BS Writers on Elliott Smith, Part 1 of 2

Oct 21 • By • 1274 Views • No Comments on BS Writers on Elliott Smith, Part 1 of 2 BS, COLUMNS, Features, Issue 21 // Oct 2013, The Editorial Desk

October 21st is exactly 10 years since the tragic death of Elliott Smith.

Bad Sounds writers remember the legendary singer and some of their favorite songs.

tomb, Staff Writer

My first meeting with the music of Elliott Smith happened on June 3rd,1995. My friend and I decided to say no thanks to our date offers and skip prom to go see Built To Spill at the Sailors Union of The Pacific, a warm all-ages hall in downtown Seattle Washington.

Our group of friends that went to prom had a hotel room just down the street from where the gig was happening. I had just discovered “There is nothing wrong with love” by Built To Spill and was excited like a little school boy for the show. We joined the hotel room party and had a better time than the friends that actually went to the prom (including a sleazy drug dealer limo driver offering up cocaine to a very uncomfortable group of friends).

tomb's ticket stub from the show

tomb’s ticket stub from the show

We head down to the show running through hotel garden sprinklers in a state of drunken euphoria. Arriving at the door I meet what must have been parents working as security. Some lady asks me if I’m drunk (it’s 21 to drink in Washington, and we are 17) and I mumble no, as I walk past her into a semi-packed room. There are no windows and it’s the middle of summer so its like a sauna in there. It’s my first time seeing Built To Spill and I don’t know the other bands on the bill at the time. First up, This Busy Monster play a good set, followed by a band led by a rather strange looking man on vocals. I think I remember he was wearing a jacket and wool hat or something, even though it was 90 degrees inside.

The band was Heatmiser, the man, Elliott Smith. At the end of the amazing show I purchase “Cop & Speeder” on cassette, (along side some BTS cds). This cassette started my fascination with this band, and later Smiths solo work.

Cop & Speeder includes one of my favorite Elliott Smith songs: “Antonio Carlos Jobim”
It took a while before I listened religiously to Elliotts solo albums, but everytime I hear him sing, it brings me back to that summer night in Seattle.

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Ben, Managing Editor

Few events in a persons life are recollected sharply 10, 20, 30 years after they happened. One of them will surely be “where were you when 9-11 happened”. Another might be your wedding day, a near death experience, etc. For me, one day that I remember starkly is the day Elliott Smith died.

I was riding a bus town Oxford Street, on my way to see Damien Jurado and James William Hindle playing at the Spitalfields in East London. I got a text saying “Elliott Smith is dead”. My sister and I just sat there in stunned silence. He was supposed to be touring England later that year, we were planning to go. The journey to the venue felt like an eternity. A healthy crowd had arrived to hear Damien play, and as he took to the stage I remember him saying ” Today I lost one of the kindest people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, a man who had immeasurable talent and would stick up for the victim even if it mean’t getting a beating himself. This evening is dedicated to Elliott Smith”. A gasp went through the room, evidence that not everyone knew. The night took on a sombre tone, which worked in Damien’s favour with his songs about domestic abuse and lack. It was a night I will always remember. For better and for worse.

Back in the late 90’s when I was still living in a collective in Copenhagen sneaking into shows and touring in Holland and Belgium every few months we had a lot of visitors passing through. One of them was a Swedish punk band, and the bass player Anti-Krister played Roman Candle while we were sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee. This was my first introduction to Elliott Smiths music and it had a profound effect on me. I sat listening to his voice, listening to the lyrics, and felt an understanding in his music that I had rarely found before. Though were were from separate continents, I felt there was a thread tying his life experiences and his portrayal of them that anyone could identify with if they allowed the music to work its magic. Since that day I have listened to him on/off to the point of obsession, and sometimes almost forgotten about him until someone plays a song and all the memories come flooding back. Rest in Peace!

