A hurt has defined much of Chesnutt’s life. The story so far: raised in a “no-town” so small that he upgrades to nearby Zebulon, Georgia, for a cartographic referent, Chesnutt was a rocker from the get-go, writing songs as a boy and playing in bar bands as a teen. Then a misfortune straight out of Chick Publications’ hellfire tracts befell him: At age 18, on Easter Sunday, he got drunk, drove, sped, and crashed into a ditch near Atlanta. He was partially paralyzed and has been wheelchair-bound since.
In Pike County, Georgia, such occurrences could be read by superstitious fundamentalists only as a dark kind of divine intervention, an Old Testament mandate to straighten thyself up and fly thyself right. But Chesnutt’s faithlessness didn’t waver, as chronicled in his 1988 song about the accident, “Speed Racer”, the chorus of which is, “I’m not a victim/I am an atheist.” His now-dead mother, who envisioned him becoming a preacher, famously fell apart upon hearing him perform the song at a Unitarian Church in Athens, a performance he calls his “coming-out.”
“When I first started getting this inkling that I didn’t believe in the Bible, and that the Bible was evil, it was horrible,” he explains. “It was a horrible idea to have; ‘Oh shit, what if everybody’s full of crap?’ It was sad. It meant my parents were full of crap. But once I started becoming rather comfortable with it, then it felt good. ‘Okay, through this, I can see where the whole society is full of shit in a lot of places. The whole world is making a little bit more sense to me now.’
“That concert when my parents came to see me play was very important to me, just so I could move on, and say, ‘Look, here’s how I am. I know you’re not going to approve, but this is what I do, and I want you to see me in my real way. And I didn’t want to hurt them, but I felt I had to, so I could not have this weight hanging on me the whole time, like ‘ooooh, I’m hiding from my folks.’ Before that concert it was a big deal. After I did that, it didn’t matter anymore.”
Chesnutt even played an aggrieved parishioner in the chorus of a song by his Athens buddy Jack Logan, with whom he says he’d like to record some progressive-versus-conservative question-and-answer material. The legitimately Eastern-sounding “Zippy Morocco” on Silver Lake is easy to read as a flight-o-fanciful take on Chesnutt’s quest for independence; it spins a yarn of a man who becomes a solo seafarer when his mother dies, and whose huge “barely out of teenagedom” risks eventually pay off.
After the accident and his refusal to become a Lieutenant Dan, Chesnutt waged a literary war against his redneck roots, hurling himself headlong into the work of flourish-heavy poets such as Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickinson. Anyone wishing to absorb their elevated language should keep a dictionary handy: Might this be how Chesnutt developed his penchant for Latinate word choice? Though he doesn’t abuse obscure terms, few of his contemporaries frequently croon “ingratiations,” “transmogrified,” “symposium,” or “proclivity.”
“I’ve got a funny relationship with language,” Chesnutt says. “I’m not very verbose, day-to-day. I’m not that well-educated. I’m kind of…autodidact? But when I start writing, these words, that I don’t even know if I know, come up, and they end up being right. The songs I write are different from my speaking voice. Certain words, I have to think about for a while. I’m sitting there, scratching my head, going ‘What?’ Economy is very important in songwriting, and sometimes you desperately need a certain word to say a whole lot, to bring all the lines together.”
Even if he claims his language is alchemical, Chesnutt admits that the poetry opened his mind. “Wallace Stevens was the guy that nobody likes, whom the hipsters hate, but I love. His whole pursuit of the imagination as a certain sort of world to explore meant a lot to me. When I found him, his Collected Poems were a revelation to me.”
Stevens is unfairly dissed by the bohemes because he is superficially pegged as The Man, as a suit, since he was a lawyer for the Hartford insurance company. Some parallels exist between Stevens and Chesnutt: Stevens took to slamming on Florida, he too had a religious mother, and he also staged a melodramatic rejection of the Judeo-Christian God, going as far as tossing his Bible into the sea.
“I don’t exactly go where Stevens goes with the imagination, where imagination replaces religion,” Chesnutt says. “I don’t think that at all. But I really have a great kinship to him and his kind of enlightenment of the secular world that we inhabit. It’s very important to shirk the afterlife for a life here, for an internal kind of spirituality, instead of seeking an outside divine connection to something.”
The word “internal” sets us off on an Emily Dickinson tangent. Chesnutt professes a serious attachment to the solitary poet who also broke with her received religiosity. Chesnutt doesn’t totally bite when I compare his occasional golly-gosh prankster-reporter persona with the poems in which Dickinson played the part of a precocious, questioning child. But hell, Silver Lake contains a rationalization of reclusivenss called “Stay Inside”.
“Emily Dickinson is about as cool as she gets,” Chesnutt says. “You know, she was locked away from the world, and I feel that way sometimes too, that we don’t know what we’re doing. We’re not connected with the rest of the world sometimes. I feel that she was very much trapped in her own little world, and explored the universe from her own little room, her one small radius. I feel like I do that, even though I get around the world, physically. I often feel like I’m exploring things from a little personal naïve place. I’m still plowing through the same crap.”