In Memoriam: Sweet, Sad Rocker Vic Chesnutt Fresh Air remembers the life of Vic Chesnutt, a singer-songwriter discovered by R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe in the '90s. Chesnutt recently collaborated with Guy Picciotto of the band Fugazi on his latest album, At the Cut. Chesnutt died Dec. 25; we hear excerpts from his Dec. 1 conversation with Terry Gross, and reflect on his life with Stipe, Picciotto and filmmaker Jem Cohen.

In Memoriam: Sweet, Sad Rocker Vic Chesnutt

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When songwriter and singer Vic Chesnutt took his life with an overdose of prescription muscle relaxers, those of us who work on FRESH AIR were upset and shocked. He died on Christmas Day at the age of 45.

At the beginning of December, Chesnutt was a guest on our show, and we were all very moved by his story and his music. One of the things he talked about in our interview was his song "Flirted With You All My Life." It's a song about suicide, and Chesnutt talked about how he had attempted suicide at various times in his life. But his song was a breakup song with death and had the refrain: Oh death, I'm not ready.

Vic Chesnutt had been what's called an incomplete quadriplegic since a 1983 car accident when he was 18. He was in a wheelchair but had limited movement in his arms and legs and would record and tour frequently.

Today, we remember Chesnutt by listening back to excerpts of his interview and by talking to three of his close friends: Michael Stipe of REM; Guy Picciotto of Fugazi, who played on a couple of Chesnutt's albums; and Jem Cohen, who worked with Chesnutt on many film and music projects. We'll begin with my interview with Vic Chesnutt and with that song that I just mentioned, "Flirted With You All My Life."

(Soundbite of song "Flirted With You All My Life")

Mr. VIC CHESNUTT (Singer): (Singing) I am a man. I am self-aware, and everywhere I go, you're always right there with me. I've 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, told death, told death, oh death, really, I'm not ready.

GROSS: Last month, I asked Vic Chesnutt about that song.

Vic, let's talk about the lyric. The song is about flirting with suicide, but from what I've read, you've done more than flirt with it. It's something you've tried.

Mr. CHESNUTT: Right. Well, this song is a love song. It's a suicide's breakup song with death. You know, I've attempted suicide three or four times. It didn't take. And this is really a breakup song with death. You know, it's talking about flirted with, you know, flirting - I had flirted with death my whole life, you know. Even as a young kid, I was sick and almost died a few times. And then suicide attempts - it's a kind of - you know, it's a breakup song.

GROSS: Did you try to kill yourself even before the accident?

Mr. CHESNUTT: I did, yeah.

GROSS: And after the accident?

Mr. CHESNUTT: I did, yeah.

GROSS: And each time when you came through, when as you put it, death didn't take, were you relieved or sorry?

Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, you know, it's more complex. You can't - I couldn't say either. I mean, you know, sometimes I'd be angry.

GROSS: Angry that...

Mr. CHESNUTT: Angry that they revived me, you know? I'd be like, how dare you? You know, how dare you people interfere in my, you know, what is obviously my life, my wish? But you know, of course, as, you know, the hours and days wear on, you know, you realize well, there is joy to be had. I mean, this is how I -I'm sure everybody's different, you know, just how I - how it struck me. You know, when the days would wear on, you know, I would start to, you know, see some joy again in the world and be like, whew, I eked - I squeaked that one out.

GROSS: This is such an emotionally heavy album. Is it hard to write a song like this, about flirting with suicide, or is it therapeutic to write it, or you know...?

Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, it occurred to me that I would like to sing this song where at the first half of it, you think I'm singing it about a lover, and then it becomes obvious that I'm singing about death. Death is my lover. And it took a bit of time to get it to fit just right and to work. And when we were actually cutting the track, it was hard to make it through without kind of breaking down emotionally and just crying. You know, it's a heavy song, no doubt about it.

GROSS: Now, one of the heavy lines in it is about your mother. You write, 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.

