The melancholy ghost of Elliott Smith

My local fags-n-mags has been looking like a branch of the Detroit Chamber Of Commerce. Eminem’s giving me the eye from the cover of Bang! a rocking new magazine that’s aimed right between Mojo’s ’60s dadrock fixation and NME’s high-speed photography designed to capture every flash in the pan. Jack and Meg once again grace the cover of the New Musical Express, Jack doing his Victorian best, and the NME salivating over every string bend. And the Mojo Detroit Issue, with Jack White’s Pietà to Iggy’s Christ, is truly amazing. What Iggy was struggling to make primal, White reveres as sacred, and somehow this happens without these diametrically opposed viewpoints ever fighting. Mojo is squarely aimed at vinyl men over thirty — with at least two Beatles/Stones/Dylan covers per year, the rest usually saved for Radiohead. That Mojo would go for the White Stripes or the Stooges isn’t surprising, but mucho brownie points for a truly inspired interview pairing.

And apropos of nothing, I’m finding Jack White’s Victorian personality an absolutely fascinating creation in and of itself. As Iggy would be the first to testify, I think we can all agree that shock, by nature, is impossible to maintain, and since one of the primary/primal directives of rock ’n’ roll is to be shocking, that makes it a June butterfly of the highest order. But second, third generation? Jack White’s Flannery O’Connor-meets-Victorian-Aristo-Boho character becomes more refined every day, and is itself a work of considerable art.

The Sights were in town recently, finishing off their European tour. I got there late, and someone was going nuts with the smoke machine, and I could only make out shadows of Eddie Baranek and New Bloke Who Is Not Nate Cavalieri (Bobby Emmett) and Dave Shettler flailing around the drumkit through the fog as they launched into “Be Like Normal.” Many kudos to the Sights: They are a lot swingier, a lot groovier than they were the last time I saw them. The Cream-y bits that didn’t thrill me have given way to a more Faces/Yardbirds/Manfred Mann-y sugary joy, full of sweet harmonies and pop swagger. Actually, I think “swagger” is the definitive word: The Sights swagger through a set of rock ’n’ roll like psychedelics and birth control were invented last Friday. There’s more muscle and swing in the smoky stop-start of their acid-soaked blues, and a little less of the prove-it technique that in the past has left a sour Eric Clapton taste in my mouth. The Sights have spent the last few years earning a Ph.D. in 1967-68, and now they are learning to let go and just be a rock ’n’ roll band.

What’s it like in heaven, Elliott?

I was standing in a goth emporium in North London on my monthly hair dye run when I heard news of Elliott Smith’s suicide come crackling through the radio static. I burst into tears amongst the corsets and the bongs. As a kindly Eastern European girl got me a tissue from behind the counter, she asked “I’m sorry. Who’s Elliott Smith?”

I’d happily put all my lunch money on Elliott Smith as Songwriter of His Generation™. Elliott had an acute lyrical sympathy that was like no other I have ever heard, and was a walking unabridged dictionary of pop history, which he used to subtle effect. When he was healthy, when he was at his best, his live performances could reduce a venue full of jaded hipsters to tears of wonder.

My introduction to Elliott Smith was perfect. Songwriter/producer Jon Brion, who has always been a lightning rod for creative goodness, phoned me up and said, “I have something that you have to have.” He showed up in a coffee shop the next day, still wearing his pajama top over jeans, sheet wrinkles fresh on his cheek, and presented me with three CDs, Roman Candle, Elliott Smith and either/or. Now, I like a good pop record as much as the next guy, but very few things will propel me out of bed with a compulsive need to share. “Imagine the best of Paul Simon’s lyricism and melody, Simon and Garfunkel’s harmonies with those fragile Nirvana verses. You, of all people, have to hear this. You’re going to love it. It’s amazing.” Driving away, I popped in either/or. It was playing in the background, I was talking to someone … and then I heard it. I had to pull over. I was doing that thing you do, when you stare at the CD player, at the wondrous device that is allowing a blue rental car to become an emotional transporter, to become a bearer of art. It was pure pop revelation.

