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
Spending time with Smith in L.A.'s smoke-free bars, one is endlessly surprised to see the end of his arm without a cigarette attached. At one point he claims to own exactly three pairs of pants. "That's all, really," he says. "That's enough of a decision." Throughout the weekend he wears a bright-red shirt decorated with two foreshortened hounds and the slogan "Dog Racing Now."
One can't forget, though, that most of all Elliott Smith is quiet and sweet, and when you're in his presence you want nothing more than to be in his good graces. This isn't totally easy, however, because his is a bitter sweetness, and you get the feeling he takes accolades, new people and the world with a grain of salt. Though he gives indications that he gets your humor -- a certain cynical tilt of the head, half smiles -- he rarely accedes entirely to the moment, shying away from strangers, always a bit wary of laughs. Therefore, when he does go with it, breaking into a full grin, baring teeth, reshaping his whole face, it's a magic thing, like suddenly it's your birthday and Christmas, and everything's all right. But just for that moment, because after that moment everything goes back to being just plain fine, which is quite a different thing than all right.
After a clutch of Beatles requests, Brion feigns fatigue, threatens to stop playing, then agrees to continue. "But only if Elliott plays drums," he says. Smith walks to the stage. "Ha," says Brion, "classic motivational technique." With Smith behind the kit and the hour slipping past midnight, the songs get sloppier and livelier and better. Less and less sober, more and more fervent, the crowd sings along. Lennon and McCartney: "Hey Jude, don't make it bad. Take a sad song and make it better." The Kinks: "But I don't feel afraid as long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset. I am in paradise every day I look at the world from my window."
Smith switches from drums to bass. A session drummer joins up. Someone mentions he's played with McCartney. Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets" then Foreigner's "Hot Blooded" then the Beatles' "Come Together" then Prince's "When Doves Cry." Brion plays through Randy Newman's "Short People" solo on piano. Smith flips through the sheet music's pages. Two a.m. comes. Everyone goes.
THE NEXT DAY, AT HIS MANAGER MARGARET MITTLEMAN'S home in Silver Lake, Smith talks about this stuff, pop music. "As soon as I started hearing different records, I wanted to be in a band. 'Helter Skelter.' Stevie Wonder records. It was totally fascinating to me immediately. I didn't know how to do it, so it just seemed like magic. And when you're a kid and you're into some record or some person or a band or a DJ or whatever, at first it's all just one thing -- the music part of it and the way they look, the way they talk and whatever you think their lifestyle might be. But by the time I was in junior high or high school, it was pretty easy to see it's actually a bunch of separate things, some of which actually don't seem very desirable. So it became more and more about recording songs."
This interest in the details of recorded pop songs is something one notices in all of Smith's solo work, even in the early home recordings that make up Roman Candle, the 1994 solo debut released by the obscure Portland label Cavity Search. An infinitesimally small record -- captured "on a 4-track in the basement fall 1993," according to the liner notes -- its power is belied by the almost inconceivable sense that the parties concerned treated its release with no small degree of disinterest.
But then there it is. You can hear it in the vocals. They're miked close, and when you're listening to them over a set of headphones, Smith's warm whisper blurs the line between earphone and ear, you and him, cruelty and self-hate. And you realize that Smith is part of â a generation of songwriters that's grown up with a few things previous generations did not grow up with. He grew up with the Beatles' sweet melodies. He grew up with the solipsistic pop isolation of headphones. He grew up with the kind of self-doubt and questioning of love that accompanies the blurred boundaries between love and sex and television. He may have grown up learning about love as filtered through the stultifying details of divorce.
There's a song on Roman Candle titled "No Name #1." It's one of four songs on the album that go without names. It starts off a bit like a close friend skulking up to your bedside in the middle of the night to tell you how much he fucking hates you:
Go home and live with your pain
Leave alone 'cause you know you don't belong
You don't belong here
But then everything flips:
And when I go
Don't you follow
In that moment between lines, the "you" shifts instantly, and the song changes from an anonymous screed into a wounded confessional. It is a vertiginous moment. And the song's message comes crushing down like the sweet, sad end to a story in which it turns out that the persecutor was really the persecuted. The fuck-you song was a fuck-me song all along.