Throwback Thursday: Elliott Smith

My first real piece of music writing came in middle school when I was a yearbook staffer assigned to write two pieces on popular culture representative of that year, 1997. I chose to review two movie soundtracks: Titanic and Good Will Hunting–Titanic because I was a ‘tween obsessed with Leonardo DiCaprio, and Good Will Hunting because Elliott Smith was the soundtrack to my “tortured” middle class suburban existence. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I had found the thing that would dominate my adult life: explaining music with words.

The soundtrack to Good Will Hunting propelled Elliott Smith into notoriety following his performance of “Miss Misery” at the Academy Awards. Ever the introvert, the attention was daunting. In a recent Jeff Baker interview with William Todd Shultz, author of Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith, Schultz describes the discomfort Elliott Smith felt after meeting Celine Dion backstage at the Oscars, and observed that “[Smith] didn’t have the greatest self-image. It was almost problematic to be famous because it didn’t fit with how he experienced himself as a person.” For a man beloved by a hardcore fan base, he generally wanted to be alone. Perhaps this explains his prolific musical output, first with Heatmiser and then on is own. It also explains the general tone of his songs, which are quietly introspective, Beatles-informed and confessional. I think this is the great conflict for many artists: how to sing to soothe your aches but maintain your privacy in a public forum.

Elliott Smith’s biographical record is sad, a cautionary tale of drug addiction born of low self esteem that ended the life of an immensely talented artist. Similar tales have been told too many times before. To listen to his albums chronologically from Roman Candle (1994), to Elliot Smith (1995), Either/Or (1997) and XO (1998) through Figure 8 (2000) is to watch an artist become more sure of his voice, ability and message. At the time of his death, he had acquired a coterie of vintage equipment and was actively recording new material for an album provisionally titled From A Basement On The Hill. Depending on whose story you believe, he was either turning things around when he died–clean and sober, in a stable relationship and starting a foundation for abused children–or devolving into another period of paranoid depression. Competing versions of the year prior to his death have produced different opinions on the act: either he executed “the best suicide I ever heard of,” as believed by Courtney Love, or he was murdered with a kitchen knife through the heart. While I want to believe the latter, the former is equally as likely.

I remember where I was when I heard of Smith’s death like my mother remembers where she was when Kennedy was assassinated. I’m very protective of Elliott Smith and his music in a big sister kind of way. This is why my hackles were raised when Madonna recently covered “Between the Bars” in a politicized performance that promoted the short film secretprojectrevolution. What I’ll say on this is…I think we’ve all seen the manipulating effect of politics this week. My protective instincts aroused, I realized–to my astonishment–that this month marks the 10th anniversary of Smith’s death, and learned a tribute will be staged in New York on October 21st. The lineup boasts indie powerhouse Cat Power at the head, with Yoni Wolf of WHY?, the Low Anthem, Adam Schatz from Landlady and Man Man, and others who will play their own music in addition to Smith covers. Tickets are steep at $50, but a portion of the proceeds will go to the Elliott Smith Memorial Fund, which partially supports youth based nonprofits Free Arts for Abused Children and Outside In–a Portland group that helps homeless youth (to which you can also contribute through IndieGogo).

Elliott Smith, gone for a decade, has now entered the realm of the footnote, but one that is referenced as a resource, not relegated to the dustbin of history (to borrow a phrase from Greil Marcus); he is an active citation and not a forgotten muse. This is encouraging to me, a little validating even, because no one wants to see their inspirations fade even if they die. Momentary resurrections through the posthumously released From A Basement On The Hill and then the two-disc New Moon (2007) have kept him near and dear, a voice speaking from the grave, guiding the teenager that found him through college. I am, as ever, a devotee of he.

Featured below is a short called Lucky Three made by Jem Cohen (recently profiled on this blog in the post “Museum Hours”) on 17-20 October 1996 in Portland, Oregon and released in 1997. It falls out of sync at one point, but still offers insight into Elliott Smith’s world as well as his music, and reminds me that music is made by men and women who are mortal, as flawed and as fine as we the unmusical.

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