"No one can live with this much pain and anger, it’s gonna kill me": Throwing Muses' Kristin Hersh on Vic Chesnutt's suicide, PTSD and why songwriters are "pretty broken"

Salon talks to Hersh about music, mental health and her new book "Don't Suck, Don't Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt"

Published October 17, 2015 2:45PM (EDT)

Kristin Hersh
Kristin Hersh

Singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt had many musician admirers — among them, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Patti Smith, Jonathan Richman and Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb. However, one of his closest friends was Throwing Muses frontwoman Kristin Hersh: The iconoclastic musicians often toured together, both in the U.S. and Europe, and had a special personal and musical bond. When Chesnutt — who had used a wheelchair since the age of 18, paralyzed after breaking his neck in a car crash — committed suicide in 2009, Hersh was understandably devastated. “What this man was capable of was superhuman,” she wrote in tribute. “Vic was brilliant, hilarious and necessary; his songs messages from the ether, uncensored. He developed a guitar style that allowed him to play bass, rhythm and lead in the same song — this with the movement of only two fingers. His fluid timing was inimitable, his poetry untainted by influences. He was my best friend.”

Hersh expounds on her complicated friendship with Chesnutt in her compelling and often heartbreaking new book, “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt.” Early on in our conversation about it, she says, “It’s not really a biography or anything close to it, it’s just a little bit of a tour diary. So I apologize if you didn’t learn much more than what it was like for the two of us to sit in a room and talk. But that’s all I really know about him.” That’s more than enough: The book uses Hersh and Chesnutt’s many solo tours together as a backdrop for explorations of their musical and personal kinship, as well as their own personal relationships.

As a result, “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die” is far richer than a mere chronicle of road life. Hersh’s language is vivid and conversational, as descriptive and elliptical as her own music. At times, Chesnutt is portrayed as a person who’s hard to love or even like: In one memorable scene, he slaps a worker at a club who he perceives is condescending to him, while in another, anxiety-inducing scene, he coasts down San Francisco’s steep hills in his wheelchair, daring traffic to hit him. But the book stresses that Chesnutt was an extremely complex person: He was imperfect, but he was also a musical genius and darkly funny, a frustrating person but still someone worth cherishing and knowing.

Subtly, however, “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die” also finds Hersh mourning the uneasy stability of those road years. Her then-husband, Billy O’Connell, and Chesnutt’s then-wife, Tina, are secondary characters on tour with them. By the end of the book, however, Tina and Vic are divorced — and the latter’s suicide has shattered the foursome — and Hersh’s own marriage has collapsed. The book ends up an elegy to emotional and musical stability, as well as a eulogy for her own relationship.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hersh was in a reflective, introspective mood while talking to Salon. Through the course of an hour-long conversation, the musician — who was wrapped up in an 11-foot Burmese python when initially reached by phone — discussed writing the book and what it meant for her own life. In recent years, Hersh has been dealing with PTSD and a diagnosis of dissociative disorder, two things which have changed her approach to music and radically altered her own personal perceptions. She talked about what that means for her life and music — and many other things — below.

How did you decide to write the book? What prompted you?

Kristin Hersh: [Laughs.] It’s a really dumb answer — you still want it? I could make up something better but… [Laughs.] Okay, the truth is, they called me and asked me — I thought I was agreeing to write an article about Vic, and I thought, “Well, better me than somebody else.” You know, that’s an honor. And so I said yes, but I really meant, “Probably not.” That’s the kind of thing that doesn’t happen. I’ll go on tour, and musicians are stinky, so they let us get away with not doing shit we say we’re going to do. And I didn’t really think about it until six months later. They said, “How’s it coming?” And I said, “Oh, you meant really — well, how many words did you want?” And when they told me — that’s a really, really long article. [Laughs.] “Yeah, we’re a publishing house, and you told us you were going to write a book.” I was like, okay, better get on that. [Laughs.]

And yet the timing in my life was such that it began as a raw beast. I’ve only ever written one other — well, two other books. One was a Throwing Muses record [2013’s “Purgatory/Paradise”] and one was a reworking of my teenage diary [“Rat Girl”], and they both began as overly clever. The temptation is always to make a better book. But that’s not writing a better book, that’s not real. This was a raw beast from the get-go, and that probably suits Vic. And that’s probably the only way I’m really allowed to do anything like this, is to begin from — if you can’t begin from your dreams, then begin from your viscera, and let other people talk. Shut up. [Laughs.]

“Rat Girl” was your teenage diaries, and when you do something like that, it’s almost like the book is about a different person, since the things in it happened so long ago. And this definitely was a little bit more recent. It makes sense that it would be almost a little bit on the surface.

