Ten years ago today Elliott Smith passed away. Musician Marissa Nadler wrote a beautiful tribute to him ahead of playing a special commemorative (commiserative?) show tonight and here DiS' editor attempts to explain his love for Smith's music...
Vulnerability. Yes! Vulnerability, that’s the word I’ve been looking for. Not that a single set of syllables could ever do Elliott Smith’s music justice.
Breaking things down into definable parts can be horribly reductive but it can also be incredibly important for outsiders and to give those close to something a sense of perspective - I guess this is why music critics with their desires to make sense of things can be as helpful as they are hated. Whilst Wiki-facts now define careers (yes, Elliott did that Good Will Hunting stuff. Well done you. Have a biscuit), it seems that soundbites now end up defining eras, or rather eras have come to be defined by their soundbites, so a single word is just one shortcut key that unlocks a quizzical frown and receives an 'oh yeah, I get you!' response. We're too busy to even learn short-hand, so quick summaries are helpful but they barely scratch the surface.
For a writer, a killer sentence can be a key to help clarify what you're trying to say. One simple string of words that helpfully tidies up a mess or shakes loose a flood of thoughts. When communicating anything, a succinct idea is the calm and contemplative eye of the storm, but getting there (to that elusive X that marks the spot), that’s the bit that torments you. Creating the perfect elixir or finding that golden egg suddenly makes sense of the mess spiralling around it. The single seed from which a tree grows. You get me?
“Everybody cares, everybody understands…” except when they don’t, and that’s when music is a great comfort. Songs don’t give a shit if you’re the one in the wrong, and they won’t trivialise your over-reaction or mock you for being completely paralysed by pain. What I’m trying to say - and it's taken my 10 years since staring at a blank page trying to write a tribute - is that Elliott Smith’s back catalogue has been a great companion to me and thousands of lonely bastards just like me. When I’ve been at my saddest, he’s been there (in my earphones!), strumming gentle songs as a wall-of-vocals temper the rage clearly rumbling around inside of his head. Alone in airports or gin-drunk, lovelorn and tearful at 2:45am or whisky-sweating on a hungover commute or grimacing at the sky before a 20-minute walk with no umbrella, it’s then when you/I press play on ‘Speed Trials’ or ‘Roman Candle’ or ‘Needle in the Hay’ or ‘Sweet Adeline’ and the album begins, and you’re no longer all by yourself. It’s an instant gush of endorphins. It’s a hug. It’s a big bath of melancholy to marinate in.
I never saw Elliott Smith live (I was most-likely outside the tent at Reading when the above performance took place in ‘98, completely unaware of who he was. About eight months after that performance, I’d interview an Irish band named Turn who were opening for Idlewild on tour and they'd tell me to scribble down Either/Or on a scrap of paper, and I'd go out, buy it, and listen to little else for months). Of course I never met him, but he felt like a friend - in much the same way a pen pal or instant messenger buddy feels like a part of your life, in that distant but intense way.
"...because happy and sad come in quick succession..."
When I heard about his death 10 years ago today, I remember it feeling like I’d lost a close friend. At first I was happy he had found peace. Then I felt terrible for thinking that. Then I was a little despondent before I felt that cold dark-blue rush through my veins. It was a kick in the gut, that’s for sure, but what’s odd (you could say perverse), is that he had left a catalogue to help make sense of the feelings I felt as I tried to remember how to breathe.
Even without the cocktail of drugs, he would probably have been a terrible friend (but then my best friend growing up was probably my cat, so I'm not that big on loyalty or affection). He’d be one of those people you should probably give up on but feel drawn to, and totally unable to leave his orbit. He's somehow who’s so consumed (not so much self consumed, more self-contained and unwilling to waste time on small talk and too shy to take the risk that what they’re thinking about would make them sound like a mentalist) that you’d probably spend hours travelling together but rarely have a conversation. His songs weren’t really communications to you/me, they were letters to himself that he left out in a cluttered heap.
From what I can garner from various books and interviews, Elliott was a bit of a hermit (who could also be a lot of fun at parties) and his songwriting was at times a cathartic experience. He was also a perfectionist and it seems as if capturing his 'sound' and building up those waterfalls of backing-harmonies were the distraction from his life lived in the shadow of suffering (before the drugs there was - from what I’ve read - what sounds molestation and a string of not quite broken, but certainly frayed relationships with close-family, step-fathers and friends. Not to mention intense relationships. It's hard to know exactly what went on, especially as I kinda don't really want to know). Ironically, this quest to record the exact textures he could sense in his head would also torture him - and leave fans waiting years for a follow-up to Figure 8 ("he fights problems, with bigger problems?").
