Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt
University of Texas Press
Suicide is never romantic. Nothing good ever comes from it; it is an act of desperation, of realization that one can go no further. True, the notion of suicide being wrong is a recent one, and somewhat exclusive to Western culture, and one might argue that there are times when the choice to end one’s life is the lesser than the hell of living. When an artist commits suicide, for some reason that becomes part of the mystique. It shouldn’t. It’s a thief, a robber, a stealer-away from the world of a voice, a friend, a parent, a loved one. Look at baby pictures of Frances Bean Cobain or Natalie Curtis and then try to hold onto that lie about romantic death as artistic self-expression. It’s a dickhead move, especially if children are involved, but even if there aren’t, the true victims are the survivors of this utterly selfish act.
Don’t Suck, Don’t Die is an ugly, vile beast, a hideous being uglier than the Eraserhead child. It isn’t the glorified, noble act of artistic self-sacrifice; it is the dried blood, urine, and feces-covered bloated rot of your best friend found eight days later. Never forget, though, that as rank and disgusting as the story may be to you, dear reader, it is the story of a pure emotional hell for its author, Kristin Hersh. One gets the feeling that this thing birthed itself from her psyche as a catharsis of the loss of both her cosmic and creative soulmate, Vic Chesnutt, and the pain of separation from her partner in life, Billy O’Connell. Thus, this isn’t a book to be read as a biography of anyone involved. In fact, one should seriously debate reading it at all, not because it is bad—Hersh is a fantastic translator for the thoughts in the ether that come through her, both in song and in prose—but because it is grotesque, dark, repulsive, painful, and unpleasant. And I’m being extremely kind when I say that.
And yet, and yet, and yet…like all discussions of death, there is an appreciation of life to be found in Don’t Suck, Don’t Die. Underneath the menacing glares, the yelling, the drunken rambling, the ghosting, the boredom, the psychological abuse, the Cinnamon Jolly Ranchers, and the pain that was Vic Chesnutt, one sees the soul of a true artist, someone whose very nature was marred by, scarred by, and enhanced by the mysterious muse that came upon him. You’re never going to get to know Chesnutt personally now, but when he was alive, you weren’t going to get to know him, either. He wasn’t a letter-inner; even though he and Hersh were fellow travelers and cosmic soul-mates (there’s more than one occasion where people assume the two are married to each other–to which she responds, simply, with “Ew”), she would probably be the first to tell you that even though she knew him, she never did know him. That’s how it was, that’s who he was, and that’s how it shall evermore remain.
No one ever said being an artist is pretty. In fact, one should probably be quite skeptical of those who do say that. This ugly little creature jumped out of Ms. Hersh’s psyche and landed itself a book deal, and one shouldn’t forget that, because the creative process is almost never about or from its creator. It wasn’t for Chesnutt; it isn’t for Hersh. And yes, in spite of the pain and the shit and the ennui, there are lessons to be learned from Don’t Suck, Don’t Die. What are those lessons? You have to dig into this world of shit for yourself to find them. I know what they are for me—and they’re none of your business, because you need to find them for yourselves and find what it is you should take away from the experience.