by carl wilson

Elliott Smith: "Here it is, the revenge to the tune..."

Such a strange sad way to go — to stab himself through the heart — that it sounds like a line from one of Elliott Smith's own grimmest songs. Smith was one of the most gifted pure songwriters of his generation; his melodies and harmonies to my ears outdid nearly anyone else's attempt to follow in the Beatles/Beach Boys compositional line: Even a tunesmith like Joe Pernice sounds flat by comparison, and Smith never resorted to pastiche and parody the way, say, Stephin Merritt does (however brilliantly).

Yes, I loved Smith's portraits of despair — the subject that, despite myself, most moves me as a listener, the subject that no doubt explains why I am addicted to song. His lyrics gave a slow spin to the coin, turning its face from gentle empathy to the pitilessly frank, the two inseparable sides glinting past each other like estranged comrades at arms.

But I hoped that the next album, which was constantly receding beyond some blue horizon, might show that he was moving past that, for the sake of potential new listeners and for his own sake most of all. Disturbing reports about his behavour at concerts gradually wore down my optimism. But I wasn't prepared for this to be the coda. As Pavement sang, "The joke is always bad, but not as bad as this."

Like a lot of people, I'll never forget the proud subcultural thrill of seeing him on that Oscars broadcast, calling out to Miss Misery in his high, forlorn chain-smoking-choirboy voice. For a few minutes it was like a coming-out party for mope rockers everywhere, indeed for melancholy boyhood in general: Look, it said, this is the poetry that just may lurk between the stooped shoulders of that kid who can't stick up for himself, that mailroom or data-entry employee who shuns the sunlight of raises and promotions, the ones who won't Just Do It in the brash new order. I envisioned the youngest daughter in some Singapore family leaning in toward the television as the song continued, a scruffy German teenager stopped with beer can halfway toward his mouth in his dark rec room, two Iowa twins nudging each other wide-eyed, a million "what is this geezer doing on TV?" moments.

While I seldom give a damn about success or failure in show biz, I wanted Smith to be able to follow up on that unique interlude, because I thought the world could use him. Now it will be difficult to listen to his work as anything but a suicide note in chapters.

That won't stop me from listening, because I could never pass up the chance to hear songs as great as 2:45 a.m., I Didn't Understand, Division Day, Waltz No. 2 and their like just once more, and once more again. But there will always be an admonition sighing between the bars, a warning not to confuse catharsis with the romance of self-destruction, because through those gates is a ground where every precious thing goes to waste.

"What a waste" was the first thing my colleague John Sakamoto said when he passed along the awful news to me today. It's the truest, maybe the only thing to be said.

"They say that God makes problems
Just to see what you can stand
Before you do as the Devil pleases...
And give up the thing you love.
But no one deserves it."
— Elliott Smith, Pitseleh

r.i.p., and xo,
carl w.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, October 28 at 11:42 PM | Linking Posts

 

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson