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Gains and Losses

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In case you weren't aware, Vic Chesnutt passed away on Christmas Day 2009 from an overdose of muscle relaxants.  I met him three times on his tours—in 1992, 1994, and 2000.  The first time, I was a young guy just starting out in writing.  I walked up and handed him a package of my writing in an effort to say thanks for the inspiration from his beautiful music and lyrics, and also to build up my confidence in speaking with someone who elicited a great deal of respect. 

You see, I began my travels with my main character, guidance gleaned from some classic authors and musicians—without their knowledge of me, of course—and while writing I would always have music playing in the background.  Any writer knows that there are times when you are stuck on a word... sometimes my imaginary rolladex would work... I'd spin it and focus in on the page that came up and there would be the word i needed.  When that didn't work, the music playing in the background would usually provide the word or phrase i needed to complete my thoughts, a sort of autocomplete functionality.  It's kind of weird, but while I'm writing this, everytime i type the letters "whe," autocomplete tries to insert the word "wheelchair".

So, in the background of my writing room, Vic would be prattling on about rabbits cooking breakfast, or of holding up a sparkler.  My own dreams were never quite as bold, and Ii felt privilege in his guidance.

I met him the first time, possibly in 1992, when his tour with the Little Sharpies hit the Cruel Elephant in Vancouver.  I gave him the package and he looked at me weird.  All i could muster was, "Thanks. This is for you." It sucked, some crappy poetry that he used to wipe his ass with, I'm sure. In December of that year, I received a postcard from Vic.

On the front of the card were the album covers for "West of Rome" and "Drunk". On the back of the card was written, "Keep writing. Read Kafka Diaries." I went to the library that day and checked out Kafka Diaries. I went back to writing hard and furious.  I banged off so many pages, and had many instances of what I call "writer's delight"—those moments when what you're writing crosses over into reality. I wrote a line where a character is offered some soup, and my roommate popped into the room with a bowl of soup for me—completely unasked for. This roommate had never done that before, and it never happened again. Only that one time. I wrote a line where a mother was seeking a phone to contact her child, and my mother called. Ok, that last one could be characterized more as "coincidence," but you get the idea. When the coincidence aligns just the right way, as a writer, you'll find encouragement. These moments are never surprising when you're in them, that's the strange thing. Most coincidences make you step back and look at the situation, but these are different, expected, and blessed.

The next time I saw Vic, I was in the establishment where he was playing solo on his tour in early 1994. I went to the washroom, and he was struggling to get out of one of the stalls. He made it to the door, which pulled inside without any real room for him to navigate, so I turned around and held the door for him. He looked up at me and said thanks. I finished up and took my seat. My friends and I found perfect seating up on the stage underneath the piano keys of the piano, where we sat and hid from the crowd as best we could.  Vic came rolling up the makeshift ramp the establishment had provided.  He came to me and said, "I'm really scared." I said, "Don't be. These people know you. These people know your songs. They're here to see you and enjoy whatever you do. You can't do anything wrong. Just do your best." He did his set, and I went over to speak with him. I didn't know the night would end with such a great impact.

We spoke about some things. I thanked him for the postcard. He wanted to know what postcard. I explained when it came and what it said. "You gave me some writing?" I said yeah, the last time he was in town. "Oh, i remember that.  I hated that."  That was ok, I said, I didn't need him to like it, it was pretty early on in my writing and I've learned a lot more since then. "There's no way that postcard could have come from me, because me and Jeff Buckley were partying pretty hard and I was in a drug haze then. Maybe it was Tina." The conversation turned to Jeff because my friends and I recently went backstage to hang out with Jeff and his band. I don't know how the conversation turned to Stevie Smith, but it did at one point. I think I just blurted out that I had just finished reading the collected poems... then another thought popped into my head at the same time.

...I remembered being at lollapollooza and standing near the front of the stage with a group of people.  We were keeping a feather aloft while Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds played on stage. Taking turns blowing upwards watching the feather travel down, it was about five minutes when all of a sudden the music stopped and Nick stormed off of the stage. Someone had thrown a water bottle and hit him in the head...

I thought, "look Vic, no one threw a water bottle at you, no one was here to do that."  All I got out of my mouth was, "earlier this year, when I saw Nick Cave..."  I was interrupted by, "Nick Cave?  Nick Cave? He's an Elizabethian era wanna-be king. Don't ever mention Nick Cave and Stevie Smith in the same sentence again or I'll smack you!" My response?  "Whoa, whoa, whoa, Nick Cave and Stevie Smith aren't..." I got hit in the forehead.  Then again.  That was just the beginning of a flurry of blows from Vic. My friend was yelling, "just stand up! If you stand up, he can't hit you!"

I stood back, surprised. Vic was yelling, "get him the fuck out of here! fuck off! get the fuck out!" I didn't know what happened. I turned to walk out and then turned around again and said, "please don't let 30 seconds define me!" He yelled, "fuck off!" I did. I left and walked home, crushed. 

Because my friends took a cab, I got home and the story preceded me. One of my roommates said he would be honoured to be beat up by one of his heroes. 

I didn't write for years after that. I tried to not let it affect me, but it really stung. I sent vic a couple of postcards afterward to try and explain what was going through my head at the time. One was a picture of a kid standing with a pillowcase in a flurry of feathers. I needed some form of closure. I meant nothing to him, and he never knew how personally I took the exchange.