How old were you when she died?

Mr. CHESNUTT: I was in my mid-20s. And that's the thing about a suicidal person, I think, is that, you know, I mean, right after my mom died was, like, one of my last suicide attempts. It really destroyed me. My dad had died a year before, and that was the end of my whole close family, who had all died off within two or three years of each other: my grandpa, my grandma, my other grandma, my mom and my dad. They all died off in a couple of years. And so I felt lost, and I was depressed. But also you see - a suicidal person, when you see somebody else die of natural causes or whatever, for me it's also a kind of wakeup call.

GROSS: Tell me more about what - the effect that had.

Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, like when my friends have died or something like that, it made me feel silly. My sorrow seemed silly and that I'm not ready to go. As I said in the song, the sweet relief, I'm not - I don't deserve the sweet relief of death yet because I haven't accomplished my tasks yet.

GROSS: Um...

Mr. CHESNUTT: But I do want to say one thing, though, about this song.

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. CHESNUTT: This song is a joyous song, though. I mean, it's a heavy song, but it is a joyous song. This is a breakup song with death, you know what I mean?

GROSS: Right, because you're saying clearly, I wasn't ready.

Mr. CHESNUTT: I'm not ready to kill myself, you know. It's a joyous song, so -and it has these very heavy aspects, you know, but it's a joyous song.

GROSS: We're listening back to an interview I recorded a few weeks ago with songwriter and singer Vic Chesnutt, who took his life and died on Christmas Day. Here's another dramatic song from his last album. It's called "Coward."

(Soundbite of song "Coward")

Mr. CHESNUTT: (Singing) The courage of the coward is greater than all others. A scaredy cat'll scratch you if you back him in a corner. But I, I, I, I am a coward. I, I, I, I am a coward. Courage born of despair and impotence. (unintelligible) shout out in fear and be very, very dangerous. I, I, I, I am coward.

GROSS: Vic Chesnutt, that is one really powerful song. Let's start talking about the lyric, which Vic Chesnutt, you wrote. The courage of the coward, greater than all others. That's a quote. Tell us where it's from and what it means to you.

Mr. CHESNUTT: It's from "McTeague," a Frank Norris book, and I wrote it down in my notebook where I write lines that I come across. And it was a very telling line because I was coming to see myself as a coward, and it was a very illuminating line in my own personal story.

GROSS: Like, in what sense do you think of yourself as a coward?

Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, in personal relationships, I don't want to confront my enemies and things like this. You know, I mean, in many ways, I'm a coward. I break up in email instead of calling you to your face, that kind of thing. You know what I mean? And when I came across this line, it felt real and felt true.

GROSS: There's another quote that you use in the lyric: a courage born of despair and impotence. Tell us about that quote and what it means to you.

Mr. CHESNUTT: Yeah, that comes from "The Radetzky March" by Joseph Roth - Roth or whatever his name is. It's another line that it felt true. You know, it was kind of the flip side of this coward - of the courage of the coward. It kind of - they dovetailed nicely together and helped illuminate this idea I had of, you know, hello, my name is Vic Chesnutt, and I am a coward.

GROSS: Today's show is a memorial for singer and songwriter Vic Chesnutt. We'll hear more of my interview with him after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're remembering songwriter and singer Vic Chesnutt. He took his life with an overdose of his prescription muscle relaxers and died Christmas Day. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with him just a few weeks ago. In this excerpt, we're talking about the car accident in 1983, when he was 18, that left him a quadriplegic, although he maintained very limited movement of his arms and legs.

Can I ask you about the accident? Is that all right?

Mr. CHESNUTT: Sure. Of course.

GROSS: Would you tell us what you know of what happened?

Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, I don't remember anything of it. I don't remember the whole day really. I was so drunk. You know, it's quite a cliche: a stupid teenager out drunk and then I had a drunk-driving car wreck and broke my neck.

GROSS: Was anyone else hurt?

