By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
IT IS 2 A.M. OR SO. ELLIOTT SMITH IS BEHIND THE WHEEL of a rental car in Portland, waiting at a stoplight and listening to music through headphones. Maybe it's Nico's The Marble Index -- harmonium, drone, woozy structure -- or the Beatles -- dramatic melodies in deeply panned stereo. It's a long red light.
And then the plastic of the dashboard pops off its frame. The seat-belt strap tightens across the length of his body. Metal takes on new forms. For a long 10 seconds inertia happens.
Smith slips off his headphones. One isn't supposed to drive around wearing headphones.
He sits there, mildly shaken. An 80-year-old man walks up to the driver's-side window. "Better call a wrecker," the man says, as if he's quite used to this.
"My car still worked and his was all smashed up," Smith says. "He went to call the cops and they came. Obviously it was his fault. They towed him. I drove away. Part of the dashboard was missing, and that was pretty much the end of the story."
It was a spectacular, anonymous thing. Life is sort of like that.
IN THE MIND OF THE PUBLIC, THE PRESS AND THE INDUSTRY, popular music is increasingly dominated by the exact opposite of what Elliott Smith is about: fluff, metal, beats. Granted, all three have their merits. One could even argue that hip-hop, teeny-bop and hard hard rock are the ideal forms for music that bills itself as popular and is therefore thought of by many as inevitably populist.
But under the mandate to keep everyone so damn happy, so damn entertained, one of American pop music's greatest traditions, that of the singer-songwriter, has been left to languish, especially as it flowered in the '60s and '70s, the decades from which Smith seems to draw his greatest inspiration. It's a tradition that allowed pop stars to sing like, to seem like and to live like individuals. It made idiosyncratic proclivities and tastes fodder for pop. It made Bob Dylan famous. Retroactively, it made the mysterious Robert Johnson seem as fit for fame as cosmopolitans such as the Gershwins and Cole Porter, and provided the anonymous hillbillies of the Anthology of American Folk Music the aura of lost stars, invisible by daylight and -- in a distinctly American way -- peculiarly glamorous. People often fail to notice that it's a tradition that also made as much of an impact on black American songwriters such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and Prince as African-American rhythm and rock made on the white artists who appropriated it. For better or worse -- and many diehard fans of '50s rock & roll would say the latter -- the singer-songwriter made pop into art.
Anyway, the mode is dying.
Or at least tired. Or at least threatened by the flood of artists and beats and ambient noise that has accompanied the decentralized '90s, the pop surfeit, the Internet -- a world that has witnessed the dissolution of the distribution barriers that once blocked entry into pop production from all but the most glowing, individual talents (and a small host of subsequent impersonators). Although it's a judgement only history can make, Elliott Smith may just be one of those individual talents.
The question for now is to define the question Smith's music asks. Perhaps it's something overarching: Can an anonymous guy from Portland bring the singer-songwriter back? Or perhaps it's something Smith sings on his new album, Figure 8: "The question is, wouldn't â mama be proud?" Or could the answer to this whole damn mess be the one he gives in the next line: "There's a silver lining in the corporate cloud"?
YOU FIRST MEET ELLIOTT SMITH AT PRODUCER AND MUSICIAN Jon Brion's standing Friday-evening gig at Largo, a small club on Fairfax Avenue, across the street from Canter's Delicatessen. It's tucked next to a coffee bar and a row of shops, most of which cater to the local community of Hasid and Orthodox Jews -- bakeries, more delis, a music shop. Smith sits at a table in the rear of the club alternating between beer and bourbon, or whiskey or some other strong, dark drink.
Attired in an ill-fitting rock & roll suit and wielding a guitar, Brion -- best known for producing albums by L.A. singer-songwriters such as Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann -- appears vaguely tipsy as he conducts his clinic in pop, reeling off covers, joke requests and originals with equal enthusiasm for obscurities, hits and guilty pleasures. Big Star's "Holocaust" is followed by the Beatles' "Don't Pass Me By," which is followed by Abba's "Dancing Queen." Brion tries, with no success, to coax Smith onstage.
At the table, Smith tells a story about a car crash to make the point that he loves to hear music through headphones. It lets him listen to each pan and every whisper. Late-night beer and bourbon continues on its solemn march toward looser tongues. Smith leans over and whispers, neither entirely straight-faced nor ironical, "This is the time of night I feel most alive and sensual."
Smith is a rough-looking yet soft-seeming guy, a hard drinker who whispers in your ear. His look is cliché but not rock cliché -- more down-and-out boxer or ex-con than debauched rocker. Mention Smith to a less-than-ardent fan and his appearance garners quick comment: He looks like the exheroin abuser that he is, or like some Renaissance peasant seen in the deep background of a painting -- behind a noble, through a window, amongst the lepers, the farmers, the artisans and merchants. He's the kind of guy who, while shaving, must miss a few whiskers because of assorted, tiny scars. In interviews he's admitted to having his nose broken a few times, and at 30 he seems like a grown-up version of a roughed-up kid who's been on the wrong end of a couple grade-school beatings.