Anonymity, Misery, Softness
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.
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.
It's this combination that kills: a musical intimacy sealed from the opening note and a point of view that shifts in seconds from hazy anonymity to sharp-eyed self-critique. On each subsequent release, Smith has expanded his sonic palette and continued to add detail to his tangled take on the world. Through his lyrics and delivery he's developed a personal ideology -- a personality -- that almost competes with those of his quite considerable influences. The Velvet Underground's Nico and Lou Reed. Neil Young. John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
IT'S UNLIKELY THAT ANYONE TRACKING ELLIOTT SMITH'S CAREER arc in 1994 would have predicted future success. On first appraisal Roman Candle seems like a perfect, quiet coda to a short career. And it would not be unfair to say that, from the vantage point of '94, Smith's appearance on the 1998 Academy Awards telecast, performing his Oscar-nominated song "Miss Misery" in a medley alongside Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood, would have seemed only slightly less out there than the possibility of, let's say, Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur turning up somewhere along the French Riviera as a duo, having faked their deaths to evade the certain scandal that would have erupted had their secret, long-simmering romantic bond been revealed.
Well, it was quite strange anyway.
Smith grew up in Omaha, Nebraska; Dallas, Texas; Portland, Oregon. After what he describes as a somewhat inadvertent tenure at Massachusetts' Hampshire College, he ended up back in Portland, where he formed the band Heatmiser with a friend from school, Neil Gust. Touring various West Coast punk clubs and eventually releasing three records on the L.A. indie Frontier Records, the band found itself in the midst of the Pacific Northwest's grunge-rock explosion.
But in between tours, Smith was quietly honing his own material, knocking off solo tracks in various basement studios in Portland. When he'd finished nine songs, he gave the local Cavity Search label a tape in the hope of getting it to press up a single; it offered an album. After taking part in a small West Coast tour combining spoken-word and acoustic acts, his folk-tinged solo work began to gain more notice in the punk scene than Heatmiser's songs ever did.
"I don't want to, by default, insult those other musicians on the tour," recalls Slim Moon, who did spoken word on the trip, "but by the second show I knew that he was in a completely different league from the rest of us. In a different league that only includes a handful of musicians that I've ever known." Moon, who owns the Olympia, Washington, label Kill Rock Stars, quickly signed Smith, a shift for a label that was best known as an incubator for the riot-grrrl movement, having released records by bands such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile.
For his part, Smith says he had no particular dedication to the scene's sound, only a strong regard for the fertile ground for creativity and iconoclasm it provided. "I liked punk in my idiosyncratic way. As a musical style I like it, but not more than any other musical style. What I like a lot about it is the changefulness of it, the way it attacks the preciousness of pop music and the demand to sell a lot of records and to contrive songs so that they appeal to the widest number of people. I like where it's coming from, and I still feel connected to that."
Moon thinks Smith's reasons for ending up in the punk scene might go a bit deeper than that. "You know, in 1967 it wasn't such a big question: Are the Beatles genuine? Are they corny? Are they phony? They just were genuine, even if they were trying to sell records . . . But 50 years of rock & roll has made the genre so stylized, so entrenched and so much a business that nowadays the people who are just fucking fed up with all of that preprocessed, and sort of pasteurized, fake, meaningless vibe of so much commercial music just tend to gravitate toward punk rock. Elliott has the kind of personality to be disgusted by the whole idea of the music business. But he also just happens to have the kind of talent of a great, great songwriter, like a John Lennon or a Randy Newman. But because of this situation, because he couldn't have just instantly gone, 'Okay, I'm a songwriter, I'm going to try to write some hits and get a deal' and stuff like that, what â choice was there for somebody who realizes how phony the whole thing is but to play punk rock and only discover that it's okay to be a real songwriter using whatever means you want later on?"
Smith ended up on Moon's label just as he was hitting his musical stride and a personal rough patch. Outside of the work of Lou Reed, Smith's self-titled second album -- his first for Kill Rock Stars -- contains some of pop music's deepest, most tender explorations of drugs as a lifestyle, as a crutch and as a metaphor for love. A clear exposition of Smith's world-view at the time -- a kind of bittersweet, white-trash existentialism -- it has continued to define his public profile. On the album, Smith's voice is a soft, wounded lilt. The songs do not mince words. Titles include "Needle in the Hay," "The White Lady Loves You More" and "St. Ides Heaven." The mood is brought home by the album's cover. It's a photograph blown out into negative and positive space that pictures two figures jumping off a building. One is prone and in free fall, the other seems prepared to cannonball into the earth. Both seem to be sinking quite joyfully into the void.
