Associate music editor 1990-1995
Music editor 1995-2005
The singer-songwriter Elliott Smith passed away in October 2003. At that point I had been the music editor of the Weekly for eight years, during which time I had witnessed the rise and fall of many a revolutionary rock star and sensitive young folkie, each time with a little grit of the teeth, or occasional jump for joy. While my life sometimes seemed like an endless redocumenting of the musical mating rituals of 22-year-olds, my time in the editor’s hot seat was an interesting period in contemporary music. We were definitely post-post-punk, in fact veering back toward prog and disco (perhaps not so strangely enough). It was a time somewhat like the extraordinarily fertile early ’70s, when a general confusion about any logical, correct direction for music produced a very creative, open atmosphere for music-making — flexible contemporary music, free of genre restrictions.
I was fortunate to have had two bosses throughout this period, editor in chief Sue Horton and publisher Mike Sigman, who maintained strictly hands-off positions on the musical editorial content, trusting me enough to trust my own instincts about what music’s priorities were and how they ought to have been written about. I encouraged my writers to take advantage of this new musically open time, and to interpret and convey as deeply as possible the purely musical aspects of their subjects — in fact to take it more seriously as an art form — along with detailing some of the social dimensions that give music its context and character. And we promoted good music by reinstating the L.A. Weekly Music Awards, which was as close as anyone came during this time frame to defining a “scene” in the musical minefield of Los Angeles.
Smith’s last performance was at the L.A. Weekly Music Awards at the Fonda Theater in 2003. He looked terrible, as usual, so frail, so tired. But he played and sang magnificently, in such a way that you could feel him sort of giving his life to you. It was really intriguing, but it was heartbreaking, and then again oddly uplifting — all at once. I tried to convey the range and impact of this wonderfully complex character in my review of his final album.
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From “He’s Not Trying to Break Your Heart,” by John Payne, October 14, 2004
This is where the greatness lies: I think that Elliott Smith just got to the point when he could really hear something. That’s a very fragile and evanescent state, if you’re not a craftsman, which he wasn’t. He was an artist, and that’s why for him almost nothing was ever good enough. The leathery beauty of Smith’s melody is the most beautiful kind of all. Not just Smith but these sympathetic producers-engineers really went for it, and you can hear it plain as day. I only know what’s been reported, that Elliott wanted this to be a double-disc set, à la White Album, warts and all. I do think that whoever made the final choices and sequencing did a good job. I think it’s possible that cuts were necessary to strengthen the impact of the work as a whole, made by someone with better judgment than the artist himself in this case.
This is rock music, undoubtedly, and it bashes its way into your heart the way rock likes to do. But it’s not just your heart it wants. And it’s not like a fuck you, and neither is it a desperate plea to be understood. And as the last song, “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free,” makes clear, thank you and good night, From a Basement on the Hill ends just in time, having said everything it needed to. No, he would never have topped it, ever again. Yes, I do think the drugs and liquor helped him get to that rarefied air he needed in order to hear these songs, and to carry them through — to execute them. Because they’re so beautiful, not in a heartbreaking way but in a destiny way, a gauntlet-throwing way. And in a look, man, how’s your petty life? kind of way. Like this: I can see my death, and it’s glowing gold, so close, so far away.