“You’re beautiful,” a woman shouts on an audience recording of one of Elliott Smith’s final concerts. The folk-tinged singer, songwriter, musician and arranger is waveringly picking out the first notes of what, as the B-side to his last single, has become his de facto swan song: “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free”.
“My mama told me, ‘Baby, stay clean / There’s no in between,’” he recounts in his customary hushed tones, whispering a melody reminiscent of Big Star’s most touching moments (such as “Thirteen”, Smith’s cover of which surpasses the original). “Shine on me, baby / ‘Cause it’s raining in my heart.”
As anyone who has ever seen the cover of his stripped-down 1997 masterpiece Either/Or can attest, Elliott Smith was nothing much to look at. But that woman was right: He was beautiful, as beautiful as artists come in this crass age of manufactured alienation—a folk-punk in an era of faux-punks.
Beneath all the obvious imagery of depression and addiction, far apart from the inevitable comparisons to Kurt Cobain and Nick Drake, Smith’s songs are about insecurity. No, not the adolescent insecurity of Dashboard Confessional or even the sexual insecurity of Morrissey. More than anything, Smith’s art was an articulation of his soul—his “figurative self”, if you prefer—coming to terms with its inherently, inescapably flawed corporeal frame. This inner turmoil made for great music. And in the end, it probably killed him.
“The enemy is within,” Smith sings on “Stupidity Tries,” a highlight from 2000’s Figure 8. “Don’t confuse me with him.”
His soul wanted out.
In the ominously titled “Strung Out Again”—a recent live favorite probably intended for his unfinished final album, From a Basement on the Hill—Smith explains everything: “Just looking in the mirror / Will make you a brave man / I know my place / I hate my face / I know how I begin, and how I’ll end.” His final A-side tackled the issue in its very title, “Pretty (Ugly Before)”. Its narrator admits, “I felt so ugly before / I didn’t know what to do”, and implies that “destruction” is all that can make him feel “pretty”.
This gentle, resigned self-loathing was not a new theme. Smith presages those lyrics as early as “Not Half Right”, the hidden track on the 1996 Mic City Sons album by his old band, Heatmiser: “Well I pictured somebody else / Someone who looks like / What I look like / With your broken sink for a face.” It was a song Smith played frequently in his last concerts.
He once said he didn’t sing about sadness, but rather about “what it’s like to be a person”; indeed, what’s more universally human than the struggle to feel comfortable in our own skins?
His internal conflict played itself out in his songs, too. Impossibly delicate melodies and Beach Boys harmonies locked in mortal conflict with melancholy, unflinchingly earnest lyrics. This tension exemplified itself in songs like “I Didn’t Understand” from XO, in which a cappella vocals even your grandmother would love give shape to Smith’s stark, bitter confessions: “Trying to occupy space / What a fucking joke.”
“Say Yes”, from Either/Or, portrays Smith at what, lamentably, was probably his happiest: “I’m in love with the world / Through the eyes of a girl / Who’s still around the morning after.” The narrator’s expectations are so low that just maintaining happiness until the next morning are enough to bring him a tiny euphoria, which he expresses with a rhythm and descending chord progression that bring to mind, of all things, “Our House” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. But in contrast with that song’s blithe optimism, Smith’s joy is only transitory: “Situations get fucked up / And turned around sooner or later,” he admits. “Crooked spin, can’t come to rest / I’m damaged, bad at best.” The upbeat guitars cloak his grim self-assessment, and the result is a heart-wrenchingly complex listening experience.
No, Smith’s body and his spirit never quite fit. His songs, it seems, never quite fit within their gorgeous compositions—and this, perversely, makes them even more beautiful.
I was only lucky enough to see Smith once in concert, when he opened for Wilco at Chicago’s Riviera Theater in early 2002. Despite his oft-quoted protestations that his songs were “not intended to be any sort of super-intimate, confessional singer-songwriterish thing,” that night made it impossible for me to interpret them any other way.
If the Riviera concert were a pop song, its chorus would be “I can’t feel my fucking fingers”—Smith’s most articulate statement of the evening, alongside aborted renditions of crowd favorites such as “Say Yes”. Four of the six songs he did complete—he began 13—remain unreleased. “I was on a plane for six hours and slept on my arm, and now I can’t feel two of my fingers,” he explained.
The glass of whiskey (Johnny Walker Red?) he downed during his set probably didn’t help. And I suspected he had returned to harder drugs. Maybe it was a needle in his arm that rendered him incapable of playing “Needle in the Hay” (“Your arm’s got a death in it,” he once sang). He didn’t even seem to know where he was: “I love Portland,” he announced, apropos of nothing.
Like his hero Brian Wilson, who “just wasn’t made for these times,” Smith just wasn’t made for his flesh. In songs like “Easy Way Out”, “I Better Be Quiet Now”, and the unreleased “Fond Farewell”, he had already written his own elegy. All that remained was to fulfill it.
In B-side “The Enemy Is You,” he explains how: “I’m gonna hide my face away / Block it out / Well, I know what I’m gonna do / With this big doubt / I’m gonna make it go away.”
And so he did, much to the dismay of friends, loved ones, and a small army of admirers. Jeff Buckley and Kurt Cobain, two other recent alt-rock casualties with prescient lyrics, may have enjoyed wider fan bases—in part because their mugs were more magazine-worthy—but Smith’s devotees were at least as fervent, pouring out their grief on websites such as SweetAdeline.net.
Rather than pop-music icons, a more apt comparison is to another Romantic poet who died young: John Keats. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” wrote Keats in one of the most widely read poems of the last 200 years, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. If nothing else, Smith’s music was true. He was at his best in honest, sparse numbers like “Between the Bars” and “Pitseleh”.
MTV’s standard of beauty may have differed, but by the standards of Keats, that woman in the audience, and my own, Elliott Smith was truly beautiful. Because his beauty was that celebrated rarity—one beyond merely skin-deep—it will never die.
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain.
—John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819)
I’m beyond belief
In the help I require
Just to exist at all
Took a long time to stand
Just an hour to fall.
—Elliott Smith, “A Passing Feeling” (unreleased)
Thanks to the Elliott Smith Mini-Repository for the live recordings.