I know what it is to be a broken man. Two years ago, I was at rock bottom. Woman problems, money problems, no job—my world was folding in on me. Couldn’t eat. Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t do much of anything except wait for the sunrise each morning and then bide my time waiting for the sunset.
I recall one night sitting at my desk pondering how I arrived at my current state of affairs; wondering what, if anything, I could do to work through these pretty heavy feelings of self-doubt, and yes, self-pity. I’m closed off, you see, a hoarder of emotions. I don’t betray my inner self by sharing this disappointment with the rest of the world. That’s why I’m good at poker. That’s why I have a psychiatrist.
I know that’s not healthy. I know that folks in such distress sometimes end up dangling from their belt in the closet or bleeding out in the bathtub. I didn’t want that to be me, so I desperately searched for a means by which to coax these emotions out, process them and deal with them in a healthy way.
Genealogy has taught me that the bottle’s not the way to go, so that night I slipped on my headphones.
I knew a little about Elliott Smith’s music and I liked it. I discovered him through one of those “iTunes Essentials” compilations that roll out from time-to-time. The song “Son of Sam” was the first. I liked it because it sounded good and it was well-written. It was a nice medium between rock and folk, between the late 60’s and the early 90’s. Grunge and garage meets singer-songwriter. I had a few songs from XO, a couple from Either/Or, most of Figure 8. I liked it, but I really didn’t understand it, yet. And then I heard “Alameda” for the first time...
“So now you see your first mistake, Was thinking that you
could relate. For one or two minutes she liked you, But the fix is in.”
I’m a rank amateur at crying, man, but I became a pro by the
time that song ended. Three minutes and 43 seconds of catharsis later and my life was completely different
than it was before. I had found the emotional conduit I desperately needed in
order to cope with all the issues that were consuming my life at the time. That
night I bought every Elliott Smith song I could find and began the long, slow
process of wading through his brilliant discography.
Elliott Smith saved my life.
There. I said it.
I’m not really sure how to introduce Elliott to someone who
isn’t familiar with his music or his story. Suffice it to say, he too was a
broken man. He came from a broken home; saddled with divorced parents and an
abusive stepfather. Moved around a lot. Settled in Portland, Ore., and started
making music. Eventually got in bed with alcohol and drugs. Attempted suicide
at least once—probably several times. Almost won an Oscar, but Celine Dion stole it away with some stupid,
trite song from Titanic.
Though he may have been ashamed of his vices, he didn’t hide
them. I don’t have enough space to list every single song that deals with drug abuse, addiction, despair
and rehab—let’s just say there’s a bunch. His lyrics are often savage, so much
so that he often delivered them in a near whisper.
But—and here’s the real brilliance of Smith’s work—he
married those lyrics to some jaw-dropping melodies. Sweet, delicate,
beautiful—every one of them the fruit of his fingertips. A musical savant,
Smith himself would create the layers of his music independently—guitar, piano,
drums, harmonica and harmonies—and then pile them together in the studio
afterward. The result is this magical juxtaposition of beauty and brutality
that belies Elliott Smith’s genius. It’s one thing to write a death metal song
about drugs and suicide. But whispering it’s lyrics against a Rachmaninoff-esqe
backdrop magnifies the song’s impact a hundred fold.
Of course, I’m speaking of him in the third person because
he’s dead. October 21, 2003. Stabbed in the chest. They think it was suicide. Or maybe his girlfriend did
it. The L.A.P.D. still can’t figure it out.
He was 34 years old.
If you want to explore the man’s repertoire on your own, you
should start with YouTube. I mean, buy the stuff legal and all, but check out YouTube
first and start exploring. You’ll discover two important things.
First, there are as many “unreleased” Elliott Smith songs
floating around the Internet as there are album tracks of his on iTunes. Lots
of Beatles covers, Big Star covers, Dylan covers—really amazing stuff.
