Before his death, Vic Chesnutt and I began an interview where we discussed his first album Little. Though I intended to turn this into a polished feature about that amazing album, Vic and I only had the opportunity to speak about the record’s first half before time ran out. Three weeks before his death, I saw Vic here in Portland and talked to him about scheduling a second interview. He apologized and said he had been insanely busy. He said he really wanted to do it and to call him two weeks later when he returned from his tour. I waited the two weeks and called and left a message. I never heard back.

Rather than scrap the interview, I decided to transcribe and publish it so Vic’s fans and friends will have an opportunity to hear his thoughts on Little. Listening to the interview was a cathartic experience for me. I wish I could talk to Vic again. I hope you enjoy this “little” interview.

Hi, Vic. Are you okay that I’m recording this conversation?

You better record it. Every word, man.

I don’t know if you remember me or not, but I interviewed you in Portland.

Yeah, of course.

I just don’t know how many people you meet on the road.

I meet a lot.

3103-viclitint.jpg


On Spectrum Culture we do features on older albums we feel people should revisit. I wanted to write one on Little, but when I was doing my research, I didn’t really see much out there. So I figured I would get in touch with you and ask you some questions about it.

Sure, I’ll see if I can remember. It was a long time ago. Over 20 years ago.

We all know the basic history of you singing at the 40 Watt Club and Michael Stipe wanting to record you and you recording all the songs in one evening. Is there anything else leading up to the recording of Little that people don’t know that they should?

The exact story is Michael Stipe was producing an album for the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies. He had blocked out a set of time at John Keane Studios to record this album with them. Well, they had one day extra. They got done early and had one day extra. So, Michael Stipe came to the 40 Watt where I was playing every Tuesday.

How long had you been playing every Tuesday?

I had been playing for a few years. Since probably ’85, something like that.

This was in ’88?

Yes and Michael knew me. He’d always been a fan of mine. He’d come to my shows and say, “Oh, you’re good” or whatever.

You were 24 at the time?

No, I was 23. I turned 24 in November. This was in October. So still 23, technically. So, he came to the 40 Watt and said, “Do you want to go into the studio tomorrow?” And I said, “Yes!”

Did you have a whole bunch of songs to choose from when you went to record?

Yeah, I had a bunch of songs I had been playing.

People say the theme to Little is your childhood. Is there more to it than that in terms of the songs you selected to record?

Well, the front cover and the back cover are pictures of me when I was a kid. Undeniably a lot of the songs are about my childhood. There were also songs such as “Soft Picasso” about my new bohemian lifestyle. It wasn’t just about that. It’s typical of a guy of 23. I’m looking back, of course, but I am also looking forward.

I am looking at a photo of a baby in a crib and another child with a guitar and a red cowboy hat. Which one is you?

The cowboy hat dude, come on! That’s me and the baby is my sister. And that’s my great-grandmother.

The legs?

My great-grandmother.

My great-grandfather lived until I was 18.

Damn, you’re lucky.

Yeah, he was 103. He had come over from Russia, so he had a lot of stories.

Damn, you’re lucky. Cool.

Anyway, this was all recorded in one night?

I think we started in the afternoon. I can’t remember exactly. All I know is I was hung-over. God. I was really hung-over. I was already pretty drunk when he asked me if I wanted to record tomorrow.

Was this right after your show?

It was Wednesday. I played every Tuesday night at 40 Watt in 1988. That was my gig every Tuesday. So it was recorded on a Wednesday.

Vic Chesnutt

So you didn’t have much time to prepare then.

I didn’t need no time to prepare. I just went in there and played my songs. It was simple. I didn’t know he was going to make an album so much as just tape me because he liked to listen to my songs.

In the liner notes he basically called it a field recording.

So that was it. We turned the mikes on and I started singing these fucking songs. I had a bunch of them. They’re all on the reissue. That’s the whole thing.

Did you multiple takes on them or were they once and done?

That’s it. What you got is what you see. That’s it. That’s all I recorded. I might have done one twice or something like that. I can’t remember which one. Maybe I did two versions of “Bernadette.”

Well, I have been listening to this album two or three times a day ever since I last talked to you, so I am real excited to be writing about it. I appreciate that you are willing to talk about it.

It’s good to get some stuff on the record.

Let’s start with “Isadora Duncan.” Let’s start with that one. Go for it.

What about it?

Anything you want to tell me about it and then I will ask you some questions.

No, you start asking me questions.

Well, in the liner note here you say Todd McBride wanted you to write a song with the line, “I dreamed I was dancing with Isadora Duncan.

That’s the main thing about the song. Back when I lived in Pike County and Todd McBride lived in Griffin and he was working at Turtle’s Record. He was the coolest guy I knew. A great songwriter and very urban, I thought. Me, I was a country bumpkin, a wild child. He was very sophisticated, I thought. Old Todd McBride. Anyway, he told me I should write a song with the line in it, “I dreamed I was dancing with Isadora Duncan.”