I went through some pretty hard times after that, ended up moving to Victoria, and eventually got back into writing. In 1997 (coincidentally, the same year Jeff Buckley passed away), I saw the movie Sling Blade, where Vic played a character who gets thrown out of the house by the character played by Dwight Yoakam. It seemed like homage, like an apology in that it was a violent and unsettling dismissal—and eerily familiar to the scene we had in vancouver. This was the closure I needed to allow me to pick up my typewriter again.

Vic came through town from time to time, and in 2000 I finally felt I could put the past behind me. I put together what little money I had and bought a ticket to see him on the tour with Kristin Hersh. I arrived at the venue, walked up to the door, and there was Vic. He looked at me, and I fought through whatever was blocking me, and approached him. Hey, Vic. "Hi." I don't know if you remember me. "Yeah, I remember you. I really have to apologize. I quit drinking." thanks for that, it really means a lot to me. We chatted a bit, and I made a request for "Miss Mary."  "Someone else just asked me to play that." I went in and ran into Amelia Martin, who i hadn't seen in quite a while. She was as surprised to see me as i was to see her, and it turned out that she was the other person who requested "Miss Mary."

After the show, another one of my friends purchased one of Kristin's cds, and I told her I would go back stage and get it signed for her if she wanted. I did, and while there I said I had something for them if they could wait. I ran home and picked up Graeme Base's The Eleventh Hour for Kristin and her kids who were on tour with her, and Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent Into Hell for Vic and Tina. That was the last time I saw Vic, placing that book into his hands. I don't know if he ever read it, but if he did, I'm hoping he might have recognized what I was trying to tell him—we knew each other, if not from this life, then from the mists of the room where he sat at the conference table while I took minutes in the background.

It may not be the most inspiring story of interactions, but Vic will always be a source of inspiration for my writing. His life counted, and whether he knew or not, he will always be a force that shaped my life.

On the heels of Vic's death, we've lost another bright spark. Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse took his life in March of this year.  Sparklehorse was one of the bands to appear on Sweet Relief 2, the Vic Chesnutt covers album.

Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse recently released an album called Dark Night of the Soul.  Featuring a book of photographs by David Lynch, when consumers bought the album, all they got was the book of photographs, a song list, and a blank cd.  It turns out that, for licencing reasons, the songs that Sparklehorse and Danger Mouse put together could not be released.  But in this day and age of rebels and computers, the album is available on the internet— the release includes artists like Frank Black, Vic Chesnutt, Jason Lyttle (Grandaddy) and more. Here's a link to one of the sites hosting the album that never was.

The Sountrack

Speaking of books and soundtracks, I recently read The Life Of Pi, and became obsessed with the story, the metaphors, the coping mechanisms of Pi...I had to put together a soundtrack for the feelings the book stirred up in me:

Listen to Wndrswy's Life of Pi inspired Playlist on iTunes

1 - Kids + Cats - Breathe Owl Breathe
grab the kids and the cats and lets go...
2 - The Salty Sea - Aaron Hale & the Boy Detectives
the salty sea is black like the sky, it's tossing me between its waves...
3 - God Damn the Sun - Swans
they are mine, my only true friends, and i keep them with me to the very end...
4 - Shelter - the xx
and i'll cross oceans, like never before, so you can feel the way i feel it too, i'll mirror images back at you...
5 - The Sea and the Rhythm - Iron & Wine
the waves and the wind, the night is black...
6 - Aquarium - Robyn Hitchcock
i headed in a dream toward you, i wonder if i ever saw you...
7 - Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes - Swans
the thirst that from the soul doth rise, doth ask a drink divine...
8 - Motherless Child - Crime and the City Solution
sometimes i feel like a motherless child, a long way from my home...

9 - Sharkish Sea - Scary Mansion
the throws of you will make them stronger still...
10 - Serious Tree - Bronze Float
dear fool, don't you know the shade that's upon you comes from the tree above you...
11 - The Stomach - Ben + Vesper
this doesn't bode well for humans...
12 - I Sing I Swim - Seabear
shake the tree, catch the leaves...human skin can be hard to live in...
13 - Hollow Tree - Cruel, Cruel Moon
i whisper my secrets into a hollow tree...
14 - Sea of Teeth - Sparklehorse
seas forever boil, trees will turn to soil...
15 - The Final Resting of the Ark - Felt
i know i told you, i know what i said, i painted such a picture that golden fires burned in your head...
16 - A Boy and a Tiger - Yonlu
and then the animal don't let the girl leave...
17 - Seashell - Seabear
humming softly to yourself, you watch the words change for someone else...

Ang Lee is set to direct a movie version of the book.  At the very least, the song "A Boy and a Tiger" is a must for the revelation scene during the interview with the japenese businessmen... there's no way that scene can really be done in a movie format without giving something away earlier in the story, which detracts from the story. The thing is, as a reader of the book, you are witness to Pi's story... in movie format you would be witness to the telling of Pi's story. This would be the impossibility of the book being translated to movie. Although I'm not really looking forward to a movie version of this book, I would still see it, just to see the attempt. If you haven't read it yet, hopefully this provides some enticement to pick up the novel.