Hannah winged this article my way a couple of months ago: Elliott Smith Was The Soundtrack To My Life. I knew it had been a long time since Elliott Smith had died, but had it really been 11 years?
When I started blogging years ago (before the Big Delete) I always wanted to write something on Elliott Smith, and particularly the mystery of how he died — Was it suicide? Was it murder? Well, a few posts ago I made the point that these days I often feel I have to google whether my latest idea has been done already by someone else, and done much better than I would do it. And so, having finally coming to writing it, I realise it would be pointless of me to cover that, as it’s already a much written-about subject. If you’re interested, the autopsy report is available online. But as I write this I also remember that his death was never really going to be the point of the blog post.
So many musicians are trying to achieve the status of legend: iconic, part-myth and part-truth, archetypal. Particularly the ‘men with acoustic guitars’. Some achieve it: Django Reinhardt, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen… And hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of wannabes don’t. It’s hard! Six strings and a voice: how can you possibly do something so different as to be unique?
As I get older…
(I need to create some kind of shortcut key combination that will automatically type ‘as I get older’ – I’m sure it must be my most frequently typed phrase.)
As I get older I get less and less impressed with these legends. More impressed with the musicians behind them perhaps, but less interested by all the music journalism fairydust: fanboy adoration painting layers of mystery on a fairly un-mysterious person. As I start to learn about the prosaic history behind these people’s ascent to their respective Halls of Fame, I tend to conclude that they got there by a combination of good PR and being the right person in the right place at the right time. They all wear the mantel of ‘legend’ very well, but it’s at least partly self-constructed.
But I still feel there was and is something truly extraordinary, unique, iconic and mysterious about Elliott Smith.
Right from the point when albums like XO and either/or first started to get their hooks into me (and long before he died) I got the sense that this was someone special, someone who would come to be considered as legendary. He isn’t. But I still think he will be. I think his fans are just as smitten as they always were, and year on year their numbers are growing. And in a similar way to Neil Finn perhaps, because at first glance he really doesn’t seem any different to all of the other guitar-wielding tragic indie singers; those ‘sad singers that just play tragic’, as Bright Eyes put it.
Oh yes, Bright Eyes! I remember first hearing singer Conor Oberst and thinking: now there is someone who has listened to a lot of Elliott Smith. And I remember reading an early interview with him where he was asked what he thought of Elliott Smith and he said something like ‘oh i dunno he’s maybe sort of alright i suppose but i haven’t really listened to him that much i listen to much more obscure people you wouldn’t have heard of…’ I snorted out loud.
The thing about Elliott Smith, I believe, is that there was no one like him before him, and a lot of people like him after him. He developed a whole vocabulary of songwriting that has now been assimilated into the mainstream.
I’m somebody who consumed musical heroes. I’d fall in love with someone’s music very monogamously. One at a time, with a very chivalrous faithfulness. And then, when I was done, I’d move on to the next one. I was the Casanova of fanboys. And once I was done I would occasionally go back to them and to see if I could recapture any of the dizzying electricity I used to get from their music… but, like the shallow heartbreaker of a music fan that I am, I would always find that I’d basically sucked all the juice out of them, and the magic was gone. Because I’d deconstructed the music so much that I felt I could see how they were put together. And I still marvelled at the genius of the construction from an intellectual point of view, but it was no longer a mystery. And eventually the whole process of me falling obsessively in love with other artists stopped, when I had enough confidence to do it myself, and explore what I could construct from what I learnt. So I now have my own Hall of Fame, of perfect, unchangeable pictures on a wall. All iconic to me. And all, somehow, dead.
But of all of these there’s only one I feel I never quite got to the bottom of, and that is Elliott Smith.
He’s the only one I still listen to and think: how the hell did he do that? I know how to reproduce all the chords, all the melodies, a fair bit of the writing style and production techniques. But I still feel that if I sat down and tried to write a song that had the same affect on me as his songs did, I wouldn’t be able to do it. There would always be a missing ingredient that I couldn’t put my finger on.
He only really had maybe one major international hit. The song Miss Misery from the film Good Will Hunting. The song was nominated for an Oscar, and he sang it at the ceremony, looking very uncomfortable in a white suit.
So why do I think he was so special?
