What's your favorite song about failure? Mine is "When I Ran Off and Left Her," by Vic Chesnutt. This failure comes from many parts: a well-worn country melody, a brittle lead guitar, a chalky drawl, and the lyric "When I ran off and left her/She wasn't holding the baby/She was holding the bottle/And a big grudge against me." It's the anti-"Born to Run," turning the irresistible compulsion to be hurtful and do wrong into the only great American road song that has its subject pull into a Piggly-Wiggly, phone up a shrink, and scream, "I should have kept all those appointments/I'm gonna need 'em, I'm coming disjointed."
Chesnutt, a Georgia singer-songwriter, first delivered those lines six years ago on his descriptively titled third record, Drunk. But he proceeded to live them out in early 1997, when he went AWOL from a Capitol Records-funded tour supporting his major-label debut, About to Choke. One night after a show in Milwaukee, he took the tour van and drove off into the night, eventually winding up in a Florida motel room contemplating permanent retirement and the big grudge held against him by his band, his record label, and his wife and bassist, Tina.
Whether you find this romantic, pathetic, or both, its legend spread like wildfire, cementing the reputation of this singer of gorgeous, misanthropic neo-country as a certifiable wacko, whirlwind drunk, and miserable genius. It's a myth Chesnutt has been cultivating unintentionally since he held down a mid-'80s gig at the 40 Watt Club in his hometown, Athens, Georgia, during which he became famous for, as he once told me, "getting drunk and telling everybody to get the fuck out, which was not always how it went."
Still, for Vic's fans, news of his 1997 dropout was a shocker. The Wallace Stevens-reading, Tom T. Hall-schooled, baroque folkie seemed like a man who understood his muse and wanted to secure the audience his talent deserved. Chesnutt always seemed crazy like a fox, not a squirrel, always one step ahead of a rock media that, during the autumn of his Capitol debut, met him with coverage like GQ's condescending headline, "Paraplegic Troubadour." And About to Choke had encouraged this sense with graceful tunes and a poppy affect that stood in sharp contrast to his earlier record's disheveled melodies and richly imagistic lyrics.
After Chesnutt's exodus from Milwaukee, fans were unsure what might come next. Certainly, few expected that Chesnutt would come through with the best record he'll probably ever make. Promo copies of last year's The Salesman & Bernadette came on Capitol cassettes with the label insignia covered up by that of his new musical home, the Atlanta-based indie Capricorn. One suspects the folks at the major must be kicking themselves for not sticking it out. Salesman capitalizes on everything wonderful about Chesnutt: His guitar, voice, and writer's eye discover a slice of roadside real estate far from the din of commercial traffic. Backed by the alt-country aberration that is Nashville's umpteen-piece Lambchop--whose shambling grooves and call-and-response vocals suggest a marriage of Son Volt and Stax-Volt--Chesnutt creates a stylistic pastiche. His is an abstract Americana authored by a "tired old alcoholic/Waxing bucolic," who is both the Salesman of the title and the artist who dreamt him up.
The Salesman's back cover begs us to "infer a lovely story of loss and longing and sloppy satori," but the opaque opera that unfolds is at times about as easy to read as Finnegan's Wake without the "the"s and "a"s. In a prologue, Chesnutt plays the Salesman, a failed fool in love. This Salesman spends the entire record driving in a drunken search for Mr. Anybar and any ear that will bend toward his laments for the untouchable Bernadette, a "maiden" who we begin to suspect is hardly the mountain-dancing, cloud-kissing angel he elegizes. She's too good to be true--beautiful, musical, brilliant. She has also been born into a Stepford family so perfectly screwed up that her old man thinks he's Woodrow Wilson, her mom believes she's the First Lady, and a perfectly rebellious brother "wishes he was a Negro."
We meet the Salesman in an airport bar, where he's spilling Scotch on his crotch and bellowing into his glass, "Bernadette/I owe you so much." And the road we follow him down is the same American odyssey of "When I Ran Off and Left Her." What unwinds in the tracks that follow is a pomo Southern gothic, which name-checks Joe Namath, Arthur Murray, Van Dyke Parks, and Adam Clayton Powell. It makes a pit stop in a town "where everybody over ten years old is frowning."
The journey ends with our bingeing hero drunk in the hills above the strip mall that occupies the site of his first failed business venture. "I can see my old hotel/Down amongst the smells," Chesnutt sings with suicidal intensity as Lambchop boogies behind him. "Soon I'll be down the hill shoppin'/Giddy like a tipsy Mary Poppins," he croaks seconds later. This moment is the heart of the record, ending a story that playfully fetishizes the waste of the Newt South as beautifully as Lambchop's loose horns, vibes, Farfisa, and euphonium, gleefully goose Chesnutt's melodies on tunes like "Unreplenished" and "Prick."
Of course, his Dulcinea never shows up. The only heavenly vision we see is duet partner Emmylou Harris, whose warble on the gentle "Woodrow Wilson" gives the record its only feminine touch. The rest--whether giddy or grim, "shaking with laughter" or "drinking from a nasty water fountain"--is a blessed mess of dislocated signs and scarred significance covering up the apologia of a man who knows he beat himself to his own demise. "I alienated those I was trying just so-so hard to impress/Now half those fuckers hate me and I'm just a fool to all the rest," Vic sings against windy feedback on the bitter "Square Room." But this fool's paradise could keep running on empty--as long as the band keeps the keys to the tour van.
Vic Chesnutt plays Monday, April 12 at the 400 Bar; (612) 332-2903. Jessy Greene's new project Vio Voom and Dead Bolt open.
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