"I bent over backwards to misbehave," Vic Chesnutt sang in 1993's "Dodge," "It's a holy wonder I just didn't flip on over into an early grave." Like many of Chesnutt's lyrics, it proved to be heartbreakingly prophetic. The indie singer-songwriter was wracked with depression and debt after a car accident left him quadriplegic when he was a teenager. And he'd survived a few suicide attempts before overdosing on muscle relaxants in December 2009. He died on Christmas Day at age 45.
Chesnutt's music was spare and despairing, sometimes funny, sometimes angry, often in the same song. Maybe only someone with a similar sensibility — compassionate, elusive, afraid but defiant — could begin to explain the man behind the beautiful songs that have been covered by musicians from R.E.M. to Joe Henry and Madonna. In her stunning new memoir Don't Suck, Don't Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt, Kristin Hersh, frontwoman of the indie band Throwing Muses, proves she's that person.
Hersh and Chesnutt had been friends since the 1990s; they toured together frequently and shared the same Southern-inspired oddball aesthetic. They also both battled depression, and much of Don't Suck, Don't Die deals with Hersh's attempts to ease her friend's pain. The experience, of course, was beyond painful: "I watched you fade into yourself, sick," Hersh writes. "Weird-ass junkie retard Christ. Sorry, ex-junkie. The only way you could stop suffering was to suffer some more."
Don't Suck, Don't Die begins in a parking lot in Alabama, where Hersh and Chesnutt stopped on a road trip with their spouses. Hersh tries to give Chesnutt a Jolly Rancher candy, urging him to "Grab sugar wherever it falls." Chesnutt, who preferred lukewarm instant coffee, was having none of it: "That is prob'ly the gayest thing you ever said." He was a maddening figure, capable of both great compassion and casual cruelty. "For a son of a bitch, you radiated kindness," Hersh writes. "Maybe you were an angel, I don't know. You only sometimes acted like one."
The book follows Hersh and Chesnutt over the years, from concerts the two played in England and France to nights spent just hanging out at Chesnutt's Athens, Ga., home. It's obvious that Hersh has an abiding love for her friend, though she's not afraid to write about his darker moments; her book isn't a hagiography. In one section, Hersh recounts Chesnutt punching a young man backstage at a Vancouver theater. "What did he do?" a stunned Hersh asks. "Nuthin'," Chesnutt replies.
With the exception of two opening paragraphs and a selected discography at the end, all of Don't Suck, Don't Die is written in the second person; it's essentially a long valedictory letter from Hersh to Chesnutt. It's a technique that could seem forced in the hands of a less experienced writer, but Hersh, whose previous memoir Rat Girl won critical acclaim, handles it flawlessly. The effect is extraordinarily powerful — it gives Hersh a way to express both the love and the anger that Chesnutt inspired in her.
And anyone who's lost a close friend or family member knows what that mixture feels like. It's irrational and confusing, and Hersh captures it perfectly. "[Y]ou started with a broken heart and blamed everyone you met after that for breaking it," she writes. And then later, nearly broken under the weight of her grief: "Fallen, but not in free fall: in misery, but still singing. 'I am not a good ... man.' No, not always. But you were maybe a good angel."
The act of writing about losing a loved one can be a catharsis, or it can be a special kind of nightmare. Frequently, it's both. And we may never know what it was like for Hersh — memoirs of grief are inevitably difficult, especially when the subject is someone as widely loved as Chesnutt. On every page of the book, she lays her pain bare, and she does so with some of the strongest writing imaginable: "God is cruel but smart. He really did break you in all the right places."
Don't Suck, Don't Die is not only one of the best books of the year, it's one of the most beautiful rock memoirs ever written. Hersh is as stunningly talented an author as she is a musician, and her portrayal of Chesnutt is perfectly done. In "Sponge," Chesnutt sang, "I'll soon be silent, you'll soon hear nothing." Thanks to Hersh, we get a chance to hear Chesnutt again, and his voice, though weary and harsh and broken, is just as angelic as it ever was. Perhaps nobody could have saved Chesnutt, but as Hersh writes, "Sometimes we wanna die. And sometimes we watch each other live through it. This is maybe all the saving anyone ever amounts to."