Second, and most important, people are using the comments
section on his YouTube videos to do exactly what I’m doing—to tell you that Elliott
Smith got them through the day when their back was against the wall:
“I have good days and bad days. On the rare good days I
embrace them for what they are. On the bad days I often say fuck it, I don’t
wanna be here anymore. Somehow Elliott pulls me through those days. Thank you
brother, I owe you my life.”
“Thank you Elliott for staying by my side when I wanted to
be alone. RIP. ”
“I can’t listen/watch this video without just bursting into
tears. Elliot’s music mean [sic] so much to me and saved me so many times. You
were really someone special Elliot.”
“If it wasn’t for you Elliott, I’d be dead. Thank you. ”
That’s all just from one video— “The Biggest Lie” on the
nickolasrossi YouTube channel. Those visceral reactions are proof positive that
this man’s music carries extraordinary weight and power.
But it doesn’t make sense, does it? I mean, doesn’t violent
music feed violence. Doesn’t hypersexual music inspire sexual misconduct? Then how
could someone who’s suicidal save themselves by listen to a song like “Fond
Farewell,” a song that screams suicide?
I’ll tell you how. Because Elliott Smith is to depressed
audiophiles what Jesus Christ is to the hard-knocked Christian. And—woah—before
Gmail flags my email account, let me explain. I’ll start by saying that this is
a metaphor, that Elliott Smith is not Christ-like and that I, myself, am a practicing
Christian. Methodist, to be specific.
Christians at some point have to grapple with the concept of
God in three forms, The Trinity. There’s
God, there’s the Holy Ghost and there’s Jesus Christ. We don’t know what form
is taken by the first two entities on that list. Maybe God is a big, bearded
man that lives in a cloud kingdom— as is the popular caricature. Maybe he’s
just a ball of light. The Holy Ghost? That seems pretty self-explanatory. But
Jesus was God in a body. He had arms, legs, fingers. He had nerves. He felt
what we feel. He hurt, physically and emotionally. He hungered. He loved. He
grieved. And because we Christians know that, we can better identify with him
personally than we can with God the Father or the Holy Ghost. Jesus suffered
before us, and as a result, our suffering seems mild in comparison. There’s
solace in that.
Then there’s Elliott Smith. You got a problem, he’s got a
song for it. Girlfriend running around on you? Try “Pretty Mary K (New Moon).”
Can’t get over your ex? “Everything Reminds Me Of Her.” Abusive father?
“Southern Belle.” Drug addition? “True Love.” The point being, Elliott Smith
fought a lot of demons; the same demons we struggle with from time to time in
our daily lives. And sometimes you just need someone who has been there before
you and knows your story to help get you through the day. Well, Elliott Smith
was there before you. Elliott Smith knows your story.
And so, I—like many others—took comfort in his music. I
couldn’t really find the words to express what I was going through, so I let
Elliott do it for me. As I kept plowing through the deep cuts, it was like the
man had written these songs just for me. I guess all the fans feel that way at
some time or another. It’s like looking at a spooky painting for a long time,
until you start believing that the eyes in the picture are looking right at
Long story short: I’m OK, Elliott’s dead. Survivors guilt among the fan base is palpable. After all, we took solace in his work—and got our catharsis. But he didn’t or couldn’t and he’s dead.
Where’s the justice in that?
Selfishly, I’m glad I found him. I can honestly say it was
worth the personal cost to discover the true genius buried within those dark
metaphors and delicate melodies. I’m still good at poker and I still see a
shrink, but the past is prologue and no longer the main story. Angela’s here
now, and she’s a sweetheart. My parents are Heaven-sent. My friends are
Heaven-sent. My church is, well, that’s a little on the nose.
I still love Elliott Smith. His birthday is coming up in
August, the eighth anniversary of his untimely death is coming up on October 21. I’m looking forward to neither.
His music eats up 60 percent of my iPod nano. I’m listening to “Alameda” right
now. My friends know it, my parents know it and Angela knows it: Love me, love Elliott.
Or at least like him the way I used to like him, before I really understood
Hooper writes about numerous topics for Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to email@example.com .