December 26, 2009

I'm really sad this morning. It took our FUBARed health insurance system to finally push immense talent Vic Chesnutt over the cliff of despair this week. He needed kidney surgery and faced losing his home to pay for it. A songwriting hero to people like Kristin Hersh, Michael Stipe and Patti Smith, the Athens, Georgia performer took an overdose and spent his last few days in a coma.

In a "Fresh Air" interview a few weeks ago, he talked about the impossible economic demands he faced, despite help from Sweet Relief, the musicians' health care fund. "I don't want to die," he told Terry Gross.

Imagine how many other talents are falling by the wayside, unable to deal with the constant assaults on their dignity. It's just not right:

Vic Chesnutt, a singer-songwriter of spare, idiosyncratic folk songs tinged with melancholy, died Christmas Day in Athens, Ga., after taking an overdose of prescription muscle relaxants, a family spokesman said. He was 45.

Chesnutt had been admitted to Athens Regional Medical Center on Wednesday and died surrounded by “devastated” friends and family, according to Jem Cohen, a filmmaker and friend who produced Chesnutt's 2007 album "North Star Deserter."

"This is not a story of a rock star being on heroin or even drinking themselves down," Cohen said Friday in an interview with The Times. "The real story here is about someone who struggled against amazingly difficult odds for many years and managed to transcend those odds with almost unparalleled productivity and creativity and power in his work."

Paralyzed after a 1983 single-car accident when he was driving drunk at age 18, Chesnutt had limited use of his arms and hands but nonetheless carved out a career as a songwriter, singer and guitarist. He was discovered in the late-1980s by REM frontman Michael Stipe, who championed his early recordings, and he gained the respect of music critics and fellow musicians who were struck by his darkly humorous songs.

Chesnutt tackled death and mortality head-on in his lyrics, as in "It Is What It Is," from his new album "At the Cut."

"I don't worship anything, not gods that don't exist / I love my ancestors, but not ritually / I don't need stone altars to hedge my bet against the looming blackness / that is what it is."

In recent interviews he contemplated the challenges he faced as a wheelchair-using paraplegic with inadequate health insurance and mounting medical bills.

"I'm not too eloquent talking about these things," Chesnutt told The Times earlier this month. "I was making payments, but I can't anymore and I really have no idea what I'm going to do. It seems absurd they can charge this much. When I think about all this, it gets me so furious. I could die tomorrow because of other operations I need that I can't afford."

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