Well, that’s kinda the problem: I don’t really know. I can’t put my finger on it. But I’d start with melody. Unlike so many of the same singer-songwriters, I think he was really in love with singable melodies, very much like Paul McCartney (he was an out-and-proud Beatles fan). He wrote intricate and original tunes.
And that’s actually quite unusual in an indie singer-songwriter, I think. On the surface he seemed to be ‘tragically hip’, in every sense. Drug addict, indie scenester, writing songs about doomed love and addiction. But those kind of people nearly always… can I be honest? They write shit music. Because they’re so keen on being cool, and so terrified of being seen as mainstream and ‘accessible’, that they write bland passionless music. But Elliott Smith wrote great tunes, great harmonies, great accessible songs that you didn’t have to be a fan of Neu! or The Fall to be able to appreciate. They were often deceptively complex from a songwriting point of view, but could easily appeal to someone with very mainstream musical tastes.
And okay, perhaps he did sometimes glamorise some of his personal tragedy, particularly his addictions, (“I’ll fake it through the day / With some help from Johnny Walker Red…”) But he seemed to me like he was always fighting against them. I got the sense that, first of all, he was someone who genuinely suffered from a serious (and probably clinical) depression (“My feelings never change a bit, I always feel like shit, I don’t know why, I guess that I just do”), but he was trying to beat it. And the best example of this is a song called Baby Britain.
Baby Britain feels the best
Floating over a sea of vodka
Separated from the rest
Fights problems with bigger problems
Sees the ocean fall and rise
Counts the waves that somehow didn’t hit her
Water pouring from her eyes
Alcoholic and very bitter
For someone half as smart
You’d be a work of art
You put yourself apart
And I can’t help until you start
Under the surface of this conventional gloomy drug-addict indie icon was a very smart guy who grew up reading philosophy to try to find a route through his depression (the album title either/or was taken from the title of a book by Kierkegaard). Although I think he probably wanted to keep that side of himself hidden. Watching this video on that old question of ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ he seems like he wants to project an image of himself as super-chilled out. The songs suggest otherwise.
The Elliott Smith song that always grabbed me the most is a song called Waltz #2. (He liked his waltzes, did Elliott Smith.) (In fact, so did Russian composer Dimitri Shostokavich, who also wrote a famous ‘Waltz No. 2‘ which Elliott Smith was probably referencing.) And I’m not going to keep just reeling off lyrics, but the start of this song illustrates why I always felt Elliott Smith was the patron saint of unrequited love.
First the mic, then a half cigarette
Singing “Cathy’s Clown”
That’s the man that she’s married to now
That’s the girl that he takes around town
She appears composed, so she is, I suppose
Who can really tell?
She shows no emotion at all
Stares into space like a dead china doll
I’m never going to know you now
But I’m going to love you anyhow
I just thought that was the coolest, most romantic, most fuck-you-world line ever: I’m never going to know you now, but I’m going to love you anyhow.
And you would think that unrequited love (“the only kind that lasts” according to… Woody Allen, was it?) is a pretty well-documented subject, with not much left to say. But no one made it sound as glamorous as Waltz #2.
I suppose if I’d written this article about 5 years ago, when I was eyeball-deep in a kind of unrequited toxic obsession, I would have put that song, and that line, at the very centre of a blog article.
What’s interesting for me now is that, as I finally come to writing it… I still feel that in a way he’s the great mystery… but I’ve changed now. Completely. And I no longer agree with that sentiment. In fact, it sort of gives me the creeps.
And here’s why.
Love as an addiction
‘Love’ is an incredibly general word, used to describe many many different phenomena. Even ‘romantic love’ can be used to refer to a wide range of very different emotional states. But that burning, unrequited love which is Elliott Smith’s speciality (and used to be mine) is something I believe to be quite distinct, and unlike the others. It follows quite different patterns. Extreme patterns. It follows the patterns of addiction.
Because it is an addiction. It relies on being unrequited: when it’s requited, it nearly always falters and fails. Because the longer you leave the promise of love, the bigger the promise gets.
Is unrequited love the only kind that lasts? Well, not in my experience, no. It is an addiction, and it functions like an addiction, and most people who have addictions end up being driven to such a state of desperation that they end up doing something fucking insane. Something that either wakes them up to the fact that they’re an addict and they need treatment, or it kills them.