Over the next few months, I came to understand that missionary zeal, because this was the second coming of pop songwriting that so many of us had been waiting nearly a lifetime for. Here were these intimate little albums, very handmade affairs, no band, no budget, no big production, no pretension. Downright humble, in fact. And here were these songs — the best of the ’60s golden boys’ melodies — these bittersweet lonely junk epiphanies that were all his own. The presentation was so deceptively simple, driven by acoustic guitar and voice, recorded in someone’s basement. The level of craft brought to bear, the level of musicianship — all of it was so off-the-scale super-good, all of it completely transparent. It was like watching Fred Astaire dance — you were never made aware of the effort or the skill, it just looked graceful and … holy-perfect.

If that wasn’t enough for the wildest fantasies of us pop geeks, there were the heart-stopping lyrics. Elliott used a very simple vocabulary to describe incredibly complex things, often by describing the spaces around them so eloquently that the main subject need never be said out loud and thus diminished, so completely and succinctly was it implied. They were funny and sweet, self-deprecating and profound in the most light-handed way. My favorite two albums are Elliott Smith and either/or. In those two albums, there is not a line that grates. Not a single clanger, where you can see the songwriter’s Scotch tape sticking this bit onto that part without proper justification. Everything unfolds gracefully, every time, without fanfare, whistles or bells.

I remember the awkwardness of the Academy Awards ceremony performance of “Miss Misery,” from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. There was Elliott, a little acne-scarred outsider, incongruous in an ill-fitting white tuxedo. A small, shy guy with an acoustic guitar, pinned to the stage by the multi-ray lights — on the same stage as Celine Dion, fer chrissakes. It was just wrong, but for that single moment, Elliott was there to represent.

No one can truly say that his death comes as a surprise. Elliott Smith had been plagued by drug problems for years — or perhaps he embraced them. I heard a rumor about a close friend and old label boss, Slim Moon, who, out of concern over Smith’s spiraling drug intake, arranged a recovery-style intervention. Smith walked out of the room, left the label, and cut all ties. In recent years, Smith went very quiet, and tales of his drug use got scary. The standard heroin narrative gave way to crack and PCP. Longtime supporters and collaborators began to withdraw in self-defense, and the horrifying accounts of gigs aborted due to a literal inability to play seemed to point toward the inevitable.

Things seemed to be getting better. He had started to perform again, released a single, and he was working on his sixth record. It didn’t look like it was going to be easy, but for the first time in years, it looked as though it might be possible. Just maybe.

Now the Nick Drake comparisons that followed him throughout his career will be firmly in place forever, filed under Melancholy Pop Suicide. I wonder if these events will boost sales of his back catalog the same way they have for Drake and Jeff Buckley. Will the junkie mythology cast him in that narrow romantic fiction? Will he be stuck there forever? That is a thought that truly breaks my heart. I don’t want his place reduced to that too-fragile-for-this-world victim cliché that haunts people like Drake, Kurt Cobain and Sylvia Plath, and overshadows the amazing strength and vitality of their work. I do not want my Elliott Smith Suicide Doll, fallen on his sword for three minutes of perfect pop magic.

Artists are not supposed to have to die for you, me or anybody. In my prayers, all of my heroes get to grow old and fat, be happy and die in their sleep. Elliott Smith had been trying to annihilate his conscious mind for a long time, and I recognize everyone’s right to get off the train when they feel it is necessary, when they feel they have no other choice. It just makes me so goddamn sad. I am a greedy bastard, and I wanted/hoped/prayed to hear more.

As I sat down to write this, I looked around to try to find a Smith CD, and I couldn’t. And it’s not like I haven’t replaced those original gifts a dozen times over, and the reason for that is: “Ohmygod! You have to hear this, he’s amazing. …”

Shireen Liane lives in London and is Metro Times’ UK correspondent. E-mail [email protected]
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