When I was growing up I remember a lot of my friends going through some really troubling experiences. When one friend's mother got a terminal cancer diagnosis, he got a life-long obsession with Metallica. Another friend was somewhat portly (I realise there’s no polite way of saying that), so got bullied quite a lot, and he became besotted and almost completely consumed by a love for Guns ‘N Roses. I never really had that kind of childhood trauma, and I never really had a seemingly life-long favourite band. Perhaps it was because my granddad had instilled something in me that I’ve never been able to shift. He used to say 'I don’t have a football team, I just love the beautiful game. Your dad's stubborn and your uncle's a glory-hunter, but I’m a football fan, now stop hassling me to pick one team.' He’d go watch Chelsea with my uncle and Tottenham with my dad. He’d see three or more local-ish teams (Dorchester, Weymouth and sometimes Yeovil). He had a Southampton season ticket for many years, and yet he never picked a side, and yet his passion for the sport was incredible. He would call me up before school to talk about transfer news in the Daily Mirror and pick me up from school with transfer tales from Teletext.
When Elliott Smith died I thought of my granddad passing away when I was 13. Perhaps it was that cold-blue feeling I remembered. That contrasting lightness of being and the heaviness of the world that forced me to sit on the floor, in the corner of the room. I sat in silence, for maybe minutes, possibly several hours, processing things, wondering what I was feeling (probably “staring into space like a dead china doll”). Suddenly nothing seemed important, but everything mattered. Perhaps I’m a little morbid, but these two moments are so vivid that they’ve become landmarks in my life. It’s odd to think of the death of a stranger as a pivotal moment in my life on par with the death of granddad (who I spent most of my time with and was more like my father), but then Elliott Smith wasn’t just some musician I listened to - he was so much more than that! So much in fact that I can't put it into words (everything on this page is a mirage). I struggle to even to begin to describe to people what his music has meant and still means to me. That’s why I get excited when I find words like 'vulnerable' which begin to describe the quivering sounds that he captured. The fact I’d have to caveat the word 'vulnerable' with '...but in a good way' probably says a lot about the confusion I have with the world, and probably a little bit about the contempt I hold for most people. Perhaps seeing the upside of negativity is why I've played Either/Or more than any other album.
Sometimes when I listen to Elliott’s music I’m struck by the brutality that burbles beneath the beauty. It's hidden beneath the stillness but when you notice it, it can be as terrifying as it is comforting. It takes a lot of strength to be this open and honest whilst you’re clearly hurting inside and trying to “drink yourself into slow-mo” to get away from the monsters in your memory and to float out of this quagmire of turmoil. Confusingly, the way that his music makes me feel however is the opposite of numb (in fact, it made so much sense when I found out that Kurt Cobain's favourite book was Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, but I digress).
Right now, to try to finally come to terms with his death (the whole, not listening to him quite as obsessively approach just seems self-destructive and childish) and as my own personal self-indulgent tribute, I’m working my way through the back catalogue and those gentle strums (perfected panned to the far edge of the sound) on ‘Tomorrow Tomorrow’ as the vocals plume still make me a little bit breathless on my four hundredth (it’s probably waaaay more, actually) listen to xo. Then ‘Waltz #2 (XO)’ begins and all that 'sweet' child-like imagery from nursery rhymes suddenly seems so sinister when you glimpse the soul “throwing candy out to the crowd.” It’s this stark contrast of the man and the music, the pain of the past and the beauty recorded to tape forevermore, that seems to blend so seamlessly into something that goes way beyond anything any post-grunge Beatles fan with a Simon & Garfunkel intonation could write, record and release.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that as much as I loved my granddad's somewhat noble inability to pick favourites, if you pushed me, I’d tell you that Elliott Smith is my favourite artist. I’ve tried to move on and to paper over the past by getting obsessed with various acts. I tried sticking my heart into M. Ward’s smokey drawl, gone she-could-sing-the-phone-book crazy for Cat Power, and spent many a month listening to nothing but Bright Eyes’ potent paeans to his pain, but they never quite take me to the same place. Oberst has come the closest but Conor’s honesty seems to spiral into a cartoonish corner in the places where Elliott’s songs become these ornate masterpieces that you can truly admire when you’re pinned to the floor, staring at the ceiling (yes, like a dead china doll!). To be honest, I've pushed myself to write a tribute for a decade and I still can't really explain why I love Smith's music quite so much (sorry that I've wasted your time). Nor can I really define what element of it is that really gets me. You'll just have to journey into the abyss, with your headphones on, alone.
p.s. What I’m really trying to say is thank you for the music, Elliott. You’re gone, but you’ll never fade away.
Here's an introduction to Elliott Smith Mixtape
There's a lot of stuff around the web for Elliott Smith fans and die-hards, but these two are the best places to delve deeper and keep up-to-date with posthumous releases: Sweet Adeline and rawkblog.net/elliott-smith/.