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.
Back in high school, my friend Adam and I were pretty into local radio station WXRV, “The River.” the station is, and was, “adult contemporary,” albeit a kind that included local bands and the occasional up-and-coming “alternative” act. I remember hearing Fountains of Wayne’s first single, “Radiation Vibe,” on WXRV.
It was a pretty weird thing for high school students to be into, a fact that was really hammered home when Adam and I visited the station to do an article about it for our school newspaper. The staff was very cordial, but they clearly didn’t understand why people under 30 were coming to visit them. (Random aside: the best part of our visit happened when we were introduced to the traffic reporter, who was about to give his report from the helicopter. The DJ giving the tour asked how he was doing, and he answered, “Just tryin’ to keep it in my pants.” There was an awkward pause and the DJ said, “Uh, I’ve got a couple high school students here,” to which the traffic guy said, “Oh. Oh! I meant my… Watch. Just trying to keep my watch in my pants.” Sadly, this exchange didn’t make our final draft.)
One of the best things I heard in my couple years of obsessively listening to The River was the Bruce Cockburn song “Pacing the Cage,” which I first heard in the middle of the night, battling insomnia. I loved it, but more importantly, I loved the voice of the guy singing, and his carefully plucked guitar. Who was this guy?
The record featuring “Pacing the Cage” is called The Charity of Night, and it’s great. On first listen, it sounds like yet another guy-with-an-acoustic guitar album. You eventually realize that it has all kinds of shades: a vibraphone here, an electric slide guitar there, all of which makes the record sound like it’s both sleepy and wide awake. Like me when I first heard it, it sounds like it’s up at 3 a.m., wondering what to do with itself.
As much as I still love “Pacing the Cage,” it’s “The Whole Night Sky” I listen to most. The percussion is what gets to me most. The drums are at the forefront, but they’re not overpowering, and those shakers give the track a little ambience, like cicadas chirping near Cockburn’s nightscape. And that’s Bonnie Raitt providing plaintive, but never imposing, slide guitar. I think this song is just gorgeous, and the fact that it’s paired with a gorgeous arrangement shows just how much Cockburn knew what he was doing.
I haven’t heard much else by Bruce Cockburn, mostly because his other records can’t possibly be this good. The Charity of Night is like a beautiful, isolated moment, and I don’t want any other songs or records to cloud it.
Even though I know they’re coming, the distortion blasts in “Problems and Bigger Ones” always take me by surprise. I’m never prepared for the sheer power, the treble-y edge that slices the song in half when I’m not paying attention. Harvey Danger was like that. Singer Sean Nelson sounded equally at home singing quietly and loudly, with the former almost always leading to the latter. You just never knew when, or how, the explosion would happen.
That unpredictability is not only what I love most about this song, but about the entirety of Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?. A catchy hit about the inanity of nineties trends? Sure. A song devoted to the Alfred Hitchcock movie Vertigo? Why not. And let’s finish the record with “Radio Silence,” an eight-minute slow-burner to end all slow-burners. It was both of its time and full of quirks that only this band could pull off.
I think Nelson’s voice is hugely underrated, for the reasons described above but also because it’s so dang strong. Even when he’s shouting “I never said no” on “Problems and Bigger Ones,” he’s right on pitch. Melody, even when hollered to wallpapaper-peeling distortion and pounding drums, was never lost.
I know I’ve touched on this before, but it’s amazing how a single moment in a work of art – a song, a movie, a book, whatever – can sustain one’s love of that art for a long time. This happens to me all the time, especially with music (the acoustic break in R.E.M.’s “So Fast, So Numb,” for example). This is a common enough phenomenon that Pitchfork has a newly inaugurated blog devoted to the subject.
One such moment for me is in the Verve song “Velvet Morning.” At first blush, it doesn’t seem like a very interesting song: the overall sound is kind of mushy, and singer Richard Ashcroft sounds detached and uninterested. But then, in the measure before the chorus, something briefly clicks, as Ashcroft sings “into the headlights.” The melody, even in just five syllables, is very pretty, leading the way for Ashcroft to sing the title phrase in the most animated vocals on the song. It’s a very brief respite from the emotional disengagement found elsewhere in the song, one that I always anticipate the second the song starts.
I first heard this song, and the rest of The Verve’s record Urban Hymns, which also features “Bittersweet Symphony” in the haze of high school. I remember driving around, using my brand-new driver’s license, listening to this song in the wake of two student deaths – a car accident and a heart attack, one happening very soon after the other – and thinking, What the fuck is going on? There was surely some high school emotional drama going on, but I think it was also a moment of some genuine confusion.
The song fit the mood perfectly, especially as I was wondering if I was reacting correctly. I didn’t even know these people; was it disrespectful that I was feeling so affected by it? Was I not affected enough? It seems strange and overly simplistic in retrospect, but I remember this song actually helping with that. Confusion is okay; ambiguity is normal. It sucks, and it’ll always be there, but it’s normal. Look forward to the good parts of the song, whether or not you know they’re coming.
“Monkey Wrench,” the first single from the Foo Fighters record The Colour and the Shape, was a hit in 1997, but you don’t hear it much now. “Everlong” and “My Hero” are the songs from that record that have survived years of rock radio play. I love “Everlong,” but “My Hero” has never been interesting to me. “Monkey Wrench” deserves that spot on Clear Channel playlists.
Whenever I hear “Monkey Wrench,” I always think of the word “blistering.” This song seems to roar the paint off walls, sear the enamel off teeth. It’s abrasive, to say the least, in a way that only Dave Grohl can accomplish. Also typical of Grohl, however, is the fact that the song is so dang appealing. It’s not only catchy but invigorating, as if he’s lending us the energy and momentum that he used to get out of the relationship that caused him so much pain. Despite his penchant for screaming, Grohl is an immensely likable performer, and you can tell from Foo Fighters’ records and live shows that he gives his all, all the time.
Grohl apparently sang that crazy bridge all in one breath, which I can’t even imagine. The man may get well-deserved props for his guitar and drum playing, but he’s a pretty amazing singer.
Straightaways, Son Volt’s second record, has plenty of loud, fast moments—“Caryatid Easy” is a barnstormer of an opening track—but it’s the quieter songs, the ones that remind me of the dog days of summer, that I like best. In particular, “Last Minute Shakedown” makes me think about driving around Cape Cod the summer between junior and senior years of high school.
I’d listen to Straightaways as I drove from my job as a day camp counselor to the local “farm stand” (a small general store-type place, really), where I swept the floors and stocked the shelves. The transition between the two jobs was always the best part of the day: cruising around Brewster and Orleans (as much as one can cruise in the boat-like Pontiac Safari), blasting the air conditioning, decompressing before being hollered at about boxes of cucumbers.
“Last Minute Shakedown” is a hot, hazy song, one that seems to live between punishing humidity and the impending thunderstorm. “Out of chaos comes order, and back again,” sings Jay Farrar, as if the pattern of good and bad is the natural order of things. We go from one day to another, from highs to lows, and everything in between. Some days it’s a bull to drive, some days it’s a walking dream.
The bridge of this song, that “it’s not easy to change” section, is what gets me every time. I’m not sure why this is—it’s not very complicated, and it’s not very different from the rest of the song—but it’s very pretty and sweet, simple as it is. Farrar, even when he’s singing a fierce song like “Caryatid Easy,” always sounds a little tired, as if he’s been through some shit. The bridge is the sound of a man who knows how hard it is to change, who knows what you’re going through.