Yeah, that was me, and that’s still me. I haven’t changed very much. To be honest, I didn’t grow up too much since “Rat Girl” either. But also writing the Throwing Muses book, which I had initially said was impossible because … I think it was maybe 32 songs long, the record. And so they wanted 33 essays, and they all had to reflect thematic elements in the material and relate to each other and come to some kind of conclusion, and tell stories and be prose-poetry without being pretentious, and I just said, “No. It’s not possible. It’s not possible for anybody, and I certainly can’t do it.” And after a month of just pouting, I put the record on and thought, “Oh, this is going to be easy.” Because music tells you what to do. So there was an aspect of music telling me what to do in the Vic book as well.

How did you construct this book?

I don’t think I’m that smart. I think I just began with the point, which is Vic needed more comfort, and I ended with the point, which is we never got it. And in between were these memories that were very repetitious; a musician’s life is repetitious. We had those same conversations over and over and over again. The same things happened: The same sitting in a parking lot drinking shitty coffee; the same dressing rooms. They happened over and over and over again. And so it was just a matter of… you get a bunch of old photographs, and you lay them one over the other, until what you end up with is not many images, but a skeleton. And so I just kept the skeleton.

Everything in the book was so vivid. As a reader, I felt like a kind of omniscient presence watching all of you guys. Despite the repetition, how did you decide what stood out more than other things to include?

If I got bored re-reading it, I would take it out. And then when Tina and Vic’s sister read it, they said it was like being with Vic again, and so I knew I got it right. But I wasn’t sure until then, since you never really know if your own memory is … how much is coloring [your own memories]. Particularly on tour, when you’re almost crazy with music and hunger and hangovers and loneliness and bad air and crazy fans. It’s such an unusual life. And then there’s the firefighter aspect, where you’re just bored 22 hours a day, and then terrified for two. [Laughs.]

I’ve talked to other musicians, and they tell me how boring touring is. Everyone thinks it’s this glamorous thing, but nothing could be further from the truth. And from the book, so you do really get this sense of just what you’re trying to do while on tour, to stave off the boredom.

Right, right. Because when I think about touring, it’s not boring, because of all the shit you do to keep it from being boring. [Laughs.] And my fans are not necessarily… I mean, I don’t want to offend anybody but there’s something wrong with my output because it seems to attract total psychos. Vic’s music did not. It attracted sensitive people, and I think that bothered him more than the psychos bothered me. At least the psychos were interesting. I would have to be raced out of clubs sometimes and climb down fire escapes, and shit like that, to get away from people. I wear big boots on tour. [Laughs.]

Excellent. You stomp on them. It gives you power.

[Laughs.] I think I am allowed to. You should always walk around thinking that you’re allowed to walk on psychos. [Laughs.] Otherwise they’re in control, and they really shouldn’t be.

While you were writing the book, did you get any insights on Vic that maybe you didn’t have at the time when you were touring together?

Oh, absolutely. Particularly the lying. What he called “lying” was very interesting to me. He used to say that he lied all the time. What are you supposed to think about that, like, “Are you lying right now? Do you actually tell the truth all the time?” And that’s sort of what it was, it was the fairy tale version of what his life was like on paper. And I don’t mean embellishment, I mean he would tell you the real truth, as if he spoke like a songwriter.

And when I say songwriter, I don’t necessarily mean a good thing. Lots of people write songs, but a songwriter’s a breed, and we are pretty broken and ineffective people generally. It can be dangerous, obviously. You know, most of us are dead. It’s very important that the song be more important than you, so when it’s completed, you no longer need to be. And that happens every time a song is written — you think, “I gotta go.” So Vic was addicted to the high of the song. I was afraid of it. But I think I said in the book, he called it “heaven” and I called it “hell.” To me it was like a cliff dive, and to him it was like a cliff dive. And it was just our different responses to what it means to go catapulting off of something, ready to disappear.

I’m afraid of heights, and so thinking of something like that is terrifying to me. But to other people, that’s a total rush. It’s a different perspective.

Yeah, it was exhilarating for him. But the process I found too kooky, too magical, too unsettling, too close to mental illness for comfort. I’m a mother of four. That may be the only difference, but also Vic sat in a chair for most of his life. There was not a lot of exhilaration. I run along the edges of cliffs, I speed when I’m driving. I spent most of my life doing things that didn’t kill me, and then a song would just terrify me every time it began.

There’s was the moment in the book in San Francisco, when he was in a wheelchair and going downhill, and going across the street in the middle of traffic. The anxiety and the terror as you write that — my heart started pounding as I was reading that part. Because having been to San Francisco and knowing those hills…

I have to say, a huge part of that was anger. He was just so angry. And so he was mad at the cars, and he was mad at the stoplights and he was mad at the pedestrians. He was mad at us. As much as we loved him — you know, when you’re mad, what do you do? That was one of the things he did. Whacking some kid in the face was another. Hurting the hell out of my feelings was another. Practically killing Tina was another. Killing himself was another. What do you do when you’re that mad?

