Don’t Suck, Don’t Die by Kristin Hersh

Book Review & Interview with Kristin Hersh by phil locke

9780292759473_custom-f9c69e9d50def0f05c0a09ff7c0c0d0d8b7cab85-s400-c85Fifteen years ago I saw Kristin Hersh and Vic Chesnutt perform together in San Francisco.  I’m a longtime fan of Kristin’s various musical outlets, including her solo work and her tenures as front-woman for Throwing Muses, 50 Foot Wave, and her latest band, Outros. At the time of the show, I was not very familiar with Vic’s work, though – I really only knew him through the 1996 Sweet Relief  II tribute album, which featured covers of his songs by 14 artists including R.E.M., Garbage, Soul Asylum, Smashing Pumpkins, and Indigo Girls.  I’d bought that album because it included Kristin covering Vic’s song “Panic Pure”.

The star power of that tribute lineup is a testament to Vic’s stature within the music community. In many ways, he was a musician’s musician – his songwriting and performing were highly respected by his peers and by critics, but they never brought him widespread commercial success. In many ways that mirrored Kristin’s own career. Throwing Muses spent years signed to major labels Sire/Reprise/Warner Brothers in the US and they were the first American band on influential British label 4AD. Hersh has been cited as an important influence by many younger musicians, and her work inspired a passionate and devoted fan base, but the lack of a commercial breakthrough combined with the demoralizing financial realities of major label contracts eventually drove the Muses into fiscal difficulties and out of the mainstream corporate music machine.

Vic and Kristin had something else important in common – they both had their lives and careers significantly shaped by automobile-related accidents as teenagers. When Kristin was 16, she was hit by a car while riding her bike and she suffered a serious concussion, a broken leg, and other injuries – she talks about the incident in her first book, the autobiographical Rat Girl (which ranked #8 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 25 greatest rock memoirs of all time). While recovering in the hospital, she discovered that her brain unconsciously started processing the ambient noise of the room into music in her head. And while that may sound like a wonderful creative gift, this internal music tended to have its own agenda… waking her up in the middle of the night, racing around her brain and body with increasing intensity, sometimes making her physically ill, and refusing to allow her any rest until she sat down and wrote it into an actual song.

When Vic was 18, he was in a single-car drunk-driving accident that broke his neck and left him partially paralyzed.  He described himself as “a quadriplegic from the neck down”, although he did retain a degree of feeling and movement in his limbs. He spent much of his remaining life in a wheelchair, and he developed a unique nylon-string guitar playing style that accommodated the lack of full mobility in his hands and fingers.

The night I saw Vic and Kristin in San Francisco, there was a very drunk couple in the audience, and they were making noise throughout the whole show, hooting and hollering and commenting on the music. Everyone around them was annoyed and repeatedly tried shushing them, but Vic loved the noise. From the stage, he repeatedly interacted with the couple and egged them on. It seemed like he found joy in the chaos, and also in being a bit of a contrarian… flipping the bird at accepted social conventions of proper gig audience behavior.

Vic and Kristin were very close friends, and the SF show was just one of many the two played during 10 years of on-and-off touring together. That personal and musical relationship ended on Christmas day in 2009, when Vic died at age 45 from an intentional overdose of muscle relaxants. In her recently released second book, Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt Kristin has shared a beautiful, moving, sad, and sometimes darkly humorous account of their friendship and their experiences as long-time touring musicians.

Kristin Hersh and Vic Chestnutt. Photo by Chris Owyoung

In a non-traditional choice, much of Don’t Suck, Don’t Die is written in second person, with Kristin directly addressing Vic. But the book is as autobiographical as it is biographical, weaving in Kristin’s accounts of her own life on the road… from the comforting generic familiarity of motel rooms to the far-from-glamorous realities of small-club “green rooms” to the financial and psychological pressures of trying to support yourself and your loved ones with the art that both drives and consumes you.

The Vic that Kristin shares with us is vivid and real and three-dimensional – it is an unflinchingly honest, warts-and-all portrait. Vic was an intimate friend, but he could clearly be a challenging person to be around at times… his chaos-embracing, in-the-moment tendencies lived in symbiosis with a dark and painful inner turmoil. Sometimes that dynamic exploded out of him in bursts of song. Sometimes it prompted kinda-funny, kinda-scary behavior, like letting go of the wheels of his wheelchair and flying full-speed backwards down a San Francisco hill, or taking a probably-methadone pill he found on the floor of an airport men’s room. Other times the pain could make him lash out at the people around him, sometimes accidentally, sometimes incidentally, and sometimes intentionally. He was a brilliant, fiery sun with a black hole at its core, and in the gravitational struggle between the two, the black hole eventually won.

But before that, Vic was someone who could be fully, powerfully, and unsettlingly present with life. While reading, I found myself wondering if that was what kept him from finding a larger audience with his music… that he was just so there and so fully himself that it could be hard to let yourself really see him entirely. He had no qualms about looking unblinkingly into the darkness and sharing what he saw there. His music wasn’t overwhelmingly somber – it often had a wry, intelligent humor – but it was always honest. And I think it can be hard for people to handle that much honesty, even if they can’t consciously parse out why exactly music that sounds gentle to the ears can still feel unsettling in the heart.

