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"That's what that song is about in a way. It's the way Americans so want to take a pill to fix all their problems."

Vic Chesnutt's "You Are Never Alone" 

Chesnutt on prescriptions, sex and the American dream

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click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF VIC CHESNUTT
  • Photo courtesy of Vic Chesnutt

The song begins gentle and graceful, like a bittersweet lullaby rocking on lilting organ waves and a particularly tart twang guitar. The rhythm section arrives just before Chesnutt, in a sly Southern baritone recalling Roger Miller, offers: "It's OK, you can take a condom / It's OK, you can take Valtrex / It's OK, you can get an abortion / And then keep on keeping on."

He forges right on, suggesting that not only can you take a Prilosec, but, ominously, he bites off the brand name Vioxx. (Merck famously ignored the possibility that their much-hyped arthritis drug raised the likelihood of heart attacks and stroke for years before the drug was finally pulled.) A gang of voices join in for the titular chorus, just before Chesnutt goes for the jugular. He plays the reassuringly enabler, consoling with "It's okay cutting down / It's okay, you can quit tomorrow / But for now, keep on keeping on." Then with a wicked jab he goes after religion, singing with a breathy desperation like Larry Craig whispering between bathroom stalls: "You can be forgiven/ For now, keep on keeping on." It closes with a chorus of exultant voices rising like rescue mission carolers singing for their supper (or their next fix, as it were).

INDEPENDENT: Could you explain a little how filmmaker Jem Cohen (Fugazi doc Instrument) came to be involved in your new album, North Star Deserter?

VIC CHESNUTT: Jem's a filmmaker and a friend of mine, and he hated my last couple records. And he's a big fan of mine, so he wanted to remedy that. He wanted to make a record that he loved, so he really wanted me to work with these Montreal people and a guy from Fugazi and record at Hotel2Tango [in Montreal]. He knew all those people and had been in that studio before because he shot films for Silver Mt. Zion, and Godspeed [You Black Emperor!, whose members back Chesnutt on the new album].

I knew about the Fugazi film, but not Silver Mt. Zion.

He didn't make a movie. He just showed films behind them while they were playing. So that's what he wanted to do. I let him pick all the songs.... He did the kind of arrangements by going, "So and so will play on this song, and we'll have drums and bass on this, and Guy will play a solo here."

So you essentially let him be a Phil Spector producer.

I did, which he was. He's not a musician, so it's kind of interesting.

What would possess you to do that? Surely you have other fans who want you to make albums for them.

Not like Jem Cohen. Jem's a poet and an aesthete. I've known him for many years, and I love his ideas on music and on art and everything.

So you saw this as a collaboration with him.

With him and Silver Mt. Zion, Guy and the whole group.

How do you feel about lifestyle drugs? Social anixety disorder? Isn't that what alcohol's for?

That's what that song is about in a way. It's the way Americans so want to take a pill to fix all their problems. Or to get surgery to mask their problems. And the chorus about "You are never alone" is just saying that the whole damn country, this is what we do. We put off all our problems to the end and then we try to take a magic potion to fix it.

Like giving your life over to God.

[Chesnutt sings "It's okay, you can be saved."] Exactly.

I was going to ask Aren't we always alone, but I guess that's sort of the point, too.

It's a different aspect. I have other songs on the record that definitely deal with the fact that we are always alone, in a philosophical way. This is a different aspect of the human existence.

The "keep on keeping on" line seems by the end to be less about our unwillingness to change and more a statement of the "day by day" nature of life.

That's the punchline. Keep on keeping on. You can continue fucking up, and try to mask all your destruction with these pills, an abortion, surgery or Jesus. It's the irresponsibility. People are looking for salvation from outside when you have the power: You're going to get diabetes if you keep eating those stupid donuts every day. Then you're going to go to the medical establishment and expect them to fix you. It's irresponsible. The damage is done. It's a lifestyle choice.

That's what makes Vioxx such a great citation. That's the "unintended consequence" of that kind of behavior. You take a drug that you think is going to save you, and it actually has more likelihood of killing you.

Well, that's a pointed statement at the drug companies themselves. That they present themselves as the miracle and on your side when they're not on your side. They want to make money, money, money. They are the greediest people out there.

There's a book, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, and it raises the question of whether or not we're here to entertain ourselves to death? Obviously, many of those with bypass surgery evidently feel it's their American right to indulge. And herpes or abortions are the result of pleasure seeking.

Well, that's what that first verse is about. Rampant sex is presented in our culture everywhere you look. If you want to be cool, you just gotta copulate. And then deal with the consequences later.

What for you then is the purpose of life? What makes it worthwhile for you to be here?

What makes me tick is maybe not what I think we're here on this Earth to do. I'm sure that the meaning of life is to raise yourself to adulthood and procreate. That's it. Self-preservation and preservation of the family unit. That is it. There is no other meaning. The rest is just frivolous entertainment or distraction.

Vic Chesnutt performs with Liz Durrett and Ham 1 at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro Friday, Oct. 5, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $14. See www.artscenterlive.org or vicchesnutt.com for details.

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