He carried a distortion pedal around with us on tour even though we were sitting on stage playing acoustic guitar, because he was playing with a chick from a couple of rock bands, and it made him angry. And he wanted to just step on that pedal and sound like anger. And I wasn’t going to sound like a chick in a rock band. [Laughs.] But it’s just everything made him mad. And so he’d be playing, and it just was like, suddenly Metallica was in the room, and then they would go away. And that’s a big fat question mark: What do you do when you’re mad? I’ve never been able to answer it when my kids ask it. Because everything they do I say is inappropriate. There’s nothing I’ve ever found to be about anger except 50FOOTWAVE, which is my noise rock band, and to me that kind of just sounds celebratory. I don’t feel like it’s just too pissed off. It’s more like, “Yay, noise!”

That’s catharsis. That is the noisy catharsis, that’s what 50FOOTWAVE feels like to me.

Thanks for knowing 50FOOTWAVE. And it’s muscular. It keeps you engaged. And that’s another way to not even know that you’re angry, is to be completely absorbed.

Did you have any insights about yourself after you finished writing the book about Vic?

I just felt like I didn’t belong on this planet. And I know there are a bunch of other people like that. And Vic was one. But I thought it meant that I was fragile or sensitive, or something. As it turned out, I only have one soft spot, and it was Billy. I could be strong about everything else, I was even strong about my children. And they were all offshoots of that soft spot.

So I’m not sure exactly what’s left now. Your only place they could get you is your heart, and then that’s gone, where are you? When I finished the book I just felt like a shell. I think that’s probably true — I think that’s where I am now.

It gave me a lot of respect for Vic, which I already had, for choosing something as brave as leaving when you wanted to go. You know, we’re all supposed to be so against suicide that it’s against the law — and I wish he were here to talk to now, I wish he were here for Tina, I wish there was another Vic record to listen to — but he wrote his own story, and he ended it before he became a shell. I’m still here, and there’s not a whole lot left of me. There’s not a whole lot left in me. Sounds pretty pathetic, doesn’t it?

How do you combat that? Is it songwriting? How do you fight that feeling?

I don’t have songwriting anymore. I used to share songs — and this is probably way too much information — but I had been diagnosed first schizophrenic, and then bipolar. I was just like, “There’s no way! I don’t act bipolar. No medication works. Clearly, there’s something off. But I’m a very nice functional person. I’ve batting a thousand here.” [Laughs.] There was something keeping me awake all the time. There was something wrong, and my husband decided it was PTSD from having my first son kidnapped when he was 3 years old. I never really got over that.

So I was treated for PTSD very successfully with this light bar treatment called EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing]. You relive traumatic memories while watching this bar of lights and holding pulsing electrodes. It’s a very difficult process because, if you do have PTSD, your entire psychology is focused on never reliving those traumatic memories. Triggers for me, like, anything having to do with summer — heat, sun, mosquitoes, a crying child — anything could make me just faint or vomit. That’s really inappropriate behavior. So, I would avoid places like grocery stores, where a child might cry. I would avoid driving because I was afraid if I turned around, the baby seat would be empty. You know, I was not right.

When I was cured, I no longer had any psychological symptoms of any kind, but it released an alternate personality. So what has been wrong with me all those years is split personality, also called dissociative disorder. And that other personality spoke in music. So what happened was, her name was Rat Girl, and Kristin was completely separate from her. So I had no memories of having been on stage or writing those songs or playing them — they were all her. I would become the other personality. My drummer Dave, who’s been my best friend since we were eight, said, “Well, yeah. We always knew that about you.”

And I guess we did, and I suppose all the journalists I spoke to over the years thought that I was speaking metaphorically, but I would say I disappear. I don’t know what my songs are about, I don’t know how to play them. They just thought I was weird, but I was telling the truth. Now I know what all my songs are about, I have all my memories, and when I play them, I’m present for them. I’m Kristin and Rat Girl at the same time. But I no longer hear songs. So either I’m not a musician anymore, or there’s another way to play music that I haven’t tried yet.

So, I don’t know. This is a very new development in my life and so this book, I don’t actually know the answer to your question. Like I say, right now, I’m only a shell. I haven’t figured out the rest. I need to color in some blanks.

How new is new then? Is it within the last year, or a couple of years?

Past year, or year-and-a-half, I suppose? So, I did the whole Throwing Muses tour [last year] as myself, but I can still — it’s called switching, and I can still do it when I’m not strong enough. What happens is you have this alternate personality who takes over during any trauma. So it wasn’t the PTSD, it was the way I have always dealt with trauma, it began when I was a toddler. So any time anything very difficult has happened to me, it’s happened to her not me. And if I do remember it, it’s from above or behind, I’m not in the body at the time.