I don’t think that the kind of love that keeps people married for decades is an addiction. I’m not sure why, as often these people (literally) cannot live without each other. Maybe the point is that I’m defining an addiction as something that temporarily makes you feel better, but also inflicts damage on you.
No, that’s not it either.
Addiction is about needing something more and more, to the point where nothing else matters.
It’s a process, that gets worse, until the point where you lose perspective, and you are prepared to do anything and hurt anyone to get a very specific emotional hit. And when the next hit has to be stronger than the last one.
Addiction is when you find yourself lying to your friends and family. It’s when you find yourself rationalising and rationalising your actions, to yourself and those around you. It turns you into a narcissist. It makes you paranoid.
However, coming at this from a different angle, I think hard part about requited love is not taking it for granted. You have it, you possess it, and life goes on and other problems hit you, and it’s so easy to forget that this love requires constant maintenance. You have to put it at the centre of things, or other priorities creep in and over and around like ivy.
I think everybody who has ever had a deep unrequited love has told themselves that, if they just had the chance to be with the one they loved, they would be the BEST LOVER EVER. They would do anything. Anything. The bins? Change nappies? Write poetry? Face a firing squad? Sexual water sports? Name it! They’d do it.
But that determination lasts so seldom when the unrequited finally get requited. It’s like promising the good Lord that if this plane lands safely you’ll devote the rest of your life to helping the needy. Or resolving that after this New Year’s Eve you will stick to that diet for the rest of your life. You don’t get to decide whether you’ll start taking them for granted: it happens automatically.
And then it’s a question of whether you have any of the other skills that you need to make a relationship work. Compromise. Patience. Trust. A certain amount of optimism (but not too much!) And the sheer bloody-mindedness to just stick through it all no matter how rough it gets.
These are skills that unrequited love doesn’t teach you. Because the one constant with unrequited love is love. All the time. It wanes and waxes, but it never goes away. Requited love, on the other hand, inevitably means getting thoroughly fed up with your significant other. You can still love them, but just not want to be in the same room with them right now. Just like with your parents, your siblings, your best friends. There’s a different kind of pressure, that requires some fairly mundane and unromantic skills that you’re just not really aware of when you’re pining over old photos.
It’s perhaps best summed up for me by Bright Eyes, again, who wrote on his Fevers & Mirrors album about the girl he was hopelessly in love with (the one he kissed in her parents’ house). And then, on the Lifted album, he writes this song (which I covered on YouTube a while ago, and only realised much later I’d left out a crucial verse) with the words “You say I treat you like a book on a shelf: I don’t take you out that often because I know that I’ve completed you…”
I dunno. Am I really so down on unrequited love? I hope not, because I’ve actually really enjoyed it over the years. My point, I suppose, is that it isn’t enough. It doesn’t help you have a lasting relationship, because it only shows you (very brightly and intensely) one fraction of what love is about. Unrequited love is easy. The easiest thing. It’s requited love that’s the true measure of how romantic you are.
If there’s one lesson I’ve learned it’s that, if she/he’s married, and you’re never going to know them now… it doesn’t make you a better person to love them anyhow. Not that Elliott Smith was suggesting that! But I was, once. It’s not chivalrous and romantic. It’s really the first step towards becoming a stalker.
Even so, with that lesson behind me…
The question I can’t help but wonder… who was he singing to? Who was ‘the one’?
‘Who was that masked woman?’
Was it his girlfriend, who was there when he died (and whom some believe murdered him)? Or someone he really never did get to properly know?
There’s an author of ‘psychobiographies’ that thinks that line from Waltz #2 actually refers to his mother (see this Slate article). Well… he would, wouldn’t he? I’m not convinced. Too many Elliott Smith songs are about loving someone who you know it can never work out with, and I don’t think it’s in a Freudian way.
Was he singing about one person? Or a string of people – was falling in love with unattainable people a recurring theme for him?
And… here I really shouldn’t even be asking this, but, whoever she was… did she ever love him? Did she know those songs were about her? Did that make a difference?
Well, Elliott Smith is dead now, and unless he told someone or wrote it down, I suppose we’ll never know who she was — if she even was at all.
But, if it’s not too obvious and clunky a way to end this little essay, I get the feeling that millions of fans like me, when they get swept up in his songs, are going to love her anyhow.