C. Recommends: “Coward” by Vic Chesnutt

Disclaimer: Vic Chesnutt will haunt you.

In 1983, eighteen-year-old songwriter Vic Chesnutt was left partially paralyzed from an auto accident. He subsequently considered himself a “quadriplegic from neck down,” utilizing a wheelchair and with limited use of his hands. But that didn’t stop him from playing music. And it certainly did nothing to vanquish the aching tremble of his voice. He moved to Athens, GA, where he was discovered by Michael Stipe, who produced his first two records.

In 1996, he was the focus of the charity record Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation (The Sweet Relief Musicians Fund is a non-profit that helps musicians in medical or financial need). Celebrated musicians of the time got together and recorded his songs, including R.E.M., Garbage, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Cracker, among others.

The courage of a coward
Is greater than all others
A scaredy cat’ll scratch ‘im
If you back him in a corner

It’s impossible to understand the effects of the tragedy of another. We can sympathize, even weep for the sufferer. But to watch Chesnutt perform his songs, there’s nothing but silence, and awe. Maybe it’s seeing him in the wheelchair, or the bent fingers of his strumming hand. Or maybe it’s the pained expressions of his face as his bellows fill the hall. Or maybe it’s just his brilliance as a songwriter and performer, no matter his circumstances.

But I, I, I, I am a coward

In 2009, on Christmas Day, Chesnutt died from an overdose of muscle relaxants. He had previously attempted suicide at least three times before (and chronicled in his song “Flirted With You All My Life“). At the time, he was severely in debt due to medical bills.

I can’t say much about another man being a coward. But I can say, with certainty, that carrying on after such tragedy, to pour your soul into music, or anything of value to yourself, is the farthest from being a coward as there is. Vic Chesnutt is an artist still living through his songs, songs that ache to be heard.

(Song recommendation by C. Aloysius Mariotti)