When I was in college, I had a roommate named Kevin who was a certifiable music freak. He had thousands of CDs, piled up all over the place. And not the standard issue stuff. He was probably the only person at my college who didn’t own a Dave Matthews or Big Head Todd record. I was weaned on extremely mainstream rock radio, so perusing through his CD collection was like touring a foreign country on the other side of the globe with 700 different provinces. He had Bob Mould records, and Archers of Loaf, and Uncle Tupelo, and Jack Logan, and scores more. Sometimes I liked what he listened to. Sometimes I didn’t. Regardless, I loved sorting through that huge pile of his.
One of the CDs he had that I remember best was Vic Chesnutt’s About to Choke. The cover of the album featured a young man in a wheelchair, blurred out of recognition: Chesnutt, who had been paralyzed from the waist down after a teenage car accident.
Chesnutt died on Christmas Day, the result of an apparent purposeful overdose on muscle relaxants. He died broke and deeply in debt, with medical bills as high as $50,000, according to various reports. In an interview with the LA Times prior to his death, Chesnutt sounded like a man beaten down from dealing with both his condition and the enormous expense of treating it:
"I'm not too eloquent talking about these things," Chesnutt said. "I was making payments, but I can't anymore and I really have no idea what I'm going to do. It seems absurd they can charge this much. When I think about all this, it gets me so furious. I could die tomorrow because of other operations I need that I can't afford. I could die any day now, but I don't want to pay them another nickel."
The real sadness here is that Chesnutt was someone who suffered from disability and depression for a good deal of his life, yet managed to deal with the pain by channeling it into music. His was something of a triumphant story, and he was beloved by many in the rock community, most notably Michael Stipe of REM. Most important, he was beloved by the likes of Kevin, music fans who went the extra mile to seek out artists like Chesnutt and were richly rewarded for their due diligence.
You can hold up Chesnutt’s story as an example for the ongoing health care debate if you like. But that’s not the point. The point is that Chesnutt ended up taking his own life, disappearing into the giant pile, because he saw no better avenue for himself. He didn’t really want to die, but the alternative of being sick AND being charged thousands upon thousands of dollars for the privilege was so unappetizing that he decided even making music wasn’t enough to make it all better. That’s not a political story. It’s a human story, and very sad one.