Mr. CHESNUTT: Nobody else was in the car. I ran into a ditch and flipped over and just, you know, broke my neck.

GROSS: How much movement did you lose?

Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, I'm a quadriplegic from my neck down. I'm an incomplete spinal cord injury. That means that I have feeling all over my body, and I can move my legs a little bit. So it's a very strange, very strange injury. It's not like your typical spinal cord injury. It's very different.

GROSS: You play guitar, right?

Mr. CHESNUTT: I play guitar. Yes. My fingers are definitely affected greatly by my injury. Greatly. In fact, yeah, they - my fingers don't move too good at all.

GROSS: So how do you manage to play?

Mr. CHESNUTT: I just figured out a way to do it, you know? It's very strange. It's hard work to do it. It's not easy.

GROSS: Now, I know some quadriplegics don't have a lot of breath support, and it's hard for them to sing.


GROSS: But you don't seem to have trouble with that.

Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, I think one half of my diaphragm is completely paralyzed. The other one - you know, I think that one half of my diaphragm kind of works.

GROSS: How did your music change? Where were you headed before the accident, musically?

Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, I played - my chords were a lot different. There was a lot more kind of odd chords and things in my songs before I broke my neck. I also, you know, I was 18 when I broke my neck. I didn't really have anything to say at the time. I wasn't sure - I just didn't know what I wanted to say.

It was only after I broke my neck and after even like maybe a year later that I really started realizing that I had something to say. And physically, when I could start playing the guitar again after about a year, I realized that all I could play were these kinds of you know, G, F, C - those kind of chords. And so it was going to be - well, that's what I was going to do.

GROSS: Vic, how did you learn to write with chords? I mean, what did you study that introduced you to chords?

Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, my granddad taught me how to play guitar in the late '70s. This is how he taught me how to play guitar. My granddaddy, he would show me the chords to "Sweet Georgia Brown" in G, and then we would play that song for an hour without stopping, and while my granddad would play lead over it.

(Soundbite of humming)

Mr. CHESNUTT: And I would play the chords, and then that would be the lesson. And then a week later, we would come, and we would do, okay, "Sweet Georgia Brown" in A flat, and then we would do it that way, and we did it until we played all 11 keys, and that was it.

GROSS: Did you enjoy that?

Mr. CHESNUTT: I loved it. It's so much fun. My granddad was such a great guitar player that it's fun to listen to him, like, improvise these leads, you know. He would go play it through pretty much straight, you know...

(Soundbite of humming)

Mr. CHESNUTT: And then he'd go off, and it was pretty much fun to watch him. And he was having fun doing it. He didn't say anything to me, like good job or, you know, anything. We just sat there. It was a silent exercise, and it's one of my great joys of my life - is thinking back on that.

GROSS: I want to play another song from your new CD, "At The Cut," and this is a song called "Granny." So tell us about the song.

Mr. CHESNUTT: Well, yeah. This is a very strange song. This song is the only one I've ever done this with, but I dreamed it. I dreamt it completely as is on this album. I was in a hotel room in Toronto and I dreamt this song. I was looking at my granny. She was at the kitchen sink, and I was looking up at my granny from the perspective of a child. And I was crying in my dream. And then I woke up and my - the pillow was sopping wet. My face was all wet, and so obviously I was actually crying. And I realized: Holy moly, this is a great song.

And so I reached over, and I got the hotel stationery and pen, and I wrote down the lyrics as - exactly as they were in my dream. And then I reached over and got my guitar, and I figured out the chords. And wow, there it is. Straight from my subconscious to the recording tape. I mean it's an incredible thing that's never happened to me before.

GROSS: And does the song come out of real life?

Mr. CHESNUTT: I mean it's pretty much, I mean, something I could sing to my granny. I mean, in my dream, I was singing it to my granny. The last line about you are the light of my life and the beat of my heart, she always told me that. And it's about, you know, she said that I came around just when, you know, not a year after her husband died, and like I had a special place in her heart because of that. So I mean it's really, you know, very much straight out of my life and straight out of my subconscious.

