‘We have lost one of our great ones'; musicians mourn death of Vic Chesnutt

Athens musician Vic Chesnutt never spared honesty, even when it came to his own brushes with death.

"I attempted suicide three or four times," said Chesnutt, discussing one of his final songs, "Flirted With You All My Life,"  in an interview with National Public Radio. "It didn't take."

"I've flirted with death my whole life," he said. "Even as a young kid I was sick and almost died. It's a break-up song."

Sadly, the split was not permanent. Family spokesman Jem Cohen said Chesnutt was battling familiar demons when he overdosed on muscle relaxants earlier this week.

The 45-year-old singer/songwriter died Friday at an Athens hospital, leaving behind more than 15 albums of melancholy brilliance. Chesnutt's influence belied his mainstream anonymity.

"In 1991 I moved to Athens, Georgia in search of God, but what I discovered instead was Vic Chesnutt," said Jeff Mangum, founder of the influential indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel. "Hearing his music completely transformed the way I thought about writing songs, and I will forever be in his debt."

Mangum's  comments were among many remembrances posted on R.E.M.'s official Web site, where the band's lead singer, Michael Stipe, described Chesnutt as "one of our great ones." Stipe produced Chesnutt's debut album, "Little," in 1990.

"Vic’s death, just so you all know, did not come at the end of some cliché downward spiral," said Cohen, the family spokesman. "He was battling deep depression but also at the peak of his powers, and with the help of friends and family he was in the middle of a desperate search for help."

Writing about Chesnutt's work, New York Times music critic Jon Pareles said his songs contemplate not just mortality, "but also the broader inevitability of collapse and decay."

Chesnutt recently toured in support of his new album, "At the Cut," one of two he released in 2009. In an interview with the A.V. Club, he called it "a very personal album. It's shockingly so. I didn't realize it was gonna be that way. A lot of my songs are very personal, always, but this one felt like a memoir. I almost called it Hallucinated Memoir."

Chesnutt added that the album is "very dark, but it's uplifting in a strange kind of way."

Much of it seemed to entail Chesnutt coming to terms with his nature, good and bad.

"Hello, my name is Vic Chesnutt and I am a coward," is how he described the opening track on "At the Cut."

"In personal relationships I don't want to confront my enemies and things like this," Chesnutt said in the NPR interview, which aired Dec. 1. "In many ways I'm a coward. I break up in an e-mail instead of calling you to your face."

But it's "Flirted With You All My Life" -- deceptively subtle at one turn, starkly Gothic the next -- that resonates most in the hours following Chesnutt's death.

"Even kissed you once or twice," he sings. "Clearly I was not ready."

"Sometimes I'd be angry ... angry that they revived me," Chesnutt told Terry Gross in the NPR interview. "I'd be like, ‘How dare you people interfere with ... my life, my wish. Of course, as the hours and days wear on, you realize there is joy to be had."

Punk icon Patti Smith remembered Chesnutt as "a child and an old guy" who possessed "an unearthly energy."

"Before he made an album he said he was a bum," Smith wrote on R.E.M.'s site. "Now he is in flight bumming round beyond the little room. With his angel voice."

Chesnutt is perhaps best known for the 1996 tribute album, "Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation," which featured musicians including Madonna and the Smashing Pumpkins covering Chesnutt's songs. That same year he appeared in the Billy Bob Thornton movie, "Sling Blade."

Cohen recalled his friend's dark humor.

"This, after all, was the man who wrote: ‘I thought I had a calling, anyway, I just kept dialing,' " Cohen said.

Chesnutt is survived by his wife, sister and several nieces and nephews.