RJ Smith’s profile of Elliott Smith originally ran in the January 1999 “The Year in Music” issue of Spin. In honor of the 20th anniversary of Elliott Smith’s third album, 1997’s Either/Or, we’re reprinting it here. An expanded reissue of Either/Or is due out March 10, 2017 from Kill Rock Stars.
Elliott Smith recovers nicely. Just one hour ago he was sitting in a tiny backstage room, enjoying a post-show 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 opossum 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 pieces of 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 Massachusetts 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-Kinney. 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?” asks 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 of…”
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.”