“I used to like it here/It just bums me out to remember”
I fell under Elliott Smith’s spell after buying a copy of the Waltz #2 (xo) CD single downstairs in HMV on Grafton Street on the basis of one of those hunches you used to have to work on in the days when music wasn’t free. I was putting lots of little pieces of information together including (bizarrely this sticks with me) a Kylie Minogue interview from the back page of a Q magazine where she commented on his contribution to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack and eventually took the plunge and parted with my £4.99.
So I started with XO and by the time the last album of his lifetime, Figure 8 came out I was a full-blown devotee having worked my way backwards to Roman Candle’s clutch of No Names and pitch-black Americana drenched in tape hiss. I identified with Smith in as many ways as I possibly could from his adoration for the Beatles and Big Star to his greasy, lank, terrible hair. I started recording my songs on a four-track cassette deck layering the instruments one by one (who needs a band?) in the manner of either/or and pored over his records to learn the songs mimicking his own peculiar blend of plucking, finger-picking and strumming, developing my own peculiar blend in the process (which apparently my fingers cannot ever forget.)
Smith’s art was “serious” enough to bear proper consideration and so every detail was hoovered up, from repeated lyrical phrases (“deaf and dumb and done”), minute geographical detail of Portland (“Sixth and Powell/A dead sweat in my teeth”, “Driving around up and down Division St.”) the endless seeking out of bootlegs and songs not recorded or released yet, each as good as those that were; how every criticism spat out in song at some unnamed third person was so clearly aimed back at himself. The grubby underdog, smart but soft-spoken, perpetually staring existential pointlessness in the face, Smith’s style infiltrated my own life, identification blurring into imitation.
To me Elliott Smith felt like he was my musician, my discovery, my retreat from whatever pitiful problems were my every day bread and butter. I’m certain that it is not an unusual to feel this possessive over an artist’s work, no matter how illogical it seems. People who told me the music was “miserable” or “depressing” I mocked in my head and assumed that a dislike for whispery acoustic guitar dudes was simply what was putting them off. It was, right? I mean, it’s quite obvious that it is miserable and depressing but they couldn’t have known that after half listening to a borrowed CD twice could they?
“You make me sad/Shooting star”
But looking back on it now it all seems such a very immature appreciation of the reality of Smith’s awkwardness, desperation, his alcoholism and inability to cope. For many years I had identified with his ability to mine his emotion for material to sculpt into such wonderful pop subverted by philosophical depth and above all his resistance to suicide. From within a denialist clique of fanatics on the Sweet Adeline message board we defended his incredibly fucked-up concert performances in 2001 and 2002 against outsiders who simply didn’t understand.
After one truly lamentable performance at Riviera in Chicago in May 2002, where a strung-out Smith claimed he had “fallen asleep on his arm on the plane” and was having trouble using his hand, Glorious Noise’s Jake Brown finished off his brief report on the nightmarish show in uncompromising fashion: “I seriously hope he’s okay and that he gets his shit together. But it would not surprise me at all if Elliott Smith ends up dead within a year.” [I’ve heard a tape of the show, it’s miserable stuff, but at the time I was more fascinated that he dug up some old song he’d only played once before in 1996. Seriously.]
After the worst excesses of his drug abuses had apparently subsided, Smith began making a proper public comeback throughout 2003 for the first time since whatever had made him take the final leap into the darkness of heroin and crack addiction post-Figure 8. Still shaky in his guitar technique and in remembering his lyrics (not to mention his quasi coherent inter-song mumbles), he was, at least it seemed, back from the brink, giving interviews and explaining his treatment at the Neurotransmitter Restoration Center, which even to the 2003 me seemed like a fairly quack-ish enterprise.
Back from the brink maybe but still clearly damaged to fuck. William Todd Schultz’ exemplary biography released earlier this month, Torment Saint is written from a perspective that I can now relate to ten years on: a fan of the music but ever less a fan of the man who made it. Or, to be precise, less a fan of the life of the man who made it, unable to identify with the morose sadness inherent in everything he did, unable to identify with something so unhealthy.
“You won’t live long but you may write the perfect song/Please excuse those who chose to not sing along”
From the outside, there is a tendency to think of artists and the records they release (especially when you come to them records retrospectively years after their initially release) as being in some kind of cycle. A cycle of writing, recording, promoting and touring, codified into the very nature of the job of the professional musician. Torment Saint’s incredibly unflinching desire to get to the bottom of Smith, along with Schultz’ ability to access the people who knew him best, paint Smith’s life not as a series of cycles but as one lengthy, grim unfurl. Of awkward relationships and living arrangements, of friendships forged and then forgotten. What I had almost admired him for, his resilience to suicide, his stubbornness in the face of futility he saw all around him actually made the whole damned saga unfeasibly bleak. The spectres of addiction, despair and suicide pervade his entire adult life, tracking his path to each corner of the United States, from Texas to Portland, to New York and finally Los Angeles.
Schultz’ access to a host players in Smith’s life, practically all in fact, stands in direct contrast to the other book about him, Benjamin Nugent’s shallow and pointless Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing, commissioned before and released in the immediate aftermath of his death. Schultz gains access to the inner circle of practically all stages of Smith’s life, transforming names that were once hand-written in liner notes to fully-rounded characters, the subjects of songs, co-conspirators and co-authors, lovers, friends and on occasional cases, those who became foes. They all had to deal with Smith and the ghosts he dragged around. Some are enablers, some coax him to treatment, some won’t truck with his bullshit, some are simply unable to help – but throughout the picture appears of a man psychically wounded, in love with the idea of death but fuelled too by his amazing creativity which staved off his inevitable demise long enough to let us hear such wonderful music.
R.I.P. Elliott Smith 6th August 1969 – 21st October 2003.