GROSS: Okay. This is Vic Chesnutt with his song "Granny" from his new CD, "At The Cut."

(Soundbite of song, "Granny")

Mr. CHESNUTT: (Singing) Granny, oh Granny, where did your husband, my granddaddy go? Where did your husband, my granddaddy go? She said he went off to heaven just before you were born. She said he went off to heaven just before you were born. She said he went off to heaven just before you were born.

And she said you are the light of my life and the beat of my heart. She said, you are the light of my life and the beat of my heart. She said, you are the light of my life and the beat of my heart. She said, you are the light of my life and the beat of my heart.

GROSS: That's Vic Chesnutt from his new CD, "At the Cut." And that song is called "Granny." So, were you very close with the grandmother who you wrote that song for?

Mr. CHESNUTT: Yeah. My - that granny, it's my dad's mom. She lived in the house with us. And so, you know, she kind of took care of us. My mom and dad were commuters. They had a long drive from Pike County to the Atlanta airport and to downtown Atlanta. So, they were gone before I got up in the morning, and they came home late in the evening. And so my granny was there to take care of me and my sister. And yeah, she was great.

GROSS: Vic Chesnutt, recorded last month. Our memorial continues in the second half of the show. Chesnutt died Christmas Day. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today's show is a memorial for songwriter and singer Vic Chesnutt. He died on Christmas Day, taking his life with an overdose of his prescription muscle relaxers. Chesnutt had been what's described as an incomplete paraplegic since 1983 when he was in a car accident. He was 18 then. He was able to transform his struggles with depression and other demons into moving and dramatic songs.

We're going to hear from three of his close friends who also worked with him. Michael Stipe of R.E.M. discovered Chesnutt playing at a bar in Athens, Georgia, and produced his first two albums. Guitarist Guy Picciotto, cofounder of the band Fugazi, played on Chesnutt's album "North Star Deserter" and on his final album "At the Cut." He also toured with Chesnutt. Filmmaker Jem Cohen collaborated with Chesnutt over the years on many film and music projects.

Michael Stipe, Guy Picciotto, Jem Cohen, welcome to FRESH AIR. And I'm so sorry for your loss. I know how close you all were with Vic. I'd like to start by asking you, if you wouldn't mind, to share a favorite memory of Vic.

Mr. MICHAEL STIPE (Lead Singer, R.E.M.): I can start. This is Michael. This is such a silly thing, but from time to time, I'll write a lyric and I'll think that I might've stolen it from someone that I know. There's a point where I wrote a song called "New Test Leper" which takes place in a television studio, like a talk show, and I wrote the lyric seven times before I got it right. I finally got it right and I ended it with this beautiful line kind of commenting on this talk show and the people that were involved and, what a sad parade, what a sad parade repeated over and over again. After I wrote the song, I realized that what I had done was I had stolen a line from Vic Chesnutt.

And so I had to call Vic on the phone to say, tell me what song of yours has the line, what a sad parade in it repeated over and over? Vic said none of them. And I said well Vic, I know this is such a Vic Chesnutt lyric. I'm pretty certain that I stole it from you. You know, think hard. And he was like I never wrote that line. That's yours, which to me was funny and sweet because I had to kind of kiss the ring of his brilliance and his brilliance as a songwriter, as a friend, and as someone who clearly had a massive influence on me in what I do.

GROSS: That's a really nice story. Does anyone else want to go next?

Mr. JEM COHEN (Filmmaker): This is Jem speaking. One memory I have of Vic that I really love and I don't, I can't pinpoint it in time, but he often played a kind of undersized essentially acoustic guitar that almost look like a toy guitar because that was part of his being paralyzed was that he couldn't really handle a big one. And I just remember being completely bowled over by seeing him take this little tiny acoustic guitar and he plugged in like one or two pedals and out of him - out of the amplifier came the roar of a freight train like the craziest...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: ...most amazing distortion I've ever heard. You know, I mean it was like Neil Young's "Crazy Horse" packed into some, you know, invisible pocket on Vic's person. And I just thought that that was the wildest and most hilarious thing. But it was also an indication of how savvy he was about music because he really knew how to make minimal means do extraordinary things, and so just the image of him playing this tiny guitar and then having the option of making that incredible wallop come out of it is something that's very dear to me.