Don’t Suck, Don’t Die repeatedly explores motifs of brokenness and belonging – what it means to live with a body or brain or psyche that feels broken; what it means to live in a world where you feel like you just don’t quite fit in; and how rare and valuable it is to find someone who is broken in sort of the same way you are – someone to whom you don’t need to explain the parts of yourself that don’t make sense to other people – and how hard it is to lose someone like that after you’ve found them. I lost a best friend like that to suicide once, and Don’t Suck, Don’t Die brought me to tears more than once as I read about Kristin’s attempts try to keep Vic in the world of light and life while depression, anger, frustration, and fear ganged up to pull him in the other direction. As she told Entertainment Weekly after Vic’s death, “You could see it in his eyes. I didn’t think [a tragic death] was inevitable, but it was definitely always there”.

While Vic and Kristin’s friendship is at the core of the book, Vic’s wife Tina and Kristin’s husband Billy are important participants in many of the recalled vignettes, and they are key to those themes of brokenness and belonging. At one point, Kristin recalls Vic telling her “Broken people marry real people. So they can fix us”.  But over the course of the book, Vic becomes separated from Tina, and Kristin’s marriage with Billy ends. “They didn’t save us, Vic”, she says in the final chapter. “We broke them.” But the sentiment doesn’t come from a place of hopelessness or self-pity. Like the rest of the book, it’s just the unadorned truth of what happened.

Kristin was kind enough to take time from a busy book tour in support of Don’t Suck, Don’t Die (which went into a second printing within 48 hours of release) to answer a few questions for Step On Magazine. But first I thought I’d share a video of Hersh performing “Flooding”, a beautiful song that was written about Vic (and served as a soundtrack for the book’s trailer). I’ve also created a Spotify playlist of the specific songs that Kristin calls out in her overview of Vic’s discography at the end of Don’t Suck, Don’t Die (except for the tracks from About To Choke, which isn’t on Spotify). Now here’s my chat with Kristin:

phil locke: Don’t Suck, Don’t Die struck me as being as much an intimate personal memoir as a biography. Was it difficult to revisit all those memories and put them down in words, knowing that you’d be sending them out into the world for anyone to read?

Kristin Hersh: I didn’t know that I’d be doing that, only because of the mind fuck of publishing anything you’ve created. I feel like I’m working in a vacuum, whether I’m writing a book or making a record. It’s always a shock to find out that someone else will hear or read what I’ve done. Gives me a stomach ache.

Music actually DOES lay me bare; probably more so than prose, as it strikes viscerally rather than intellectually. Though it could be argued that I don’t speak English right, only giving me the power to speak viscerally. Actually, that’s been argued before, by people who tell me I don’t make sense when I talk  😉

Hersh & Chestnutt in San Francisco

pl: Now that the all those memories are out there, how have you felt about the reaction the book has gotten?  Has it been anything like what you expected?

KH: Far, far beyond anything I expected. Like Rat Girl, I assumed it would be a secret between me and the people in it.

pl: The book focuses on you and Billy and Vic and Tina, but I was wondering what sort of relationship your boys had with Vic.  I get the impression that he would have taken great pleasure in the role of “Uncle Vic”.

KH: Uncle Vic once sang my son Wyatt’s favorite song (Vic’s “New Town”) a cappella, in a San Francisco rain, under a palm tree. He was a very loving uncle.

pl: I read the book over the course of two evenings, and during the afternoon between them, I listened to some of Vic’s music and some of yours. At one point I put on 50 Foot Wave’s With Love From The Men’s Room EP  and my ear was caught by a lyric about a donut and a dog in the song “Gray”, and I realized that the song recounts a scene from the book. And “Free Fall” invokes the “junkie lumberjacks” from the book and your memories of Vic and Tina’s house.  The EP’s other tracks also have a similar feeling of personal storytelling… It got me wondering if perhaps the whole thing is a bit of an homage to Vic.  Is there a greater story or unifying theme to that collection of songs?

KH: Men’s Room was recorded right after Vic died. It was Billy’s idea that it be dedicated to Vic, though most of the lines were about the two of us and our life. When someone dies, memories of them creep into your consciousness, though, so that record is peppered with some of the same memories I wrote about in Don’t Suck, Don’t Die.

pl: What is the one thing about Vic that you most hope people will take away from this book?

KH: I hope they hear his great songs. Works like “Rabbit Box,” “Bakersfield” and “Myrtle” should be allowed to move people even though Vic himself is gone.

pl: Have you considered doing an audiobook version?  I think a reading of the story in your own voice would be extremely powerful listening (although I can also see that the emotional content of the work might make it difficult to narrate).

KH: I’m doing a lot of readings at the signings and shows on this book tour, obviously, and I don’t find it particularly emotional. As Tina says, it was a good time, a fun time…a time of love and mission. But an audio book would mean imitating Vic and that could sound like “Hee-Haw.”

pl: You’ve now published two books — along with the essay collections that accompanied the Crooked and Purgatory/Paradise CDs — and I know you’ve got solo music in the works, along with 50 Foot Wave, and your new band Outros.  What are you hoping to release, musically, in the coming year?  Any new writing projects on the slate?

KH: The new solo record, Wyatt at the Coyote Palace, is being published as a book, to be followed by a collection of lyrics. Musically, I think you’ve got the complete list. 😉

pl: You’re fairly active on Twitter.  What do you like about having the sort of direct connection with people that social media provides?

KH: My fellow Muses and I have always enjoyed passing notes; saw it as an unexploited art form. Now we can do it in public.

pl: Again, thank you very much for taking time from your hectic schedule to answer some questions.  I hope that you have a great rest of your book tour!

KH: Thank you!