Did you know who she was before he mentioned her?

Fuck yeah, man. I was a big fan of Isadora’s. That’s why he told me I should do it because she was a hippie goddess. A cool Commie hippie goddess. I know who she was, man. She’s famous.

What did she mean to you when you wrote this song? Most of this takes place in a dream. Is this from an actual dream that you had?

No, it’s just my imagination. I started with the line he told me to write, and I wrote this strange love story about Isadora Duncan and me.

I think the line, “I can’t believe you own this attitude” is the one people latch onto the most from this song. What is the genesis of that?

Well, that’s the chorus. I hope that people grasp onto it.

It’s a cryptic line, isn’t it?

Yeah, I guess. You know, it’s a loaded line. She’s a Commie so it’s just a heavy line for her to say.

In that section where you sing, “My smile is more than pearly white/ And my dreams are more than you” it sounds like it’s illusion and she is saying there is something more behind what is seen.

Yes, of course. That’s why this line is the payoff because of this loaded line.

The attitude line?

Yeah.

This song still seems to come up in live shows often. You played this one when I saw you in Portland.

I did? Dang.

Why does this one still resonant 20 years later?

It’s my first adult song. This is the song that signifies my first adult songwriting vision. Before this song, I was still groping to figure out what I could write. I wasn’t sure what my voice and songwriting should be. I hadn’t really found it yet. Even though some of them were okay, they were still little boy songs. This signified my coming out as a songwriter.

This is something you performed at the 40 Watt before you recorded it?

My band played it. The La Di Das played the song, man. It was our hit. We had a cart of “Isadora Duncan” back in those days. Do you know what a cart is?

No.

In the old days you had to get your song and put it on this 8-track looking contraption. Because they had these machines where they would pop these 8-tracks of your songs in and play them. You couldn’t just make a single. This is what a cart is. This is how radio stations used to work. Here, at this college radio station, you could make a cart and they would play local songs. You wouldn’t have to actually make a vinyl record.

Are there copies still in existence of the La Di Das version of this song?

I don’t have any. I can’t find them.

Last question about this song, do you feel that there is no shelter in the arts?

I wasn’t speaking for myself. In this song, in many ways, Isadora Duncan was telling me off.

Just because of your attitude towards women or your attitude towards the hippie Commie lifestyle?

In my song, I am in love with her. We’re obviously in a relationship and she’s telling me she’s got to diversify. She’s going to see other people. Basically, see ya or whatever. She’s breaking up with me. I always thought that “no shelter in the arts” line like she’s putting me down and my new found aspirations to be a bohemian arty farty dude.

So is it a reality check?

Yeah, always. That was a reality check.

Let’s move on to “Danny Carlisle.” This one seems like a narrative of a boy who lives in his head. He’s picked on by others. Then he goes to war in Central America or something?

No, not at all. This is a little boy song in a way. This is what we did as kids. We would hide in the woods and play tree fort and shoot each other with BBs.

It sounds like he wanted one for himself but he couldn’t because other kids were shooting at him. It sounds like he’s the kid that everyone picks on.

Yeah! He’s the kid that everyone picks on. Exactly. He is the kid everyone picks on.

It is a little boy song, but then you have the two lines about not giving a shit about the contras and he would rather dream than fuck which are total adult elements.

Right, right. He is an adult now. This kid is an adult now and he doesn’t care about these things. The tree fort is the way things used to be for him, when he was a kid. Now he’s an adult.

When you say, “And when he raised his eyes to heaven as a soldier,” do you mean when he was a child soldier playing in the woods?

Yeah, he’s got a snake and it cut into fours. He’s a kid.

Is that based on something you did as a child?

I don’t ever remember actually doing something like that, no. I mean, I’m sure I cut snakes up. I didn’t think I was killing the evil snake though.

Are we talking about the biblical snake here?

Some people in the South, they actually think snakes are the devil. It’s understandable. Snakes are scary things. Farmers and old-timers thought they were the serpent and the devil that came from Adam and Eve. Little kids can see snakes as evil.

Remember, I am coming into this with a Yankee sensibility since I grew up in the North.

Yeah, well y’all ain’t got snakes up there?

We do, but we have them as pets. The only thing I ever cut up was slugs. So were you the kid that was picked on or were you the one shooting the people?

Yeah, I was picked on a lot.

What happens to someone who is picked on a lot when they grew up? It sounds like Danny Carlisle is living in his head.

Yeah, he is living in his head. I am not this kid. I am not Danny Carlisle.

Is he based on someone you know?

Well, a composite.

The one line “he would rather dream than fuck” is a pretty strong line when mixed with childhood memories of jumping off bike ramps and tree houses. The Contras line really does give it a timestamp.

