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No Easy Way Out

Elliott Smith: He’s Mr. Dyingly Sad, And You’re Mystifyingly Glad
By RJ Smith

Elliott Smith recovers nicely. Just one hour ago he was sitting in a tiny backstage room, enjoying a postshow libation and breathing in a blue cloud of smoke courtesy of a gang of well-wishers. Soon, the crowd diminishes, enough for one dogged follower to claim Smith’s attention. “You must be a Cat Stevens fan, the kind of music you play,” this young man with oppossum eyes says.

Having commandeered the singer’s attention, he bangs on about how fame drove sensitive strummer Cat Stevens nuts, drove him into the hands of Islam, drove him to call for the head of Salman Rushdie. Other fans back away; band members stick their head in the room and quickly withdraw. All but Smith, who politely listens with nary a squirm.

Until finally he can’t take it any longer. He graciously excuses himself and waits until he’s across the room before muttering, “The last thing I need right now is somebody telling me how fame can make you crazy.”

But morning has broken here in London, and nothing can bring Smith down. He heads back to the Columbia, the rock-star haunt that’s the British version of the Chelsea Hotel, where friends and road crew and fellow traveling Northwesterners Sleater-Kinney are lining up at the bar, ordering drinks, and when the bartender of this private club room explains that they have to be staying at the hotel to order a drink, every one of them says the same thing: Their friend Elliott is the man, Elliott is coming soon, Elliott really, really is staying at the hotel.

Finally, Smith arrives, in his T-shirt from Value Village, his bargain-bin green suede shoes, his knit cap, and frayed, flared green pants. “Trying to look good just gets on my nerves,” he says. Smith flashes his room key, and confirms that all these people actually are his friends. Massaging a glass of beer, he seems happy, truly happy, which is not something a singer/songwriter so often linked with words such as “gloom” and “Garfunkel” is supposed to be. Happier than someone who sings about the need to “bottle up and explode,” and happier than someone who last year tried to kill himself. A pair of Dutch dowagers try chatting him up from their bar stools, and they have a conversation neither party understands before Smith repairs to his table. “It’s all okay,” he says with a fraction of a smile. “I’m doing fine now.”

“I’m not interested in making ‘Elliott Smith Records’ over and over again. I’d be really happy if I could write a song as universal and accessible as ‘I Second That Emotion,'” he says. “It’s a big game to play, trying to make something that’s mainstream enough and still human.”

Elliott Smith just may prove up to the task. For everything it can mean this year, he is the songwriter to beat, a waltz-loving, George Harrison-quoting, profane craftsman who gets fan letters from Courtney Love and still beats up on himself. He likes songs so much that, on his nights off, Smith rounds up friends and rocks the karaoke machine with versions of Scorpions and Don McLean hits. Maybe he likes songs too much: His keep gagging on the past. “I’m so glad that my memory’s remote / ‘Cause I’m doing just fine hour-to-hour, note-to-note,” he sings on his fourth album, XO. But no matter how much his songs reveal an urge to burn all the photo books, there’s a bone-tired weariness in his singing that can’t let go of old business. However calm his songs sound, they still roar like a car crash echoing in a seashell.

“Some beautiful songs try to make you think that, for a moment, there’s no crap in the world, that it’s just a beautiful place,” says Slim Moon, founder of Kill Rock Stars, the Olympia, Washington, label that released Smith’s second and third albums (1995’s Elliott Smith and 1997’s Either/Or). “But Elliott’s songs admit that the world’s fucked up, and this is just a beautiful moment we get to have.”

Some of the dark imagery came when Smith returned to Portland, Oregon, after graduating from Massaachusett’s Hampshire College in 1991. “I was reading all this heavy-duty feminist theory, and Catharine MacKinnon in particular,” he says. “If you’re a straight white man, she made it seem impossible to live your life without constantly doing something shitty. It kind of drained all my energy away. I didn’t want to do anything.”