It sounds like you’re basically trying to reconstruct a new version of yourself almost.

Exactly. And it happens by itself. I called the therapist who had treated me for PTSD and said, “You have to make this stop, this is killing me, I can’t feel this much pain.” She said, “It’s because you’ve never felt pain, you don’t know what it is. Only Rat Girl knows what it is.” I was in London, it’s like the middle of the night, I was doing a promo tour. I said, “No one can live with this much pain and anger, it’s gonna kill me. Please make it stop, I have to get my work done for the Muses.” And she said, “I’m not doing it, you are. There’s no way to make it stop. So let’s make our rule, ‘If it kills you, you die.’ That’s all we can do.” It’s like, “Yeah, well, that’s all that anybody can do! I’m looking for more!”

But I’m more pain than person right now. But I am also a lot more like the songs. It used to freak people out that I was such a nice lady. I was a very, very, very pleasant person, not an unkind word to say ever. And I was a bandleader and a mother; there were many times where I could have been tough. I’ve always been extremely gentle, kept all negative feelings to myself and in the music. I’m a lot more like the songs now, and I have to say, the big boots are kinda permanent now. So far that’s all I’ve noticed, that I am actually very strong. But once you lose your heart, I don’t really know what else matters.

My book and music are not particularly light-hearted either, but I always was. I’m still nice but … this is my wartime, I suppose.

I think I saw that you have a new record coming next year, correct?

I just finished a solo record which took almost five years, maybe about as long as the Muses’ records, because of the way we work now and don’t want to work with record companies any longer. So I raise money through listener support and I go in [the studio] when I have enough money. It’s really a perfect way to work — I don’t have to do anything except be good. And when I was on record companies, it was the opposite. [Laughs.] It’s like, “Can you make this bad? Please and then I can sell it?” [Laughs.]

I called my engineer and said, “How much time do I need to book for mixing?” I’m thinking, did I record, 12 songs, 17, 20, what? Because I lived up the street from the studio, which is a very expensive and dangerous thing to do. 'Cause I’d spent all night playing drums in the snow and just walk home in the middle of the night. It’s a dollar a minute to work in a studio, that’s my special rate. And there was this silence. And I said, “Rizzo?” He says, “Hold on, I’m counting.” I’m like, “What is he even counting. Like, just me a rough estimate.” He’s like “57.” and I’m like, “What? I recorded 57 songs?! That’s impossible!”

I ended up with about half of that on the record, and because I release records as books, it’s being published. And so the book was just finished, the record’s being mastered, my drummer Dave Narcizo from the Muses is pulling the artwork together. I don’t know what that means for release anymore, but at least I don’t have to think about things like radio and MTV and college towns and crap like that. [Laughs.] I can just put it out for the people who want to hear it.

That’s funny, because I think I jumped on learning about your music because of MTV. I was 16 when Throwing Muses’ “University” came out. I either saw the video for “Bright Yellow Gun” or heard it on the radio, and I just loved it. I bought the record. “Shimmer” is still one of my favorite songs of all time.

Awwww, thank you! You know that all the airplay “Bright Yellow Gun” got was on its own. Warner Bros. was actually calling radio stations and telling them to take it off the air, as that was not the record they decided to [work]. And the radio stations were saying, “But people like it! We like it!” And they said, “Take it off now, we’re not working that record.”


I know. I bought us off of Warner Bros. As it turns out, I was the only member signed as a key member. I bought us off by giving them my solo record “Hips And Makers” in trade. It took me like a week to make “Hips And Makers.” It was in the black the day it was released and the day I left, they declared it in the red, to make sure I never made another penny off of it. This is why we don’t work with record companies. They’re not all like that, of course, but the majors can be pretty bad … And they’re full of good people! The hive itself is evil and the bees are all fine.

Now you’re working with CASH music. Their setup is very cool. They can have people be patrons almost, which is an interesting, cool way of interacting.

And very timeless. That was all Billy. That was Billy seeing the problem coming and solving it before it kicked in. It means that I’ve been listener-supported for almost 10 years now, which is just unheard of, long before Kickstarter. And it’s so freeing, because if I did what Warner Bros. had asked me to do and just sucked and dressed as a bimbo, and all the shit they wanted to happen, then my listeners would reject it. And they would stop supporting me. I love that —  if there’s pressure in that, then give me more.

It’s true that when people don’t fit into a narrow pigeonhole, people don’t know what to do about that. I completely understand that.

Yeah, yeah. They really love it when you play a character. Not that I’ve got so much integrity. There are better things to do. I don’t have time. I couldn’t think of a good one either. [Laughs.]


By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

MORE FROM Annie Zaleski

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Books Don't Suck Don't Die Indie-rock Kristin Hersh Music Throwing Muses Vic Chesnutt