Vic Chesnutt, the Georgia-based singer-songwriter known for his darkly comic songs, died yesterday in Athens, Georgia, after spending several days in a coma caused by an overdose of muscle relaxers. Chesnutt, who was confined to a wheelchair after a car crash at age 18, was discovered in the late 1980s by R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, who produced his first two albums, Little and West of Rome. "We have lost one of our great ones," Stipe said in a statement posted on the Constellation Records Website, which confirmed the musician's death. "His songs and his story remain."
It's unclear whether Chesnutt's overdose was accidental or intentional. His close friend Kristin Hersh tweeted, "No one knows much: another suicide attempt, looks bad, coma," on December 24th. Chesnutt's persistent medical problems had made him a harsh critic of American health care. Earlier this year he told Spinner that he was $35,000 in debt to a hospital despite the fact that he was insured. Chesnutt gained national prominence thanks to 1996's Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation, which featured Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M., Garbage and more bands covering his songs to raise money for the Sweet Relief charity, which aids musicians in need of health care.
Chesnutt released 13 albums, most recently Skitter on Take-Off, and appeared at Carnegie Hall at an R.E.M. tribute in March of this year alongside Elf Power. He collaborated with many of Athens' indie rock bands, and Neutral Milk Hotel's reclusive Jeff Mangum released a statement that reads, "In 1991 I moved to Athens, Georgia in search of God, but what I discovered instead was Vic Chesnutt. Hearing his music completely transformed the way I thought about writing songs, and I will forever be in his debt."
"He possessed an unearthly energy and yet was humanistic with the common man in mind," Patti Smith said in a statement. "He was entirely present and entirely somewhere else. A mystical somewhere else. A child and an old guy as he called himself. Before he made an album he said he was a bum. Now he is in flight bumming round beyond the little room. With his angel voice."
In a 1998 interview with Rolling Stone, Chesnutt credited his listeners with keeping him inspired. "I guess the very emotional nature of my songs attracts emotional people, and they become quite, um, emotional," Chesnutt said. "They come up to me after the shows, and I don't know what to say to them. I don't want to be an asshole or anything, but I think I do my best communicating alone in my room, when I'm writing songs. But I do appreciate them very much. If it wasn't for them, I would've killed myself a long time ago."
Look back at Chesnutt's career in the Rolling Stone archives:
• Vic Chesnutt Joins His Rock & Roll Heroes in the Spotlight
• Vic Chesnutt Provides Sweet Relief
• Vic Chesnutt Returns to Indie Roots
• Vic Chesnutt Album Reviews
• Vic Chesnutt Biography