Oh, it’s a timestamp. There’s no doubt a-fucking-bout it, man. This is a fucking timestamp. I can’t do it now because it’s so dated. I never do it. But at the time it was one of my greatest songs.

Well, you can still play it, can’t you?

I don’t know. I don’t play many of these songs. That was one of my greatest songs.

Why do you feel that way?

It’s just so heavy. When you hear it, you don’t really know what’s going on. It takes some thinking about it to put the pieces together. As it’s going by, surprising things are said. It’s kind of engaging. If you hear me do it, it’s kinda like, “What’s going on here?” It’s one of the greatest songs.

3106-viclitint3.jpg

Let’s move on to “Gepetto.” This has one of my favorite lyrics in it on the album.

What’s that?

A propos!/ Had to go!/ He loved the Alps/ But he hated the snow.” I just really like that one.

Thank you.

So you made a point here to say this song is about adoption, it’s not anti-Italy.

Yeah, it’s got that line in it, “What was there to keep him in Italy?” I wasn’t saying that Italy sucks.

Did people say that to you?

Nobody ever said that. I thought it my own self. I didn’t know anybody. Nobody knew this song too much. That was a fairly new one.

Had you been to Italy before you wrote this?

No! Shit, I’d had never been anywhere when I wrote this.

Once again, we’re going back to childhood. This time with icons such as Gepetto and Pinocchio.

Yeeeeees.

But it looks like you’re taking it into the adult world once again. You got this guy who wants to go places.

I’m talking Pinocchio himself. This guy, he wants to be a real boy.

What is your forecast for him in this?

Well, he’s hitting the road, man. And who could blame him? He wants to go.

One thing I like about this song is your use of alliteration. “Stuck his sea longs in sailor shoes” and “Finding himself all kinds of filthy finery.” Do you like to play with that device?

Yeah, what’s not to like, man? It’s the spice of life. Spice of poetic life.

Once again, this is my own Northern sensibility coming into this, but whenever you hear the word “reparations” it reminds me of the South. Does the line “The repatriations only partly pays/ But your sorrow is so silly” have any regional meaning to it?

Yeah! Of course, man! Absolutely. I don’t think I ever would have thought of that line.

So what is the connection between Pinocchio and slavery then?

It’s not a direct line. It’s a hint. I’m not saying that exactly. It’s not the same really, exactly. It’s more using that as a touchstone.

Is there anything else about this song that you want to add?

No.

The next one you have me completely puzzled on. “Bakersfield.” The lyrics are very dense. There are biblical references with Gabriel and Paul and holy platitudes. It’s sound to me that you are looking at Bakersfield as this tarnished heaven and that the narrator has died and regardless of what horrible things they’ve done, they are coming through the pearly gates.

Yeah, that’s pretty good. Yeah. That’s pretty good.

Do you want to shed some light on it? The article is going to be about you.

Well, that’s pretty good. I don’t want to get into “Bakersfield.”

Okay, “Mr. Reilly.” It sounds like it is about a murder. Once again, a recollection song.

Let me stop you right there. “Mr. Reilly” is about various different things. Each verse talks about different things. The first line is a reference to A Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius Reilly. Mr. Reilly. This is kind of a strange reference to that. The second verse is something about drinking muddy water. That’s what my granny used to say if you would stand between her and the TV. She would say, “Hey! I can’t see through ya. You’ve been drinking muddy water.” I love that saying so this song is a re-imagination of that line as a hallucination. If he wasn’t drinking muddy water he would be invisible and she could see through him. It’s a re-imagination of that old saying. So he was scared. He didn’t want to be invisible. He wanted to be seen. He wanted to be opaque. So he’s drinking that muddy water so people would see him. See what I mean?

It’s interesting because A Confederacy of Dunces was published after the author died. And the last section of the song is about the murder or the death.

This is about….(interrupted by woman’s voice). All right. Okay. Just a minute. Oh hell. I’m in trouble.

You need to wrap this up?

Yeah, pretty soon.

Do you want to schedule the rest of it for some other time?

Yeah.

What would work best for you?

I’ll have to email ya.

Do you have time to finish this song?

Yeah, I can finish this song. Yeah, I think in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar there was this thing where somebody hung themselves. I can’t remember. I think that’s where I got that from. It’s been so long since I read that book. I haven’t even thought about it in so many years. I can’t remember it exactly.

Why don’t we pick up with this next time? I do really appreciate this. I’m glad you’re willing to talk to me about it.

I hope I can illuminate it.

I hope I am not coming off as a complete philistine here in terms of my knowledge on this stuff.

No, no. It’s…you know….

Okay.

Goodnight.

I will talk to you next week then.

Yeah, definitely.

Thank you, Vic.

Yep. Bye.

by David Harris
[Photos: Elena Morelli] Donations to Vic’s family can be made here.
Bookmark and Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Revisit: The Great Escape

That John Sturges doesn’t wallow in the hopelessness of his characters’ situation may make…