Song 294: Elliott Smith, “Say Yes” (1997)Posted: October 21, 2013
Elliott Smith died ten years ago today. Before he died, I wasn’t easily moved by the deaths of people I didn’t know. I remember being sad when I learned that Jim Henson died, and I was as shocked as everybody else when Kurt Cobain killed himself.
Elliott Smith’s death was something else entirely. I knew very little about him, but his songs were so intimate—lyrically, musically, and sonically—that he seemed like someone I knew. Someone I wanted to get to know. His death hit me really hard.
Like much of the world, I first heard Elliott Smith in Good Will Hunting, in which he provided a haunting, confused backdrop for a bunch of guys who were trying to figure their shit out. XO and Either/Or quickly became two of my favorite records. I was, and remain, amazed at his ability pair melodies that rivaled anything by Lennon and McCartney with lyrics about addiction, self-doubt, and familial conflict. That combination seemed to lighten darkness and dampen brightness, with beauty as an inevitable result.
Smith is usually remembered as a guy filled with self-loathing and a seemingly unending supply of demons. If the songs are any indication, that’s probably not inaccurate. But many of his friends remember him as a funny, sweet, goofy person. Autumn DeWilde’s book Elliott Smith contained many such remembrances (along with photos featuring, among other things, Smith looking very serious in the fakest mustache you’ve ever seen). In the book, onetime Smith roommate Dorien Garry remembered Smith’s obsession with clowns:
I remember there being a lot of squirting flowers around the house … he would go on tour and come back with a couple pairs of shoes, and he would say, “Look, they’re kind of like clown shoes.” I was like, “No, they’re just like normal shoes, but if you want them to be like clown shoes…” He had this thing about being like a clown. I think it’s kind of symbolic, because when he was happy and goofing around, he was like a clown, he was entertaining everyone around him, he was really animated, and he used his hands a lot in a clownlike manner. When he was telling a joke or talking about clowns, it would make him laugh. I think Elliott had a big inner clown that was dying to come out.
An Elliott Smith story I love is one that comes from Carl Wilson’s examination of Céline Dion titled Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. Smith and Dion both performed at the Oscars in 1998, and though he was prepared to dislike her, he found her to be “really sweet, which made it impossible for me to dislike Céline Dion anymore … She asked me if I was nervous and I said, ‘Yeah.’ And she was like, ‘That’s good, because you get your adrenaline going, and it’ll make your song better. It’s a beautiful song.’ Then she gave me a big hug.” From that moment on, remembered Smith’s friend Marc Swanson, nobody could disparage Céline Dion in Elliott Smith’s presence—a common occurrence after the Oscars. “They’d make some derogatory Céline Dion comment, and every time they’d do it … this look of rage in his eyes would come up and he’d be like, ‘You know, she’s a really nice person.'”
I had the great fortune to see Elliott Smith perform at a tiny bar in February 2000, two months before the release of his final record, Figure 8. His descent into heroin abuse was still on the horizon, and the show featured the talented, charming Elliott Smith that I had fallen for, not the incoherent shell he would become shortly before his death. Near the end of the show, Smith looked around for a door or a panel, anything that he could exit through to mark the break between show and encore. He turned to the wall, and then turned back to the crowd, sheepishly laughing into the microphone, “I can’t go anywhere.” He then started, in response to an audience request, a breathtaking rendition of “I Figured You Out.”
That’s the Elliott Smith I choose to remember. Some of his most beautiful songs were about darkness, fear, and unhappiness, but it’s the Elliott Smith of “Say Yes” that I’ve been listening to most today, the one that acknowledges that “situations get fucked up,” but admits that all he really wants is for you, the girl who’s still around the morning after, to just say yes.