“Elliott Smith made delicious blueberry muffins.”
Above quote courtesy of Lou Barlow (continuing the tradition of “smooth” transitions from one entry to the next).
Last week I started thinking about Elliott Smith for the first time in awhile, due mostly to a recent AV Club feature, “Music we can’t listen to anymore,”in which Josh Modell admitted that since Smith’s death in 2003, the music just doesn’t hold the same appeal. Although I don’t want to believe that my love for any musician is conditional, and would rather see music as a form independent of its maker, regardless of who the maker is or whether or not he happens to be vapid, or evil, a total fuck-up or exhibiting other grave character flaws. Elliott Smith wasn’t any of those things, but unfortunately, I’m there with Modell in discovering that his death has cast a grim light on the songs that once enchanted me.
But my problem with the music now isn’t that listening to it depresses me, it’s that I feel absolutely nothing when I listen to the albums that used to move and fascinate me. I don’t want to listen to Either/Or and feel nothing.
To the casual fan, Smith’s death was hardly a surprise. They’re the ones who enjoy citing song titles like “Miss Misery,” and his alleged heroin addiction during the Self Titled era (when actually, the heroin “act” was, at that point, part of a persona) as proof that it was only a matter of time until he committed suicide. The casual fans were bemused when the hardcore fans spent the day of his death crying, and they asked us how we could have missed all of the obvious signs.
We hate the casual fans.
Because for those of us who really loved him, we felt contentment in knowing that, despite everything — the alcoholism, the whispered rumors of childhood abuse, the drug addictions and other self-destructive behaviors — he was surviving. The fact that the songs even existed seemed like his way of reporting back to earth after a long excursion to the underworld. His albums were documents, proving that something fragile and beautiful could be woven out of pain; we heard hope where others, who didn’t take the time to understand him or his music, heard only “that depressing shit.”
When he did commit suicide at his LA home in October of 2003, many of us actually felt betrayed. We had rooted for him. We had heard reports that everything was getting better — he was clean, healthy, considering taking up exercise, working on an ambitious double-album at his own personal studio. The essence of survival had been so crucial to the music’s magic; now that he’s dead, the music feels dead, too.
I saw Elliott Smith play “Miss Misery” at the Academy Awards, which is how a lot of fans discovered him. I didn’t actually become a fan that night — instead, I promptly forgot about him for the next two years, but for some reason, the memory of his Oscar performance has stayed with me. I lived in the dorms of the fine arts high school I attended, and all of us boarders gathered around the girl’s lounge TV to watch the awards show. None of us knew who Smith was, or where he had come from, but the moment he entered the stage, the broadcast took a surreal turn. He clearly didn’t belong, his unassuming manner at odds with the Hollywood pomp. We all held our collective breath as he softly strummed through a truncated version of “Miss Misery,” (nominated from the soundtrack to Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting), and sat back on our heels when he disappeared again.
“Wow,” someone said. “That guy should win.”
That guy lost out to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” and probably a good thing for him, too. He seemed baffled enough by his already moderate success; he didn’t need to add Oscar-winner to his name.
I graduated from high school in 1999. I was burned out. The creative writing program had chewed me up and spit me back out again. Although I’ve never regretted my art school experiences for a single millisecond, devoting your life to poetry at the age of 15 isn’t for everyone. Not being able to say (or write) precisely what I meant without worrying how a roomful of people might respond (too prosey! flat! trite! not at all poetic!) made me exhausted. I hated having to couch every observation, every sentiment, in what seemed to be flowery, unnecessary language for the sake of the “literary arts.”
When I listened to Either/Or for the first time, it changed everything I thought I knew about writing. I might even blame that album for the four-year dry spell I experienced, in which I wrote a grand total of two decent poems, and only because I majored in Creative Writing. Elliott Smith is the only singer-songwriter whose lyrics I’ve paid any attention to — they’re wry, unpretentious, and raw. I had felt a lot of anger towards poetry, and, especially, toward a certain mentality (probably in my own mind) that said I couldn’t say exactly what I meant in a straightforward manner. Listening to Smith’s lyrics, I knew it could be done, and I didn’t want to write again until I figured out how.
Some favorite lines from “2:45 am:”
“I’m looking for the man that attacked me
while everybody was laughing at me.
He beat it in me, that part of you,
and I’m gonna split us back in two.”
I picked up the album on a whim from a record store in Bowling Green, KY, on the way home from a family vacation to Nova Scotia. Still knee-deep in my obsession with Lou Barlow, I had heard of connections between Barlow and Smith: the slacker image, the lo-fi sensibility, and acoustic navel-gazing.
What puzzled me the most was the disparity between the album cover and the music behind it. Not yet thirty at the time the cover photo was taken, Smith already looks grizzled and weary: he’s pictured in a graffitied backstage dressing room, styrofoam cup in one hand, cigarette smoked down to the filter in the other, wearing a faded Hank Williams Jr. t-shirt and a trucker’s hat, an inscrutable look in his dark eyes. He’s scarred, tattooed, and too old for his years, the guy you don’t want to meet in a dark alley.
And even though the opening chords of “Speed Trials” come on dark and ominous, the voice that breaks through is gentle, alone in a room, trying not to wake the neighbors. The tough exterior melted away to reveal something delicate and hushed, like a wisp of smoke that lingers after a candle has been extinguished. But despite the ethereal quality of his voice and the gossamer threads of his guitar playing, the songs never appeared weak because they were anchored by an insistent tone of defiance threaded throughout. His fragile whisper held more intensity and shock value than the loudest punk rock caterwauling. By the time I heard “Between the Bars” for the very first time, I found myself in that dim room with him.
He was part of the world, yet separate from it — an observer. He very rarely wrote from a first person point of view, instead choosing to weave his narratives about distant “hes” and “shes,” or even more often, addressing the stories to an unnamed “you.” (Nobody broke your heart./ You broke your own ’cause you can’t / finish what you start”) After awhile, I came to believe he was talking to himself, with a mixture of light scorn, affection, and regret.
I wish I could experience that first listen of Either/Or again. Not the anonymous hotel room with my parents, or the thousand petty annoyances of high school (that seemed epic at the time) I was trying to put behind me, or the uncertainty of the future — but that pure feeling of surprise, the thrill of expectations defied. On the other hand, would I have reacted to the music the same way if it hadn’t been for those circumstances?
Some records come to us at the right time, at the right place. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be the right time anymore.
“I could make you satisfied in everything you do
all your secret wishes could right now be coming true
and be forever with my poison arms around you.”
Maybe one day I’ll find my way back to the poison arms, and when I get there, it won’t sound so much like defeat.