GROSS: Guy, is there one you'd like to share?

Mr. GUY PICCIOTTO (Musician): We had just finished, we just came off tour on December 6th, so I just finished doing a couple months of touring with Vic. And the days on tour were, you know, particularly with Vic more than with any band that I've been with, they were really long. We would spend from the morning when he woke up to 4 a.m. in the morning hanging out in his room, we just, the way he hung out with the band or the way he hung out with us was, it was really constant so it was kind of like a thing where it was just being immersed in Vic, you know, in such an intense way.

And the thing that I think people might not know about Vic but which was so powerful for me was the fact that his mind was, he was always processing and always working on stuff to the point where at the end of the night - in the past sometimes he'd be like yeah, let me have my guitar in my room or something like that, but on these last few tours he would be like, do not let me have my guitar in my room tonight because it meant if he had the guitar, he would stay up until dawn and past dawn writing. He couldn't stop and it was a kind of thing where it was like, you know, it's like Odysseus tied to the mast or something.

He was like, do not let me have my guitar, so I can try to get some sleep because he was just on such a burn, you know. And in the last period of time that I was working on him, I've never seen anybody just have such a creative gushing happening where he just was so in some kind of zone like that I've never seen before. You know, just music was just pouring out of the guy and yeah, to the point where he was like, you know, please take this out of my hand for a while.

GROSS: Excuse me for bringing this up, but could that have been the kind of manic side followed by a depleted, depressed side?


GROSS: No? He was just that way?

Mr. PICCIOTTO: I don't think so. I think, because Vic was like that. I mean I wouldn't try to put a pathology on his creativity at all.

GROSS: Do...

Mr. STIPE: He also, I mean Vic also loved words so much and I think I would listen to his songs and I would listen for the one word that he would try to shoehorn into a song. And if you listen to each of his songs, you'll find one word that probably has never been put into a pop song before. Vic loved using words like rascally or - what is the word that - every single song has some crazy word often....

Mr. PICCIOTTO: Latitude or squirrely or...

Mr. STIPE: Seven syllables - squirrely, some weird word that he would try to cram into a lyric and try to make it rhyme and I loved that about him as a writer. He loved his craft and he turned it into something that was much more than craft.

GROSS: Can I ask you to each choose a song that you particularly love of his and that you'd particularly recommend to our listeners?

Mr. STIPE: Well, it's hard because there are two songs that - there are three songs and I told Jem about one of them, the song "Panic Pure" for me is one of my favorites. I think about the lyrics of "Miss Mary" and how absolutely brilliant they are and the perspective that he was writing from when he wrote that song. And I think about the song "Lucinda Williams," and settled down on a hurt as big as Robert Mitchum, just that that in my lifetime that someone put that thought together and put it into a song that I can now sing in my head over and over and over again, that's a great gift. I'd love to write a song that is one-tenth that brilliant.

GROSS: Let's hear that Vic Chesnutt song that Michael Stipe was talking about. This is "Lucinda Williams."

(Soundbite of song "Lucinda Williams")

Mr. VIC CHESNUTT (Musician): (Singing) Imports, altercations, my faculties on a shoestring vacation. I settle down on a hurt as big as Robert Mitchum and listen to Lucinda Williams. Oh, convenient lies, rubber knives. I'm a dastardly villain and I'm doing belly dives. I before an E except after me. I'm dousing my vitals at breakneck speed. You and your little entourage...

