Everyone I talked to for my book "Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith" said a version of the same thing: no song sounds like an Elliott Smith song. Musically, he was a bit of a savant, recording from the age of 13 on a four track reel-to-reel in Texas; then, after a move to Portland, fronting the high school band Stranger Than Fiction, a unit that produced six cassettes of ambitious, multi-sectioned, ornate pop-rock. Some of these songs--"Fast Food," "Key Biscayne," "Catholic"--even resurfaced decades later, as Elliott reconfigured them for the records XO and Figure 8.
But there's something else that sets Elliott yards apart from most of his peers. The words, the lyrics. It's an interesting question whether rock lyrics successfully rise to the level of poetry. Can they stand apart from the music in which they live? Could we read them with the same degree of pleasure? I'm not sure. Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan--all spectacular lyricists, but not quite on a par with Larkin, Hardy, Yeats. All the same, there are songwriters who manage a sort of complete artistry. The music and words unroll together indissolubly; they achieve a majesty and grace.
Elliott Smith was a poet. He did what poets do. He read voraciously--Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Beckett, Stendahl. He also, though he doubted himself at first, and relied on friend Garrick Duckler for lyrical inspiration, wrote lines that sparkled, jumped, and burned, full of arresting imagery and almost entirely devoid of cliche (the real writer's nightmare). You do not find clunkers in Elliott Smith lines. They can be simple, they can be clotted, they can be, and usually are, elliptical, but they never disappoint.
Choosing examples is tough. One could almost proceed at random--each song is that good. But herewith are a handful of tunes that floored me, instantly, for their originality, specificity, and simple brilliance:
I used to think this was the archetypal Elliott song. Once, while playing it in the car while driving my daughter Adrienne to school, I blurted out: "This is his best." Now I know better. They are too many competing bests. "Floating in a black balloon" nails Elliott's inner world, especially in later years. When he mentions feeling "dollared up in virgin white," he seems to refer to his 1998 Oscars performance, when he wore white Armani. At points he extols the value of psychosis--"rain dropping acid bought up in the air." Then there's the line that always knocked me sideways: "the devil's script sells you the heart of a blackbird." In the end "fuck" appears. Elliott used that word with some frequency. When he does so, it never comes across as gratuitous. It's natural, authentic, it's in the nature of everyday speech.
This is the gold standard. It's a short story metaphorically capturing Elliott's early life, a covert autobiography. It's also the first Elliott song I ever heard, or overheard, as my daughter played it on the computer in our study. The setting is a karaoke bar, like Chopsticks Express in Portland, Oregon, where Elliott stood to sing tunes like "Mommas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys." "Waltz #2 (XO)" is a little bit meta. There are songs within the song: Elliott's mother Bunny samples "Cathy's Clown," his stepfather "You're No Good." These tunes aren't chosen at random. They speak volumes. Elliott declares his love for his mother--"XO mom"--but he's leaving her too, as he makes clear throughout: "I'm never going to know you now, but I'm going to love you anyhow." It's a heartbreaking, broken-hearted testimonial. Yet he also wants, as he usually did, to be left alone: "In the place where I make no mistakes/In the place where I have what it takes."
I love this song almost more than any other. It never appeared on any record. Fifteen different versions existed--it was Elliott's habit to make and remake tunes repeatedly until he got exactly what he was after, exploded all possibilities. It reads like a declaration of impotence. He shoots blanks "out at emptiness," but all he really wants to kill is time. He tells himself (and I sometimes took this as a message to me, the biographer): "Sit and spin the world on its flipside, and listen backwards for meaning." When he calls "mental pain" the "sharpest knife," and says he's "on the run from some offscreen monster," he sums up a lifetime of conflict, even as the George Harrison-esque melody bounces blithely along.
In the creative frenzy that was Portland in the early 1990s, Elliott formed the band Heatmiser with friends Neil Gust, Tony Lash, and Brandt Peterson, later replaced by Sam Coomes of Quasi. This song appeared as a blind track on their last record, Mic City Sons. When he asks, "Would you say that the one of your dreams/Got in you and ripped out the seams," he's talking to girlfriend JJ Gonson, who also happened to be Heatmiser's manager. (He wrote "Pitseleh" about Gonson too; Pitseleh was her father's name for her). This is a break up song. But per usual, Elliott cloaks the facts in metaphor and inside references. The line "don't you say hi" actually quotes something Gonson said to Elliott as he walked past her place of work--Dot's, on Clinton Street in Portland--without stopping to say hello.
From "Roman Candle," Elliott's debut solo record that appeared in 1994. The title might refer to a last drink at closing or a last telephone conversation. Whatever the case, "it will all be yesteryear soon." He's shed his best defense. It comes out all around that "you" won, "and I think I'm all done/You can switch me off safely." The person he's so bitterly sick of walks off, to the "clap of the fading out sound" of shoes. What awaits is sleep, and Elliott doesn't want to wake up.
This is Elliott in Dylanesque, Highway 61 mode, trying purposely to ugly things up in metal soundscapes and bizarre, doomsday imagery. "King's Crossing" is his "Desolation Row." Judges, tidal waves, shell games, fireworks, Beverly Hills fat fucks, parachutes, guns, rich white ladies, pretty nurses, skinny Santas--all show up in bizarro array, a sort of convention for posers and sociopaths. It's a dream, a free-association, or a temporary psychosis. No one sells postcards of a hanging, though early on Elliott declares "I can't prepare for death any more than I already have," then asks, hardly expecting any cogent reply, "Give me one good reason not to do it." In live performances his sister and girlfriend Jennifer Chiba sometimes shouted, "Because we love you."
St. Ides is a potent malt liquor. But here Elliott's also high on amphetamines, walking around between parked cars, his "head full of stars." He checks the moon--it's a "light bulb breaking." In a couplet that captures his own world perfectly, it (the moon) will <em>go around</em> with anyone, but it won't <em>come down</em> for anyone. I saw Elliott's friend Rebecca Gates perform this song at the recent No Name benefit in Portland. It was a total knock out, a true revelation, ending in a whispered a cappella.
It does not get much better than this. Some noise is coming out, Elliott says, but he's got "static" in his head, "the reflected sound of everything." He tries going to where it led, but "it didn't lead to anything." If I were going to, post hoc, re-title my book, it would be this: "The Reflected Sound of Everything." In many ways, that's what Elliott was. A music mirror.
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