Casting about for a career, he settled on being a fireman, because a fireman is an indisputably essential guy, right? “Someone has to put out fires, while it’s not particularly essential for me to play songs to people. It’s important that somebody play songs, but…”

He signals for another round of double espressos in a London café overlooking a canal. You couldn’t get much more bohemian than the music playing in this room of tiny round tables, first French crooner Serge Gainsbourg and then cabaret freak Scott Walker wailing of their obelisk-size pain. It’s almost as if a tractor beam has been turned on, and brought the moody, beautifully broken Smith home.

Everywhere he goes, it is the same beautiful brokenness, the same rawness that reaches out and brings you forward. He played “Miss Misery,” his Oscar-nominated song from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, at the awards show-in a white suit!-and for a few minutes made the Hollywood pageant seem bizarrely intimate. When he performs, Smith comes across both worried and unintimidated, like he knows he’s going to have to fight his way out of this one, and like it’s nothing he hasn’t done before.

“Bottle Up and Explode!” is more than a song title, it’s a way of dealing, or not dealing, with the world. Some of the people who most care about Smith have noticed. Two friends in Portland-where Smith lived until he moved to Brooklyn two years ago-are Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss. Coomes was in Heatmiser, a grungy Portland band Smith formed after he was a fireman; Weiss plays drums in Sleater-Kkinney. Both are also in the band Quasi, who back Smith live and whose recent album, Featuring “Birds”, included “The Poisoned Well,” an angry song aimed at Smith: “You won’t live long / But you may write the perfect song.”

“I don’t feel any sadder than anybody else I know,” Smith says. “I’m happy some of the time, and some of the time I’m not.” One of the times when he was not came in 1997, when the singer tried to kill himself. He won’t say why this happened, though a piece in the Los Angeles Times suggests it had to do with a breakup from his girlfriend.

“I don’t like when people talk about all the bad things that have happened to them as if that makes them unique. Because I don’t think I’ve had a harder time than other people.

“But, um, yeah-I, uh, jumped off a cliff. But it didn’t work. It was in North Carolina or somewhere. It wasn’t like I made up my mind to throw myself off a cliff. I got freaked out and started running, it was totally dark, and I ran off the edge of a cliff. I saw it coming up, and it wasn’t like, ‘I’m gonna throw myself off this cliff and die.’ It was just, ‘Ground’s coming up. Who cares, whatever.’ I landed on a little tree, punctured my, you know, body. It just made a really ugly wound.”

Around this time some of Smith’s friends were so worried about Smith’s drinking and talk of obliteration they arranged a substance-abuse intervention. They surprised him with a counselor in a room in Chicago, and pressured him to check into an Arizona detox facility. A few days later Smith walked out, afraid he was about to be trapped. Kill Rock Stars’ Slim Moon, who helped plan the intervention and who also recorded Nirvana early on, sees similarities between Kurt Cobain and Smith. “Kurt was the most talented songwriter I’d ever met. But he was the same way [as Elliott]: He appeared really fragile, in a lot of ways was really stubborn, and he internalized everything. He would go on and on in his songs about how nothing was going to relieve his pain. But at the same time he was searching hard for something to relieve it.”

Since he walked out of the clinic, Smith hasn’t spoken to Moon. And he says part of XO‘s anger came out of the intervention. “A lot of songs on the record had to do with being amazed at how quickly people will invade your space just because you don’t deal with things like they do. They think that you drink too much, or they think that you’re too-I just don’t think being scared is a good enough reason to take over somebody’s life.”

It’s easy to get the wrong idea about that face. At first, the skin’s waxy softness, the three-days’ growth, the brawler’s nose, is all you notice. He looks uncared for and unconcerned.

But look closely, and what slowly reveals itself is something gentle and exhausted. This might be why, after Good Will Hunting‘s Minnie Driver and Matt Damon broke up, rumors circulated that Driver and Smith were an item. (He denies that they were anything but friends.)

