The Life, Debt and Death of Vic Chesnutt

Photo by Ben McCormick

Singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt intentionally overdosed on muscle relaxers, lapsed into a coma and died Christmas morning, aged 45, in his hometown of Athens, Georgia. A memorial service was held for him today.

Many are devastated, some are angry, few seem surprised. In addition to his physical impediments (he’d been wheelchair bound since 1983 when a drunk-driving accident left him paralyzed from the waist down with limited use of his hands and arms), Chesnutt struggled his entire adult life with crippling depression. He channeled this anguish into writing raw, unflinching songs that tackle the pain of the human condition head on, often with a wicked sense of humor.

His scrappy authenticity garnered the love and respect of a wide variety of fellow musicians, from Jeff Mangum to Michael Stipe to Patti Smith. His band lineups over the years included members of Fugazi, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Elf Power, Throwing Muses, and more.

In 1996, Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins, REM, Sparklehorse, the Indigo Girls and others covered Mr. Chesnutt’s songs for Sweet Relief II: The Gravity of the Situation, a tribute album benefiting a foundation that raises funds to help pay the medical bills of uninsured musicians.


It was, needless to say, a cause close to the decedent’s heart. There can be no doubt that Chesnutt’s ongoing struggle to pay off Sisyphean medical costs contributed to his despair. He’d recently been served with a lawsuit filed by a Georgia hospital after accruing surgery bills totaling over $70,000. He couldn’t afford more than hospitalization insurance, and was no longer able to keep up with the payments. From an interview with the LA Times earlier this month:

I really have no idea what I’m going to do. It seems absurd they can charge this much. When I think about all this, it gets me so furious. I could die tomorrow because of other operations I need that I can’t afford. I could die any day now, but I don’t want to pay them another nickel.

What a nightmare. Now is not the time to get into a political discussion about health care reform in the United States (actually, no, strike that– it’s probably the perfect time… I just don’t personally have the stomach for one at the moment) but it’s worth at least acknowledging that the horrific plight of the uninsurable is one faced by untold millions of far less luminary –and conflicted– Americans than Vic Chesnutt.

Chesnutt’s good friend Kristin Hersh has set up a tribute page accepting donations. 100% of that money will go to his family.


I am a man
I am self aware
and everywhere I go
You’re always right there with me.

I 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.

Oh, Death. Oh, Death. Oh, Death.
Really, I’m not ready.

Oh, Death, you hector me
and decimate those dear to me
and tease me with your sweet relief.
You’re cruel, and you are constant.

When my mom was cancer sick
she fought but then succumbed to it.
But you made her beg for it:
“Lord Jesus, please, I’m ready.”

Oh, Death. Oh, Death. Oh, Death.
Really, I’m not ready. No, no.
Oh, Death. Oh, Death. Oh, Death.
Clearly, I’m not ready.
No, no…

5 Responses to “The Life, Debt and Death of Vic Chesnutt”

  1. Ben Morris Says:

    So while I’d heard the name mentioned in extolling phrasing for years and years I hadn’t actually really listened to Chesnutt’s music until several months ago. I loved it. Honest, painful and very beautiful.

    He will be missed by me. I don’t really know what more to say.

  2. Celephais Says:

    I saw the man live several years ago in the smallest of small bars (now, like Chesnutt, sadly gone). The space literally seated about 30 people. Chesnutt played beautiful, vital music; both it and its creator will be sorely missed.

  3. Ardnort Says:

    Very sorry to hear of his death. Humerous, biting commentator.

  4. scarygirl Says:

    What a nightmare. He was pretty much driven to suicide.

  5. Kale Kip Says:

    That man was my personal hero