Music Interviews

GUY RAZ, host:

We end tonight on a sad note from the music world. Singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt died yesterday. He was just 45. A few days before Christmas, he'd fallen into a coma. The New York Times is reporting that the coma was caused by an overdose of muscle relaxants.

Chesnutt hailed from Athens, Georgia, and his quirky, Southern gothic lyrics earned comparisons not to other songwriters, but to fiction writers like Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner.

(Soundbite of song, "Gravity of the Situation")

Mr. VIC CHESNUTT (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) Well, a fat, hungry English crow was picking at a carcass. The gravity of the situation is hard to focus and harness.

RAZ: At the age of 18, Vic Chesnutt was injured in a car accident that left him wheelchair-bound. He was already suffering from depression, but the accident only made his condition worse.

Michael Stipe, from the band R.E.M., was Vic Chesnutt's close friend and sometimes producer.

Mr. MICHAEL STIPE (Lead Vocalist, R.E.M.): He was able to bring levity to very dark emotions and feelings, and he had a humor that is really very unusual. I said recently that I thought he was one of our greatest songwriters and one of our greatest voices, and it's just very sad that he's now dead.

RAZ: You first met Vic Chesnutt in the mid-'80s. What was it about his music that struck you from the beginning?

Mr. STIPE: Vic had set up a residency at a small club here in Athens. I think it was on Wednesday nights. And he would come in, and he would sing whatever songs he'd written that week, usually about people that were in the club having a beer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STIPE: And at one point, I just said, we have got to get these songs on tape. We went into the studio. I just booked time to put down maybe three or four of his songs, and he didn't stop singing until I ordered a pizza. And after we ate the pizza, he continued singing until he had, I think, recorded every song that he had written to that point.

RAZ: And Vic Chesnutt, of course, suffered from depression. And he had actually been quite open about the fact that at times in his life, he had attempted suicide. How present was depression in his day-to-day life?

Mr. STIPE: From the song "Florida" to the song "Flirted with You All My Life," which is, in his words, his breakup song with death, Vic was very, very open about talking about his depression, and about suicidal tendencies and thoughts.

(Soundbite of song, "Florida")

Mr. CHESNUTT: (Singing) If a man must take his life in his own hands, hit those nails on the head. And I respect a man who goes to where he wants to be. Even if he wants to be dead...

RAZ: When was the last time you had a chance to see him or speak with him?

Mr. STIPE: Well, I was at the hospital yesterday when he passed. The last time I saw Vic perform was in New York at Carnegie Hall. And we spoke after that show, and he was in great spirits.

RAZ: What will you most remember about him, Michael Stipe?

Mr. STIPE: I think the thing I would have to say is his laugh, and his ability to take a very kind of dark moment and twist it, and make everyone laugh at themselves. He had a brilliant way of doing that. And I will miss that for the rest of my life.

RAZ: That's R.E.M.'s lead singer Michael Stipe, remembering his friend, singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who died yesterday at the age of 45.

Michael Stipe, thank you for speaking with us during this difficult time.

Mr. STIPE: Thank you, Guy.

(Soundbite of song, "Flirted with You All My Life")

Mr. CHESNUTT: (Singing) 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. Cold death, cold death, oh, death, really, I'm not ready...

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Thanks for listening and have a great night.

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