In a dressing room backstage of a big club in Portland, the Smith profile takes a sip from a microbrew. It becomes apparent how Gary Smith, Elliott’s father, lent a lot of his features to his son, along with a precise way of speaking that holds each word out an even beat. Gary Smith is a psychiatrist; he speaks this way for a living. He and Elliott’s mother divorced when Elliott was one year old. Elliott stayed with his mom in Dallas until he was 14, and then moved with his father and stepmom to Portland. “He was always into music,” says the father, strumming one of Elliott’s guitars.

Right then in walks Elliott, who’s just rehearsed a George Harrison cover he’ll perform with Quasi that night. “When he was three,” says Gary, smiling at Elliott, “I brought him over to my apartment. I put the White Album on a lot. He loved ‘Rocky Raccoon.’ I just tried to get it off before ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road’ came on.” With that, the son sings a line from the song.

“Do you remember when you were involved with Junior Achievement?” says Gary.

When Elliott was 14, he entered a talent contest held by the farm team of capitalism. For weeks, the sound of Elliott practicing Beatles songs on his guitar wafted from his bedroom.

“The talent show was in a big church filled with people,” says Gary, “and there were all these different acts, and one of them was a tap dancer, tap-dancing to ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ all dressed in red, white, and blue. And Elliott played ‘Blackbird’ and I was stunned, and I thought maybe it was just me, but after he finished playing there was a hush, and then this warm applause filled the hall. It was the first time I knew, whoa, this is where he’s going.” He puts down a bottle of beer. “The end of the story”-and by now Elliott starts giggling-“is, they choose somebody to go on a national talent show, and the person they chose was the tap dancer, tap-dancing to ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy.’ It was the beginning of that sort…”

He doesn’t finish the sentence, because the father and son are both laughing out loud, giddy as goats, at what is so obvious it doesn’t need to be said: It was the beginning of not quite getting the prize, of not quite knowing if you want all the yankee-doodle-doo up the road. “Elliott may take turns here and there, and run into dead ends,” says Dad, strumming again on his son’s guitar. “But he has a way of maintaining himself and his integrity. He’s quiet, but potent.”

(From Spin‘s January 1999 issue)

Learning to Play in the Womb
By Elliott Smith

For some reason when I think of him now, I usually picture him the way he looked and sounded during the “hairy and scary” phase, around the time of Abbey Road. Definitely on his own trip. It’s neat when you’re a kid to see people who aren’t scared to change. I was mainly into the musical side of things, however, and Lennon’s murder further separated his music from his fame in my mind. I went back to figuring out how to play his songs and pretty much acted as if nothing had happened.

My folks were Beatles fans and supposedly played Sgt. Pepper’s for me before I was born. In junior high I thought that “A Day in the Life” was probably my favorite song ever. Of course, now I have many, many favorite songs, but a lot of them are still Lennon songs. For example:

“I’m Only Sleeping”

Most songs that bring up wanting to be left alone in some way or another don’t do it as gracefully as this one. It’s cool to express and defend your own interior space without getting all hostile about it; this song makes it seem easy. I also like the way it feels as if it’s pulling itself along with its own momentum instead of being pushed forward heavily with the kick drum.

“Tomorrow Never Knows”

The first line (“Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream”) kinda says it all, really. Again, it’s like he’s describing a solid internal state you can maintain without doing battle with the outside world. Sometimes the most amazing thing to me about Lennon is that he kept a positive identity despite such a cracked upbringing and crazy fame. On the other hand:

“Yer Blues”

Sometimes you gotta freak out. Maybe it’s cathartic; definitely unavoidable. People generally try to hide their own meltdowns, unfortunately. That’s probably why it’s a relief to hear a song like this one, at least for me. “Feel so suicidal, even hate my rock’n’roll!” That kind of thing is gonna get out somehow, so why not just detonate it all at once?

