(for World Book Day - I don't do them often but this was my book of 2015. Review originally appeared in Wire mag, issue 381)
DON’T SUCK, DON’T DIE: GIVING UP VIC CHESNUTT
(University Of Texas Press, Austin)
You don’t have to be familiar with the work of either Throwing Muses’ Kristin Hersh, or Vic Chesnutt himself, to draw deep from this memoir. If you’re a fan of Hersh, you’ll recognise and relish the voice, the directness, the rawness, the clarity. If you’re a fan of Vic you’ll find it a fascinating fleshing out of the man - Hersh allows her friend to talk directly from the page, builds a living breathing portrait from dialogue and memory of the ten years they spent on the road together. But if you’re a fan of neither you will still be swept along and away by a scintillatingly written, startlingly moving book whose real themes are friendship, hope, survival, music, and marriage.
Hersh, Chesnutt and their respective spouses, Billy and Tina make up the characters in this road trip from England to Europe and back to the States. Covering a decade of touring, living and just hanging out together, from the off it’s clear Hersh & Chestnutt have a real and deep friendship, forged in humour, a humour oft-based on a shared darkness, an awareness that they are both the broken parts of their respective marriages, both messed up with music and songs, both made whole by their more sensible partners. Hersh is illuminating and thoughtful about songs, her own and Vic’s, and the convulsions she and her friend go through in their capturing and performance. The passages about songwriting and music are particularly fascinating to this Muses fan - and as a fan of Vic’s, Kristin writes wonderfully about what made, and still makes, his music such a shock and such a comfort. Bought to life in wickedly funny conversations from backstage, motels, diners, trapped in lifts, Vic s hunger, oddity and intelligence are always apparent - like Hersh his non-stop brain spins him down dark chasms sometimes, the mask of gallows humour slipping inwards to reveal an acute sensitivity, amid further slides into despair, anger, even violence.
The affection and ease of the singers’ friendship, and Hersh’s ability to conjure her memories so vividly means Chestnutt comes growling out of the page, clearly a force of nature in public, quietly rotating on his own tormented past and present in private. Hersh refuses to sepia Vic’s belligerence, morbidity and cruelty but the bulk of ‘Don’t Suck, Don’t Die’ details a friendship between all four characters that’s sharp and funny, filled with joy even as the dark clouds gather, dark clouds that eventually tear them all apart. As Hersh’s own marriage and life with Billy starts to fray, Tina and Vic split and his spiral begins its final turn. Divorce hits Vic so hard he doesn’t have any contact with Kristin for a year and a heartbreaking series of unanswered emails throws a starkly documentary eye on a lost friendship.Even knowing that Chestnutt ended his life on Christmas day 2009 doesn’t make its approach in the narrative any less compelling, What’s heartbreaking isn’t just Chesnutt's own success in finally ending his pain and becoming a ‘ghewst’ (sic), it’s the devastation of a broken friendship between four people who for a while at least, were outsiders together, people who sense they may never feel that togetherness again.If ‘Don’t Suck, Don’t Die’ sends you scurrying off to listen to Vic all to the good - his work, and crucially its unique style, is in in perilous danger of being forgotten and Hersh does a superb job in re invoking it. What’s truly remarkable is that she’s also managed to deepen our insight into her own tortured processes, and makes us tangibly aware of the preciousness and precariousness of friendship in a narrative that should touch anyone who’s ever felt like they didn’t belong, but have been lucky enough in life to have found that special someone just as estranged and alien as themselves. A beautiful music book, but also a beautiful book full stop. Essential.