To be perfectly honest, I don't know why I started writing this piece about Elliott Smith this week. I was never a big fan, never studied his music very closely. I didn't even like it all that much until I found myself in a relationship with someone who did, who played it all the time. Then his lyrics and lulling, background melodies wandered, painstakingly, subconsciously, into my favor. Apparently.
Meanwhile, a lot of people in my profession have been talking about the tenth anniversary of Smith's death this week. This is a little bit puzzling to me. I’d rather mark life and time by focusing on notable birthdays and anniversaries, but anytime any facet of the media pauses from its 24-hour blitzkrieg to look back and consider something special that was and is no more, I have to applaud that. And, when I thought about adding my thoughts to the mix, I found I actually had some when it came to Smith’s death.
After all, it was a crazy and tragic, dramatic loss, certainly for his family and friends, but also for the world of music.
To appreciate this tenth anniversary, we must consider that when Elliott Smith arrived on the national radar, one of the most compelling film events of the year was Robin Williams' character telling Matt Damon's character, "It's not your fault." What a completely different era 1997 was - artistically, culturally, politically, historically. It was that film, Good Will Hunting, that drew Smith from obscurity to popularity. It also underscored the talent of its writers and stars – Damon and his buddy Ben Affleck, who freaked everyone out last year when he admitted, Oscar in hand, that marriage is work, and thanked his wife for working with him.
This proclamation of the effort of love is worth noting in a rumination on Elliott Smith, whose songs frequently struggled with love’s most difficult, seemingly un-workable characteristics. But it wasn’t just that he wrote sad songs, or love songs, or intimate songs that made his influence important. There was this other thing he did with the songs, which was to duplicate his own voice, so that it sounded like he was there next to both of your ears, singing into your left brain the same instant he was singing into your right. Maybe it was just a recording tactic to beef up his soft, whispered tones. But, the effect, to my ears, really underscored the whole spirit of Elliott Smith’s songs. Where he sung of the confusion and struggle of duplicity, his voice was duplicated. Where he sung about struggling with the worth of life, there was his breath in both your ears. Where he hesitated and whispered through phrasing, even against a rock and roll lick, there was his own self, supporting him, carrying him along. His voice – tender and squeaky, warm and whining – was his partner, his lover, his crutch.
I remember when I lived in Portland a few years after “Miss Misery”. I heard about a bar in my neighborhood where he used to go to write for hours on end. I don’t know whether or not that was true, but the image of him curled over that dark bar, his hair in his eyes and his furrowed brow, scribbling in a journal, his quietly whispered lyrics pouring from brain to pen to page, without any actual music involved because let’s face it, it was never about the actual music with him… it all seemed awfully heartbreaking to me. It was incongruous, considering pre-9/11 America, before we had to be convinced by a politician, of all people, that hope was worthwhile.
In hindsight, it was almost prophetic.
By the time Elliott died, we had seen the election of George W. Bush, thanks to the state of Florida's historical juggling of hanging chads. The U.S. had been attacked by terrorists and had launched two wars overseas. Meanwhile, the internet swept in to distract a traumatized culture. People started using cell phones to text each other rather than have actual conversations with their voices. Distraction and disconnection was the preferred mode of entertainment for America’s mainstream music fans, and most of its adults in general. A small groundswell of college kids, meanwhile, found some strange opportunity to connect with a loud, dark world through Elliott’s music. They played in their dorm rooms on the stereo and on their acoustic guitars. Bands formed around that sound; people with analytical brains decided they wanted to write about music for a living. (This is true of more than a couple critics I know.)
It was a thing. Progressive people and 20-somethings were hitting that stride youthful culture always hits when it comes of age, turns to the world it’s seeing starkly for the first time, and cries out, “Are you freaking kidding me?” For some, the only thing to do with that question was to disconnect. For others, it was to be honest about all the hard stuff. The amount of sadsack songs about heartbreak and losing touch, went through the roof, in a way that grunge had fallen short on. The music that had previously come from Portland and the rest of the Northwest had preferred to moan and groan and scream and yell about things. Then there was Elliott Smith, curled over the bar, smoking – you could still smoke in bars back then – singing to himself, “You say you mean well / you don’t know what you mean,” and so on.
There are no statistics about these things that I know of, but certainly in the songwriter community, sensitive vulnerability came back into vogue. Since Elliott’s death, as a person who covers songwriters for a living, I’ve heard so many people wonder why songwriters are being so sensitive and navel-gazing, rather than crying out at the injustices of a broken, flailing, traumatized nation. I’ve wondered that same thing in print myself. But it occurs to me, on this tenth anniversary of Elliott Smith’s death, that it at least has something to do with the way Smith cried out, which was to not cry at all, but simply to sing, to confess and – even if in total reticence – to connect. He laid a foundation for a generation of songwriters who have turned first to feeling, and maybe that’s what matters most. After all, in this broken time – artistically, culturally, politically, historically – figuring out how we feel is an important thing to do.
Yeah, up until a decade ago, Elliott Smith wasn’t the only thing adhering those in the subculture of my generation to each other, but his music certainly chipped in for the glue.