Friends pay tribute to Vic Chesnutt (The Guardian)

Michael Stipe, Patti Smith and others pay tribute at memorial to melancholic singer-songwriter who died on Christmas day

A memorial service has been held for the American musician Vic Chesnutt, who has died aged 45. Chesnutt, described by REM's Michael Stipe as "one of our greatest songwriters", reportedly took an overdose of muscle relaxants.

A long-time resident of Athens, Georgia, Chesnutt was an anchor of the city's music scene. He collaborated with artists such as Lambchop, A Silver Mt. Zion and Jonathan Richman and every stripe of musician from folk-singers to psychedelic rockers. Chesnutt was partially paralysed after a car crash in 1983 and his 16 albums often touched on themes of death and loss – but also on life's cracked, crooked joys. "[He] was able to bring levity to very dark emotions and feelings," Michael Stipe told Spinner, "he had a humour that was really quite unusual."

Chesnutt struggled with depression, but also with the cold hard fact of his medical bills. In 1996, Madonna, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage and many more recorded a Chesnutt tribute album, to benefit a fund for musicians' health costs. More than a decade later, the singer-songwriter was allegedly being pursued for $30,000 (£18,799) in hospital fees. "There's nowhere else in the world that I'd be facing the situation I'm in right now," he said in an interview earlier this year. "[Outside of the USA,] they cannot understand what kind of society would inflict that on their population."

On 23 December, Chesnutt reportedly attempted suicide, taking an overdose of muscle relaxants. He fell into a coma. At 2:59pm on Christmas Day, he died "surrounded by family and friends", according to his record label. A memorial service took place in Athens yesterday, with the family requesting donations to the Shepherd Center or Nuci's Space. His friend, the songwriter Kristin Hersh, has also opened a webpage soliciting donations toward Chesnutt's medical debts.

As news of Chesnutt's passing made its way through the barricade of Christmastime tinsel, there was an outpouring of statements by musicians. "He was my best friend," Hersh remarked. "His fluid timing was inimitable, his poetry untainted by influences." Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel said he would "be forever be in [Vic's] debt. Hearing his music completely transformed the way I thought about writing songs."

Patti Smith quoted from Chesnutt's own lyrics. "'I flew around a little room once.' A line from Supernatural. He was just that. He possessed an unearthly energy and yet was humanistic with the common man in mind. 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."

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