GROSS: That's Vic Chesnutt performing his song "Lucinda Williams." We'll continue our Vic Chesnutt memorial with his friends Michael Stipe of R.E.M., guitarist Guy Picciotto and filmmaker Jem Cohen after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Today's show is a memorial for songwriter and singer Vic Chesnutt, who died on Christmas Day, taking his life with an overdose of his prescription muscle relaxers. My guests are three of his close friends: Michael Stipe of R.E.M., guitarist Guy Picciotto, cofounder of Fugazi, and filmmaker Jem Cohen. When we left off, I had asked them for their favorite Chesnutt songs. Jem Cohen's choice is one that Michael Stipe just mentioned, "Panic Pure."

Mr. COHEN: In "Panic Pure," I think in a way it's germane to this whole conversation because in that song, you know, you see this balance of light and darkness and also this kind of declaration of his own complexity. You know, he says, and so all you observers in your scrutiny, don't count my scars like tree rings. My jigsaw disposition, its piecemeal properties are either smoked or honey-cured by the panic pure.

Mr. STIPE: Aye aye aye.

Mr. COHEN: It's hard...

Mr. STIPE: It's amazing.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. It's hard to get through it because it's so heavy, but it's also, it's just such beautiful weird words, you know. And again, I think that he was always coming around to saying yeah, there's this panic pure in me but that's not the only force. There's also all of this other curiosity, and all of this other drive, and all of this other intelligence. And I just can't believe that he pushed as far as he did, you know, and kept delivering, you know?

GROSS: Here's the song Jem Cohen was describing, "Panic Pure," from Vic Chesnutt's CD "West of Rome."

(Soundbite of song "Panic Pure")

Mr. CHESNUTT: (Singing) And so all you observers in your scrutiny, don't count my scars like the tree rings. My jigsaw disposition, its piecemeal properties are either smoked or honey-cured by the panic pure. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, by the panic pure. And so all you observers in your scrutiny, don't count my scars like the tree rings. My jigsaw disposition, its piecemeal properties are either smoked or honey-cured by the panic pure. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, by the panic pure.

GROSS: That's Vic Chesnutt singing his song "Panic Pure." Chesnutt took his life and died on Christmas Day. We're talking with three of his close friends, Michael Stipe of R.E.M., guitarist Guy Picciotto, cofounder of Fugazi, and filmmaker Jem Cohen, who collaborated with Chesnutt on film and video projects.

Now I don't know if any of you will have a memory of this, but since he was always writing songs about everything, is there a song that comes to your mind, any of you, that you wouldn't put on record that, like his friends knew but no one else would know?

Mr. COHEN: You know I think he certainly, at soundcheck he would just invent stuff on the spot and it was always just absurdly profane.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: And no matter the context or the venue or what it was. To me it was sometimes like he would delight in how much pain it would cause me. Like if a parent of someone in the band was at the gig, like let's say you know, the drummer's mom was there at the sound check to come and say high, he couldn't help himself. He would just start saying the most just completely over the top foulness and you would just be dying. And you, you know, you'd see the confused look of the parent in the crowd and you'd just be like just - like I saw him at the Kennedy Center, like this was in the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: ...Memorial Hall of the Kennedy Center the summer, a free concert series. It's just, you know, it was just every kind of humanity you would ever imagine at the Kennedy Center: tourists, children, old people, a giant bust of JFK's head there. And he just went on this insane profane riff about JFK being a horndog and Jackie O being incredibly hot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: And everybody was just, nobody could, I was just like burning. My face was just so hot. And then when he does the show he just breaks everybody's heart like crystal. You know, that's his thing. He would just - he had these incredible poles in his personality you know, and he was a true punk. He would truly - he had no fears about being provocative or pushing people past any kind of sensible limit. You know, that was his thing.

GROSS: On his last album, which, Guy, you worked on with him, you performed on it and did some of the arrangements. He has a song called "Flirted With You All My Life," which he described as his breakup song with death, the song about flirting with death and then deciding death, I'm not ready. And after hearing that song, a lot of people, a lot of listeners who - like myself, people who didn't really know him but who would listen to him thought, well, that's probably - those thoughts of suicide are probably behind him, at least for a time. And when I interviewed him in late November, which we ran in early December, the impression I walked away with is that he was in a good space and that, at least for now, he was going to be in a good space. And that's part of why it was so shocking that he took his life. I mean, you know, people - his fans and certainly his friends knew that he'd tried before. But did you know that he was in a bad place now that, you know, before he took his life, that things were bad for him?

Mr. PICCIOTTO: Yeah. I did. A lot of his friends and families did.

Mr. COHEN: Can I jump in on this a little bit?

GROSS: Go ahead.

Mr. COHEN: Vic was very open and honest about whatever state he was in. And so we knew that he was having some kind of a mental breakdown. There were, you know, bouts of terrible depression and insomnia and, you know, in between, him being his usual funny and smart Vic. But this was serious, and it was clear to people, and people scrambled to get help for him. And he was actually quite open to it. He was open to help. And so I think, you know, for people to think that maybe he rejected that or that he just simply wanted to kill himself, I don't think that's right, personally.

He tried to get better, and the people around him tried to help him. You know, there was a local nonprofit health care center that tried, and a lot of steps were taken right away. But he was in a serious crisis, and when it came to dealing with a certain level of crisis, in my opinion, the system failed him. I mean, there were limits to what the emergency options were in his city, for one thing, like there used to be a psych ward at the hospital and there isn't anymore. And then, you know, there were bureaucratic tie-ups and things are always made harder for people in wheelchairs, and so on. And, you know, in the course of that struggle, Vic took an overdose of the prescription pills, the muscle relaxants that he had to take every day, you know, that he'd taken for many, many years. You know, and that's what happened.

GROSS: In the interview that he recorded for our show, he said he was worried about the possibility of losing a kidney because he didn't have adequate health care coverage, and he owed a lot of money to the hospital. He was afraid he was going to lose his house. He - because he had, you know, a preexisting condition, because, you know, he was paralyzed from the waist down, it was very hard for him to get health insurance. The health insurance he did have was very limited. It covered hospitalizations, or at least certain hospitalizations. He said it didn't cover his medication. It didn't cover doctors' visits. So...

Mr. STIPE: My understanding of Vic's insurance was that it only covered catastrophic conditions or emergency kind of situations, and Vic would wait and wait and wait and wait until he couldn't take whatever compounded things were going on with his body. And then he would be taken to the emergency room, at which point his insurance would kick in and pay for part of the cost. I think that these compounded other issues and other problems that he had and made it very difficult. And as Jem said, we have a system in this country that completely - absolutely and completely failed him as a person, and I think fails many people.

Mr. COHEN: You know, Terry, I think one of the things that we've all talked about is that we feel that to just say, okay, poor health care killed Vic Chesnutt - that no. I mean, that would be very reductive, and I don't think that any of us would say that. But it - did it add to the weight that he carried? You know, did health care problems add a lot to his stress, to the load that was on his shoulders? To me, the answer is undoubtedly yes, you know.

Mr. STIPE: Absolutely.

GROSS: We're remembering singer and songwriter Vic Chesnutt who died Christmas Day. My guests are three of his friends, Michael Stipe, Guy Picciotto and Jem Cohen. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Today's show is a memorial for singer and songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who took his life and died Christmas Day. My guests are three friends who work closely with him, Michael Stipe of REM, guitarist Guy Picciotto, co-founder of Fugazi, and filmmaker Jem Cohen. A few weeks before Chesnutt's death, I recorded an interview with Chesnutt and Guy Picciotto, who had recently recorded and toured with Chesnutt.

Guy, can I ask you something? You were part of the interview I recorded with Vic in late November and he sounded so good in that interview. I mean, he just sounded really together and reflective. And he sounded like he was in a good place at that moment. Was he just rising to the occasion for the interview? Was he already really depressed?

