit Box-Vic Chesnutt
While I was still in elementary school
I discovered Daddy’s tools
And amassed a small pile, of scrap lumber.
And I built a rabbit box
And I set it facing north
But I caught a possum and a kitten
Both of which were a bitch to set free.
’Cause I thought they were going to bite me
But we all three escaped safely.
Well, once I took my single shotgun
And put on my camouflage
And hid in the neighbor’s pasture by the little cow pond.
And finally after a long time
A bunch of doves flew by
And landed in a huddle on the power line.
And so I aimed with an eagle’s eye and fired
But it was two pigeons that fell like bean bags into the weeds
Well, they sure looked like doves to me.
(Note: The final two paragraphs of this piece were edited and changed on January 4, 2010. I wasn’t entirely happy with the earlier version I had published.)