Cheating the Reaper

On Easter morning Vic Chesnutt rose from the dead.

It's 1983: He's up all night, drinking, getting one-eyed blind. He goes for a drive.

You know what's coming, another 18-and-bulletproof kid out of his skull bearing down on a highway near you. There's the ditch, the car hurtling downward, rolling…

Partially paralyzed, his neck broken, Chesnutt lay in intensive care for a month. "That's like every-day-you-can-die kind of deal. And I died. You die and they shock your ass and you're back awake."

Awake now for 20 years, the Athens, Georgia, singer-songwriter has recorded 11 idiosyncratic albums, the latest of which, Silver Lake, brings him to the Mucky Duck Thursday.

The disc was made in an old mansion overlooking the boho Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. The high-ceilinged Paramour, built for an oil heiress, was abandoned before some hipsters bought it and rented it out for music and film.

Producer Mark Howard (Lucinda Williams) used it as a recording studio. "The president of New West Records is friends of Lucinda, and she was recording up there," Chesnutt explains by phone from Georgia. "He came up there, saw the studio, met [Howard], saw how he worked, listened to what he was doing with Lucinda, thought, 'Oh, this is a good thing.' "

Last winter Chesnutt moved into the mansion for three weeks. "My little bedroom was right next to where Sarah McLachlan was recording her new record, and I had a great view of downtown L.A."

Immersed in the homey atmosphere, he recorded live with a band of Doug Pettibone (Lucinda, Alejandro Escovedo) on guitar, Daryl Johnson (Neville Brothers, Emmylou Harris) on bass, Patrick Warren (Tracy Chapman) on keyboards and Mike Stinson (Christina Aguilera) on drums. Vic's old pal Don Heffington added percussion.

The dual drumming changed the feel of the record, Chesnutt says.

"All my songs are just kind of written, and they can be played any way, any old way that you can shake it."

You say this about few artists: The album is a typical Vic Chesnutt release and thus unlike anything he's done.

Born in 1964 in Jacksonville, Florida, Chesnutt grew up outside Atlanta. The kid visited Houston frequently, spending summers with his grandparents Clara and Sleepy. "Houston looms large in my rock and roll heritage, because I used to see my grandfather play music in Pasadena."

That would be country-swing guitarist Sleepy Carter. "All those old-timers would get together and play for a bunch of other old-timers. So it was pretty cool. There was some good jamming going on. My grandfather was a good jazzy country player."

It clicked: This is a life. "Definitely. That was what I knew, that guys sat around with guitars and sang."

Chesnutt played Sleepy's 1953 Gibson L7 on Silver Lake.

Vic took trumpet lessons, playing the bleater in the high school marching band and in the school jazz band. "The jazz band, all of us kids, we sucked," he says proudly.

He also blew brass in a rock cover band, Sundance, that played the usual beer-stained holes. He was 16; everybody else was in their thirties. He was making a couple C-notes a week.

Then the car wreck.

In the hospital he'd drift toward the other side only to be shocked back to life. "I didn't see the white light, but everything was so nice and calm. Then I heard the machines go beep…beep, like that. It sounded like a million miles away. Then they shocked me and I was back."

So, Vic, what's the Other Side like? A good place to tour? "Oh, yeah, death is great. It's better than heroin. It's such a painkiller. Now, everything going right up to death sucks like shit; the dying part sucks. The other side is great. You can't feel that good on earth."

All laid up, he began reading the poets -- Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, Steven Crane, Emily Dickinson. "All that stuff, I was blown away. I couldn't believe that people had so much to say and could blow your mind with just a couple of words strung together.

"I'd been writing songs a long time before that, but it changed my songs completely. There was a certain kind of switch where all my songs became more 'adult' or whatever you call it, where I realized that each line has to have its power."

After recovering -- he's still in a wheelchair -- he rambled to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, outside Nashville. It was not a career move.

"No, just to get the hell out of my house. I was 18, 19, you can't live with your parents when you're that old. I had to get out of there. I was just going to be a bum, basically, living on my welfare, I thought, 'That's what I'll be, a bum.' "

A year later he enrolled in night school at the University of Georgia, studying English until he didn't graduate.

"I just kind of found myself playing in the bars around Athens and being swept up in the whole rock and roll thing."

That'll happen. Around 1985 he met R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe at the 40 Watt Club, where Chesnutt's band, the La Di Das, often played. A few years later Stipe coaxed him into a recording studio.

"He had the power to do it, because he'd been at [a studio] for weeks doing the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies record, and he had some extra time, so he just slipped me in there."

They cut and mixed 20 songs in a day. Nine became his first album, Little, released on Texas Hotel in 1990.

"Everything changed then," he says. "Right when my first record came out I started touring, I got married [Tina, no kids]. I was taken completely out of the Athens scene. In fact, I never hung out again, really; I was always gone working. I just kind of lived here."

He recorded prolifically, twice with Athens jam band Widespread Panic.

His records can be a difficult listen. The artist is vulnerable yet cantankerous. He's mischievous. His music's got attitude. It collides into itself, seeking only its salvation. This is scary. Help! We're too close to the end, my friend. You remember too much, of that Easter morning, of how it felt hurtling into the nowhere dawn.

Behold, however, his total disregard for pop reward. "Maybe college radio can get a chuckle out of me," he says without bitterness. We applaud that. No surrender. Access this: words of pain, shaped by memories, stretched to abstraction and liberated. Songs of sad beauty, lost and loopy and world-weary, morphing into majestic rock and roll.

It all comes from within, somewhere deep down. This hard planet is irrelevant. Hurts too much. Athens? It's a town. Lots of cool bands, plenty o' clubs. Gutter punks hitting up the college kids, bumming like Vic was gonna do once, become a bum, and all before the words saved him. Rents going up, pricing out the artists, the bohemians scattering, finding new scenes.

His road band is borrowed from the RockAthens scene: Guitarist Curtiss Pernice of Porn Orchard, drummer Ballard Lesemann of the Rockateens and bassist Sam Mixon of Sunshine Fix. Their trail has led to Europe and now the States. So the song man is paralyzed. Touring burdens everybody. You go. You get out there and open your songs and allow the words to make peace.

"I'm still scared of a lot of different things," he says. "I'm just not scared of dying anymore."

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Marty Racine