Mr. PICCIOTTO: No, I don't think so. I mean - but, I mean, I think we probably said it a hundred times today. Vic was an incredibly complicated person with -just had very - with all kinds of things in him at all times, you know. And, I mean, I've worked with him a lot in the last few years, and I've - I mean, to his capacity for joy or for bringing joy or for, you know, certainly for being creative, his - you know, his love of conversation and community and friendship and all those things, I - you know they - I don't think they ever ebbed.

I don't think they ebbed at the end. And it makes it very confusing for us, I think, who are still here, because it's just that light that was in him, I don't think that light ever went out. I talked to him every day, you know, on the phone, and there were some very hard conversations. And then we would all be laughing, laughing our asses off, you know. And that was Vic, you know. He had a very different - I think he had a very different balance between light and dark and life and death and all these things than many people do, you know. I think throughout his life, even when he was a kid, I mean, he had experiences up to the edge of death through his whole life, you know.

And he had experiences through his whole life of really - and again, I'm not talking pathologically, but just really intense highs and really intense lows. And he lived in those moments very, very deeply and he processed them very, very artistically. In a way, to be privileged to have been next to him to see some of that was, you know, it's one of the great, the great pleasures of my life, you know.

And so, no. I don't think he was putting on a good face. I think Vic was always in the moment, very genuine and very true and very sincere and very, very complicated, you know. It just is - that's - he was one of a kind like that.

Mr. COHEN: I just - I feel like if there's - when you did that other interview with him, there was a discussion about this song of his, "Coward."

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. COHEN: And he, you know, Vic was saying to you directly in this interview that, you know, he feels he's a coward. And what I want to say - and I said this to Vic - is, hey, you know, I beg to differ. Because I think that what we have to look at here is 27 years of this unbelievable life force operating against really difficult odds. You know? And it's not a coward that looks that hard at all these things that other people don't want to look at and then makes 16 records, full of, like, poetry and humor and, you know...


Mr. COHEN: ...and yeah. And also this kind of unflinching, sometimes devastating honesty, you know. And then there were film and theater projects. And, you know, right at the end, he's like, Jem, I'm writing a screenplay, you know. And so I think that that's courage, and that if there is anything that comes out of this whole situation, for me, it's that that has to be the focus, is that life force. He could have gone at many, many other moments, and if everybody now is going to just sort of obsess over like the details of his death or if they're going to see it as this kind of another one in a line of sort of, you know, cliche musician deaths, I think that's really missing an enormous opportunity because I think that we're talking about one of the great songwriters, here.

Mr. STIPE: I agree.

GROSS: I know he was in a coma before he died, and you were - the three of you were with him, I believe, when he died. And it sounds like you are still very deep in mourning for him. I just really want to say how sorry I am for your loss and how much I appreciate you talking about Vic Chesnutt with us. So, thank you very much and...

Mr. PICCIOTTO: Thank you, Terry.

Mr. STIPE: Thank you.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: That was three of Vic Chesnutt's close friends. Michael Stipe of REM, produced Chesnutt first two albums. Guitarist Guy Picciotto, cofounder of Fugazi, played on a couple of his albums and toured with him recently. Filmmaker Jem Cohen collaborated with Chesnutt on film and video projects. Vic Chesnutt took his life and died on Christmas Day. Right after we recorded that interview, Guy called our producer, Amy Salit. He said he thought of the song he'd really like us to play, "Sewing Machine," which Vic would often play solo as an encore at the end of their sets on the last tour. Guy described this as maybe the most perfect of Chesnutt's nostalgic songs about growing up in Pike County, Georgia.

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song "Sewing Machine")

Mr. CHESNUTT: (Singing) Suck in your gut, clench your fist, just finished scaling a big black fish, on a bench out behind the tool shack in a patch of poison sumac. Mama ordered us some catalog jeans. She made the cuffs on the sewing machine. Sewing machine...

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