Elliott Smith's 1997 masterpiece Either/Or is being reissued this month.
Elliott Smith's 1997 masterpiece Either/Or is being reissued this month.
Courtesy Kill Rock Stars

Why Elliott Smith's Either/Or Is My "Break Glass in Case of Existential Crisis" Album

My grandfather's final request was a slice of cheesecake.

For those last two weeks, he painlessly withered away in his retirement home, refusing to eat, waiting to die. But tremors of hope briefly wobbled when he opened his eyes, gingerly slid the oxygen mask to the left, and whispered for dessert at 3 p.m.

This was January, as I clanked back and forth from Chatsworth, listening to Elliott Smith's Either/Or on loop, lunging for the right words to comfort my grandfather in his half-conscious fog — finding none. Show me someone who handles death well and I'll show you the spiritually delusional or the clinically sociopathic.

Scripture, poetry and drugs failed to offer solace. I told him that I loved him. I told him that I'd think of him every time I stared in the mirror and saw his slightly sunken mahogany eyes in my sockets. I told him that I'd honor his name and make him proud. I told him that I'd get him cheesecake.

So I found myself wandering around a Westfield mall in Woodland Hills, searching for a Cheesecake Factory, assaulted by mall perfume and shrill pop-punk. This could be my grandfather's last supper, and all he wanted to set his soul at ease was something easily procured next to the food court. It was almost a Drake lyric.

For almost the entirety of my adult life, I have reflexively listened to Elliott Smith when beset by bleak vertigo. In a darkly absurd fugue state, I streamed the record in the fluorescent shadow of a Forever 21, ducking into the dimly lit faux opulence of the Cheesecake Factory.

With his reaper/angel rasp, Elliott Smith crooned those first syllables of "Speed Trials": "He's pleased to meet you underneath the hearse/In the cathedral with the glass stained black/Singing sweet high notes that echo back/To destroy their master."

"Make that two pieces of cheesecake, please."

Some people need happy music to buoy their serotonin. Not me. I want dirges so emotionally raw that they're too severe for normal occasions. I need a "break glass in case of existential crisis" album. Elliott Smith never fails to feel your pain yet avoids melodramatic whining and gothic cliché. He discovered a way to make the softest music sound hard.

There is no "best" Elliott Smith record. Chances are your favorite is the first one you heard. For most of us, that's Either/Or, the album released 20 years ago last month, the one that Gus Van Sant fell in love with and used to soundtrack Good Will Hunting. It's what led to Smith's surreal performance at the Academy Awards and set him on a path to cult stardom. It's what led to his move to L.A., the major-label deal with DreamWorks, the story that ends with him fatally stabbing himself in his Echo Park apartment with an 8-inch kitchen knife.

That was 2003. He was younger than I am now.

I don't remember Smith becoming a totemic personal favorite until I moved to Silver Lake in the year after his suicide. Before they remodeled the Roost and outlawed smoking upstairs at Spaceland, you often heard mournful, drunken remembrances of Smith, which ended with "and ... he was a really nice guy." The wounds were still fresh, and the neighborhood retained the bohemian sensibility that had lured him from Portland, Oregon.

In the aftermath, he's become the area's patron saint and ghoulish tourist attraction. The Elliott Smith tribute wall that originally appeared on the cover of Figure 8 still stands, but it's been mutilated to make way for Bar Angeles, a wine bar named after "Angeles," a song from Either/Or. You can order a short rib ragu, quaff fine cabernet and consider the irony of lyrics that weigh the Faustian bargain involved in coming to L.A. in search of fame. As Smith sang on "Behind the Bars," "Drink up, baby."

Elsewhere in Silver Lake, on the side of Floyd's Barbershop, there's a mural of Smith, beanie-clad and smoking a cigarette, smiling but still somehow downcast. "I know he'd hate it, or at least be really embarrassed," laughs Either/Or co-producer Rob Schnapf, a Silver Lake resident since 1987, who discovered Smith during a show at the long-gone West Adams venue Jabberjaw. "He was never the guy who wanted his face on a wall."

I called Schnapf in search of a deeper understanding of Smith, the regular human being. He tells me that Smith was just a regular guy with an extraordinary gift, which he worked incredibly hard to refine.

"It's timeless because it beautifully and succinctly encapsulated the pain and isolation that people feel in every generation," Schnapf says.

The romantic myth of the self-destructive, Rimbaudian poet persists, but neither Schnapf nor Smith's archivist and engineer, Larry Crane, remembers Smith doing hard drugs during the period in which Either/Or was recorded, mostly in Portland. Crane remastered a 20th-anniversary expanded edition that Kill Rock Stars is releasing this month — including five live cuts and three previously unreleased studio recordings.

Crane says that Smith was constantly writing and always observing. He lived in the studio to the point where he'd apologize for the body odor.

"He seemed down sometimes, but no more than most of my friends," Crane remembers. "He was funny. He'd moonwalk, or you'd look over to the control room and he'd do that thing where you pretend that you're walking down stairs."

For whatever misguided reason, I'd always assumed that Either/Or was an L.A. album at its core. Beyond "Angeles," there was "Alameda" and "Rose Parade." The former finds Smith walking down Alameda, one of the streets encompassing downtown's Skid Row. I figured it was a sullen junkie's lament — not a song about a part of Portland, as Crane corrects me. He also tells me that Portland has a Rose Parade, too.

Either/Or is still working its dolorous spell in my headphones as I consider my own mortality and my grandfather's imminent demise, clutching grotesquely oversized slabs of cheesecake, trying to find my car in the mall parking lot. Smith is one of those artists better left as a myth. Most posthumous deification of artists rests on an idea, but Smith distills an emotion. The songs defy one consensus interpretation because they're so intimate, subject to different meanings for every listener.

For me, they're soundtracks to tearfully wandering Boston's Logan Airport one dim night, waiting to fly home after my mom told me they were going to put my childhood dog down. These songs operated as support systems for breakups that incurred what seemed like irreparable damage. Now they're the soundtrack to help salve the grievous pain of my grandfather's death.

Smith reminds me what can be extraordinary about everyday mortals. His classic early songs are unadorned and stripped bare, absent orchestral excess or brassy hooks.

I couldn't help but equate this to my grandfather, who excelled in the quietest fashion: a World War II veteran and devoted parent, who showed fidelity, positivity and philanthropy to family and friends. Like Elliott Smith, he reminds me that our greatest heroes can often be ordinary.

When I finally returned to the nursing home, my grandfather was fast asleep. My grandmother woke him up to let him know that I was back, and even though it was obvious he hadn't remembered the initial request, a brief smile crossed his face. He took a bite or two to be polite, told me he loved me and begged me to stay healthy, then he closed his eyes for one of the final times.

When I finally left, I took the long way home, because I needed to keep listening.

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