“Cold Turkey” and “Jealous Guy”

Being this honest can be risky-which, of course, is an excellent idea. It’ll either be sappy or brave. Or both. He chanced it and won. Other people have to write this way all the time. Lennon had access to all floors. Didn’t he also write:

“I Am the Walrus”

It’s dark, complicated, funny, and popular; it rocks; and it contains the phrase “goo goo g’joob.” Lyrics all over the place. I like songs like this because they activate my imagination. Coherence is fine and all, but it’s not the measure of interesting lyrics. Sonically, this song seems to be coming from a person who just busted out of incarceration somewhere.

“Across the Universe”

This song is fluid and musical in a way that, to me, overarches all the cultural and political commentary that surrounds his life. A really cool song can sometimes make a dream and reality trade places, maybe for the better.

(From Spin‘s January 2001 issue)

Killing Them Softly
By Will Hermes

This isn’t the first incident of late that could make you look up and ask: kumbayah, my Lord, kumbayah? More and more, the sort of emphatic rush alt-rock once delivered with howling Marshall stacks is being conjured by boys and girls brandishing acoustic guitars. You can hear proof in Ani DiFranco’s rewiring of folk, and in Beck, who regularly takes breaks from breakdancing to detonate trad ditties like “John Henry.” Bob Dylan’s dark-wry balladry on Time Out of Mind hijacked fans half his age, while folk-inflected singer/songwriters such as Beth Orton and Rufus Wainwright have become instant critics’ darlings. Meanwhile, indie rockers from Kristin Hersh (of Throwing Muses) to Elliott Smith himself (of grunge/queercore footnote Heatmiser) have traded in bands to become born-again troubadours.

It all seems to indicate that as the alt-national consensus turns to party-time ska-core, mindless pop, wordless electro-beats, swing revivalism, and other gestures of high and low irony, alt-rock’s bleeding heart is still beating. Its audience may have fled the corporate doppelgänger known as modern rock, but they still hunger for an emphathetic connection with non-cyborg, non-smarmy wordsmiths-they still, you know, believe. True, alt’s new school bears some resemblance to folk and ’70s-style singer/songwriter mooning. But its cathartic language is all about rock. And at the moment, it’s sounding more thoroughly rock than rock itself.

The reissue of 1952’s Anthology of American Folk Music, the mixed-tape-style comp that became a Rosetta Stone of modern folk, was one of last year’s most talked-about releases. It was also one of the sexiest. The reason is the “authenticity,” real or perceived, that hums from its six CDs. As measured in the distance between, say, Kurt Cobain and Gavin Rossdale, this fetish for realness has informed indie and alt-rock, like hip-hop, from the get-go. It’s probably, in part, what led Cobain to “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” the harrowing old folk tune that closed Nirvana’s set on MTV’s Unplugged. After all, he’d pushed a certain mode of rock expression to its bursting point, both artistically and commercially, and watched it explode, and then deflate. As it happened, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”-the final track on his final record-wound up as an ending, when it might have been a beginning.

Around the same time, punk cognoscenti at Pacific Northwest labels such as K (whose log Cobain had tattooed on his arm) and Kill Rock Stars started putting out small acoustic-minded records, determinedly anti-corporate and quietly anti-rock, by acts such as the Softies, Lois, Kaia, Mary Lou Lord, and Elliott Smith. “Anytime there’s a lot of loud bands, you’re gonna have people who go, ‘Well, maybe I can do the same type of thing, but not be loud,'” is how Smith explains it, careful to avoid anything that smells like manifesto. But if alt-rock was in part about retooling rock’s dick-speak, then acoustica seems a logically subversive next step.

Of course, there have been other facets to the current rock backlash. MTV’s Unplugged series was prescient (if undiscriminating). So was Lilith Fair, whose new breed of VH1 pop took the queer, goddess-cult folk aesthetic of Olivia Records and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival to the bank with the marketable looks and pop-spiritual rhetoric of Paula Cole, Sarah McLachlan, and Jewel.

