I didn’t mean to have a theme this week but Sunday is Valentine’s Day and I realized that everything I am reviewing is kind of about love. There’s nothing schmaltzy but consider this your disclaimer. Enjoy!
Vic Chesnutt was one of the greatest songwriters ever. That might seem strange to read if you’ve never heard of him but it’s true. He was never really famous; he never had a number one hit but there is a very short list of people who could craft a song as well as he could. So if he was so great, why isn’t he a household name? Well, because his melodies weren’t easy to pin down (though he wrote plenty of catchy ones) and his voice could break into a whine and his lyrics were knotted with meaning and multiple complex emotions. He wasn’t easy. And that is the one thing that comes through crystal clear in Don’t Suck, Don’t Die.
Kristin Hersh is a very talented singer-songwriter. She has fronted the bands Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave and released several solo albums. She has even written a well-received memoir. But for the purposes of this book, she was close friends with Vic Chesnutt. She toured with him multiple times and probably knew him as well or better than anyone apart from his wife. The book consists of an impressionistic recounting of the time she spent with Chesnutt, mostly on the road.
This is not a traditional musician biography. It isn’t a biography at all. It’s more of a letter. It’s even written in second person – to Vic. Hersh doesn’t go out of her way to explain anything to the reader. Her audience is Vic. This gives the book a voyeuristic quality, like you’re a fly on a very interesting wall. The stories and streams of consciousness can be hazy but not as though looking through the fog of memory, more like you are overhearing the conversation and the inner-thoughts of two good friends. Hersh does not hold back. She lays herself bare, exposing every rough edge she or Vic possessed. Vic Chesnutt took his own life in 2009 but instead of eulogizing her friend, Kristin Hersh wrote down much of what she did say and all of what she wanted to say to him. And she did it in an unsparing, poetic manner befitting of the friend she loved.
If you like Don’t Suck, Don’t Die, you might also enjoy Chronicles – another non-traditional account of a talented songwriter, only this one is written by the songwriter himself, Bob Dylan.