Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bard of Town

I live in Athens, Georgia. When I am someplace else--say, Savannah or Asheville, North Carolina--and I tell someone where I live, it generally follows that they happen to have an I'm-not-kidding-you-the-craziest-story-you've-ever-heard-in-your-life about the town I live in. The stories usually take place when that person was between the ages of 16 and 25, and generally start with that person either coming to Athens for a football game or to visit a friend who was going to college here, and end: "and later, a nurse in the emergency room told me I was really lucky to be alive." Usually it's because that person drank so much he got in a fight outside the Georgia Theater and then had to get his stomach pumped.

People come to my town to drink and to listen to music or to drink and watch football. Getting people drunk is our special little cottage industry. I don't drink, and I've never been to a UGA football game and I generally don't go out to watch someone play music--however proficiently--because music in Athens doesn't start until around 11 PM. Blah blah blah. I'm old and crotchety...blah...need my sleep...blah is always too loud...blah blah blah...bars smell gross...blah.

Anyway, every February I make an exception to my not-going-to-bars-in-Athens rule in order to see Vic Chesnutt and Jonathan Richman. Last night, I went to see Jonathan Richman like I do practically every year, but this year Vic Chesnutt wasn't there because he died this Christmas.

Vic was a local, and though I didn't know him personally, I liked him. He used to sit out on the porch of a house on Franklin Street which was on my walk to work, and sometimes I waved to him, and sometimes he waved back. He was a little man in a wheelchair with wispy brown hair and a high, funny voice and a sense of humor that made you laugh and feel terrible that you were laughing. But West of Rome will always be one of my favorite albums of all time, and when I close my eyes and listen to those songs, I am 22 and walking down Chattooga Street in July, smelling the railroad ties and the kudzu that's growing up the ladder of that old water tower, listening to the homeless guys' laughter from their hangout under the Chase Street bridge, and thinking hard about some personal drama that will never matter to anyone else--that won't matter to me in three months--but at that moment seems so heroic and hideous, so transcendentally important.

Anyway, I was proud to have Vic as a neighbor because people like him are the people who make my town--this town where people come to party and make stories for themselves--a place where people live. Vic told the stories of this place so well, and in a way I recognized and loved. I read in an interview recently that he once said he wanted to write a song about every single person in Athens before he died. I think he might have managed it.

Here's some old Vic Chesnutt.
And some newer:


  1. I didn't know who Vic Chestnutt was until I listened to this podcast recently:

    I usually don't like the Fresh Air episodes about musicians I don't know, but this one really stuck to my ribs. It's really touching.

  2. jessie,

    Go to Brent Tozzer's blog: Banjos? I don't need no stinkin banjos. He put up a post on Vic. They used to play a lot over on King Street.

    Edward, George Norman and I opened for him at the Unitarian Church in 91 or 92. Vic's only stipulation was we only play and not sing so as not to show him up.

    After hearing/seeing the show, with "Vic Art" introductions to each songs, there wasn't much chance we might show him up...

    The interview with Terry Gross on NPR is worth a listen. He was a very complex person.Didn't know you knew Vic.