But this doesn’t have much to do with the indie-land devotion to Ani DiFranco’s raw warrior-girl folk narratives or Elliott Smith’s shimmering stalemates of the heart (as one fan remarked: “I see women crying openly at Elliott shows all the time”). Smith, like James Taylor and Cobain before him, radiates a junkie-style, lost-boy quality that makes most of his audience, boys and girls alike, yearn to take him home for drinks and a snuggle. Significantly, he tends to avoid sexed pronouns just as DiFranco matter-of-factly directs love songs to members of both sexes. They are two sides of an epic, gender-fucked pop vulnerability-an emotionally mutable top-and-bottom act in a new sort of folk-rock.

Smith’s latest album, XO, moves into arranged Beatles- and Big Star-flavored material, multitracking his intricate hurts into the pop madrigals his melodies have always suggested. But the image that sticks is of a solitary man singing plaintively and clutching an acoustic guitar. “I don’t think it’s particularly more ‘honest’ to play acoustic,” says Smith. “But there are lots of records where the song is just a tool for all the other stuff, like the production and the image of the band. But if you’re playing a song acoustically, all you’ve really got is the song.”

Yet Smith doesn’t see what he does as “folk” music, at least not the sort steeped in the pastoral romance and “We Shall Overcome” political idealism that defined the mid-century folk revival. Smith’s not alone. “I used to be really involved with all that heavy-duty celtic stuff,” says Mary Lou Lord, who, despite her indie-rock alliances, can still be found busking in the Boston subway. “But I knew that it wasn’t really me. I’d be doing ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ and thinking, ‘What the fuck am I singing this for?’ I don’t even vote.”

The solution for some lies in a folk-minded fetishization of pop’s secret histories. If Anthology of American Folk Music is a kind of bible for one generation of self-made musicians, then Big Star’s Sister Lovers, Daniel Johnston’s Yip/Jump Music, and Nick Drake’s Fruit Tree are sacred texts to another. “Folk music is the stuff that endures,” says Dan Bern, one of the few acoustic rockers who doesn’t shrink from the term “folkie.” “Woody Guthrie was just playing what he heard. If he’d grown up on the Clash he would’ve still written ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ but he would have had the Dust Brothers produce it.”

Spawned by folk eclectics Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright learned a lot from the traditions he grew up with. “Folk is where the whole idea of a catchy tune comes from,” he says, “something that could be whistled and remembered. It’s about things that are universal.” Along with Smith and DiFranco, Wainwright projects a wide-screen personality that bums with a hyper-folk intensity. Spare arrangements only magnify this, especially live, where the intimacy sowed on record can bloom into bona fide relationships.

This is the sort of thing that points to careers rather than one-hit wonders. A pretty radical concept these days. It’s not surprising both Wainwright and Smith were signed to DreamWorks by Lenny Waronker, the A&R swami who presided over Warner Bros./Reprise Records during its early-’70s singer/songwriter glory days. Like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor, Wainwright and Smith are artists whose finely woven sounds seem inseparable from the fabric of their being. “Listen to Elliott’s records long enough and you can almost see him; the same is true of Rufus,” Waronker says with paternal pride. “The devotion fans have for Smith-I haven’t seen that in years.”

It’s hard to miss the continuum here: Records such as Neil Young’s Harvest, Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief, and the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead were rock-to-unrock conversions made in part as a response to a co-opted underground, while pop eccentrics such as Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks used folk as one ingredient among many. This strategy has been embraced by artists from Beth Orton and Parlor James to Palace’s Will Oldham, who find that breakbeats and drum machines mix quite nicely with folk tradition.

It’s a tack that leaves some artists feeling like citizens without countries. “You can end up flailing about,” says Orton, whose acoustic songcraft has mated with the Chemical Brothers’ and William Orbit’s electronica. “I can confuse myself quite easily with which music direction to take. But I find it eventually,” she says. Most folk hybridists are confident that audiences will come along for the ride. “Maybe the hard-rock audience won’t listen to anything else,” muses VedaHille, a young Canadian singer/songwriter whose Spine CD traffics in the sort of art-folk-pop-rock whatsit that epitomizes the new guard. “But most everyone else is ready for anything, y’know? I mean, it’s the end of the century.”

(From Spin‘s September 1998 issue)