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Essi Tam, Staff Writer

In the last days approaching the ten year anniversary to Elliott’s death, I’ve been more and more anxious about retrieving what’s withered away. Listening through his discography in order from how I first encountered him in 1999 with XO, working backwards, then up to the posthumously released From A Basement On The Hill is a painfully self-gawking exercise at my period of feigned “independence”. When I first moved outta my parent’s house to London barely 21, I nursed Elliott Smith records like an intravenous unit. We were four people crammed in a two person Finsbury Park flat, I remember paying nearly £400 quid a month to live in a closet. Strangers coming in and out of the flat, and everyone smoked. As early as 7am those tendrils of smoke would seep into my room into my then-innocent lungs. At night, above the ruckus my only combative choice would be to put on an Elliott Smith record on my shock-protection CD player and try to drift to sleep……..

The passing of Elliott for me mourns a lost era, the spoiled twenties– a time when we had a luxury to feel pain. Far and beyond a reminder of his death is reliving a different kind of loss; our incapacity to feel as recklessly as we once did. We’re now so guarded, suspicious even. Re-listening to Elliott Smith again, you wonder, will I feel the same? Now as we’re older, wiser, with tastes fine tuned or pulled in new directions like a tethered kite–?

Fortunately, it does.

He found us when we needed to slake a thirst, and boy, did we greedily hang on to his every word. Back then, everything was relevant and meaningful. Angry, dispossessed by society, by that boy. Or girl. Hanging onto each word. As much as the press liked to make martyrs or romanticized heroes of our age. We cringe as Hollywood Reporter now hails him the “Lennon of our times”, knowing it’s the kind of PR misrepresentation he himself found fake. So… instead of Lucy in the Sky, it’s the White Lady, right? Uh huh huh. Anyway. We know what he was to us.

Elliott’s music let us quietly scream at the untamed, wild, unexplainable things in life. Nowadays, there’s no time to sit and stir around swampy, conflated emotion, no, that’s a dog-eared book of has-beens and forgotten first names. Nowadays, when we feel as adults, we feel sophisticated-ly. We pay shrinks to tell us all angles to why we feel an emotion. Our mommy daddy issues, the junk behind social anxiety. We mutilate the hell out of relationships as a distraction to the fact that sex. with our partner. is boring.

I remember the excitement of my first young love. The mixtape he sent me in the mail with songs from S/T. I remember exchanging arguments that “Needle In The Hay was an overrated song over long distance phone calls made with international calling cards. Taking a Ryanair flight to see him, so desperately clutching each other like there was no tomorrow, defiant to -10 degree weather, knee deep snow and a pitch black sky.

Don’t you know that I love you
Sometimes I feel like only a cold still life
Only a frozen still life
That fell down here to lay beside you

And what happened to him? My first love. His affinity for Elliott’s music was embedded, like so many after him, into a self-prophetic character. Heavily reliant on escape, on the bottle. Over the years I began noticing his bright complexion and youthfulness turning inward, forming dark cavities on his face and the sag and burn under his eyes of alcoholism. Disappearing into the woods, a recluse. Is it true, what they say? About shooting stars, is it really better to burn then fade away? Isn’t it also a tragedy seeing those who’ve continued on the course Elliott began, as sad as the washed up 40-something year old derelict songwriters that oh, you know.

What seeps outta nostalgia as we’re summoned by this anniversary. His music was always made for the people who’ve always said, since early twenties, that they felt old. Old, the way Kerouac’s subterranean characters talked about “old souls”. So we tread in heavy boots begrudgingly through the snow forward, silently cursing Elliott, dear Elliott, who managed to slip away in the night before the cruelty of aging befell.

Ten years later, I’m startled by how comfortably I hear him again, even after having worn those records out so long ago. The impact is no less penetrative, his voice no less gutting. But I´m wrought with two emotions– one that the world hasn’t changed, and another, a sense of guilt, for living past, past it, and beyond.

I remember a few years before his death, I’d started working at a college radio station. It was commonplace to hear quibbles amongst indie music circles about selling out to major labels and shit. When you look back and think about it, so many of those issues we held dear have diminished — whether or not you eat meat, buy clothes from a name-brand, recycle, protest war. Not to say those issues don’t shape a person, but from the bird’s eye view, it all seems so small. He’s gone now. That era is all gone.

Read BS Writers on Elliott Smith, Part 2 of 2

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