A friend of mine once insisted that Elliott Smith was more interesting when he was struggling with his heroin addiction.
While in the past I would never condone a drug habit, this time I sort of agreed with him. Because back then the torture was so vivid and apparent that it overcompensated for the lo-fi production. We never minded the background hiss because it was drowned out by the sound of pent-up tears of sorrow waiting for an eventual release. His sweet tiptoed voice gently reclined on the mattress of your emotions. Lying down, resting out of exhaustion from trying too hard. Sighing. Admitting that sometimes giving up doesn't feel better but it just feels easier.
Yes, Elliott Smith was obviously a tortured soul. We all knew it. And as much as we hate to admit it, we also benefited from his grief. We vicariously moped over bad break-ups, problematic relationships, worries, concerns, issues, dilemmas, things that you can never understand unless you were in our shoes. He was the soundtrack to our despair.
Words like "I’m never gonna know you now but I’m gonna love you anyhow…I’m tired" encapsulated just how we felt about most people we met in New York City. Time never allowed for us to know them better, intimately, but nevertheless we love because a deeper presence bigger than ourselves tells us to. The simple sentiment of "I used to like it here/it just bums me out to remember…" evokes the nostalgia of a place with a past we’re trying to escape. To some it may be their bedroom, or a café they saw the prettiest girl in the world. To others it may be the corridor in their mind that holds the memories of a lost parent and all the joy that will never be gained from them again.
Smith's earlier recordings will always sabotage--a word I do not use lightly--my thoughts, my feelings and my very being. Sometimes when I listen to a song like "Angeles," I get the chills. Not the good-chills but the kind of chills you get when you're certain there's a ghost looming somewhere over you shoulder. The spookiness of that song could inspire the scariest of Halloween costumes.
ROMAN CANDLE, his self-titled, and EITHER/OR make up a trilogy of uncontested intense, rawness. They are the anti-Prozac. They create an atmosphere of pensiveness and introspection that feels awkward and uncomfortable. Like silence in a house of mourning. In fact, in the past few months, I can't help but think of my father when I play his music. Not because the lyrical themes are relevant (because they aren't) but in-between the words, I could almost hear Smith pleading for me, for us, to remember the ones we love, the ones we've lost, and what they all mean to us. To remember the tragedies and celebrations of life and how the two sometimes get lost in each other and become this massive blur of incoherence.
Perhaps I'm placing a great deal of significance on his music in retrospect, but I don’t think that's the case. In fact, Barry proved to me that I was even underestimating his potency.
Last week, I called my friend Barry to let him know about Smith’s untimely demise as soon as I had heard about it. Barry wanted to hang up the phone immediately. He didn’t want to talk about it because as he told me, "Elliott was the most important presence in my high school life." To some it was Cobain and his anthems of angst, to others it was Smith and his delivery of angst through whispers.
I had the pleasure of seeing the Portland, OR folksinger live on more than one occasion but I will never forget one performance in particular. I had just seen "Good Will Hunting," which Smith had contributed a few songs to, and I was enamored with the simple beauty of his music (ironically enough, Smith, on the hand, was quite an unattractive person). I wish I could replicate that concert experience with words because it is one of the rare times in my life where I would experience purity. I clearly remember watching him shuffle wearily on stage before a small yet boisterous crowd. Unannounced, he merely sat down and began to tune his guitar. After finding the right key, he thanked us for coming and started to sing. His voice. My lord, his voice.
Through my eyes of swelling tears, I saw a crowd with respective similar watery gazes. Mouths were open agape with pity both for Smith, for experiencing the pain that could inspire such songs, and for us, for now understanding what that pain could feel like. Initially, most had no idea what to expect from this live show and it turned out to be more than we bargained for. Again, it was purity. Smith played for an hour plus that night. The audience retained this eerie quietness that one finds only in a room by him or herself. Hands swiped cheeks for the occasional escaped tear.
After the show, I was significantly moved. But I was also inspired. That weird mixed-up confused state of sadness and euphoria. My friends and I left the venue and we saw Smith standing outside. An aggressive fan then approached Smith and brought up "Good Will Hunting."
"Hey man, you sold out," the fan said.
Smith responded, "I did not, man. That's really unfair of you to say." And I remember the pained expression on Smith's face when he faced his accuser. The non-chalant comment actually offended him. Most musicians would ignore the selling-out silliness because it comes with the territory. But not Smith. He was offended and pained.
But I guess his pain, in retrospect, never went away. It was always present, only to be occasionally suppressed by the numbing appeal of drugs.
But now, sadly, it has finally been extinguished. That pain is no more.