Soon after the album's release, the void transformed into untrammeled opportunity. In the midst of recording what was supposed to be its major-label debut, Smith's band, Heatmiser, split, but the 1997 release of his second KRS album, either/or, garnered exponentially more attention than the last, enough that he was one of the first signings to the newly formed DreamWorks Records, part of the entertainment company founded by David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Smith was in the process of recording his DreamWorks debut when six of his songs were selected by friend and fellow Portland resident Gus Van Sant for his film Good Will Hunting.
The beginning of 1998 offered the most indelible image of Smith yet, performing during the Oscar telecast, encased in a white tux. It was a bit incongruous, yes, but the way the moment unfolded couldn't have been more appropriate. As he began to sing, it was as if he were asking himself:
Do you miss me
Like you say you do?
Speaking so plainly compared to the divas who surrounded him, his words encapsulated what only a guy like Smith would think at a moment that so clearly signified success.
"Miss Misery" pulled the same trick Smith did on that first album, only on a far grander level, revealing the fine line between a taunt and a self-exhortation. But then again, maybe it was just a question: Smith wondering if he could maybe stop hurting now after all. You couldn't be sure of anything, even the song's title, which might be a coded woman's name but could just as easily reveal the narrator's upset at being denied his share of anguish.
As the year wore on, that moment made progressively more sense, and in retrospect it seems like just one tiny step in the kind of inevitable ascent we like our stars to go through. It was a bit like Ricky Martin's post-Grammy explosion in '99, only on a smaller scale, with more reverential fans and without the tinny aftertaste that usually follows such pop coronations. For the rapidly declining indie-rock scene, Smith was the chosen one. Later in the year, Smith released XO. It sold strong for a cult artist -- 150,000 copies -- and Smith capped this cycle by topping the well-respected critics' polls in Spin and The Village Voice.
OF COURSE, THIS WAS WHERE THINGS SPIRALED terribly out of control for a while. Perhaps because Smith is not exactly the kind of perky, quick-talking personality the press is used to, the media fixated on his less than simple outlook on life. Reports surfaced that Slim Moon -- whose personal relationship with Smith is currently strained to nonexistent -- led an intervention to head off Smith's drinking.
When asked, in retrospect, what he thinks about his brush with, like, serious fame, Smith takes the interesting tack of denying that he's a public figure. "I guess some people think of me that way, but that's just their opinion. I can't think that way. Because what I'm doing is a sonic thing that has no real face. It's a sound. And that's 99 percent of what it is. To sell records, people have to circulate pictures of themselves, but if I felt like a public figure, that would just get in my way.
"I think that a certain level of constant attention makes people very crazy in a way," he continues. "Then they act different than normal people, and then that behavior gets interpreted as some indication that they are different than normal people. And then you have to start acting that way so you don't disappoint the expectation. I don't buy into this, but fame is equated with some sort of superhumanness, and it's bad. It's not that you have to be different from everybody else to be good at something. If you feel really different from everybody else, well, there's a lot of people in the mental hospital who feel really different, you know?
"I now have mass defenses against really remembering what anybody actually tells me," he says. "You're supposed to let compliments in because they're good, whereas you're supposed to leave criticism out because it's bad, but I've found that if either one of them goes in, it invites the other one, so I generally keep both of them out, and I constantly forget that people actually listen to my records, or some people do anyway."
At the height of all his Hollywood activities, Smith moved from Brooklyn, where he lived after Heatmiser broke up, to Silver Lake, which has shaped itself into an outpost of sorts for various post-indie and alternative-rock musicians, producers and managers, including Margaret Mittleman, Smith's longtime manager, and her husband, Rob Schnapf, who's produced Smith's last three albums with his partner, Tom Rothrock.
A short walk from Mittleman's home, Luke Wood, one of the A&R executives at DreamWorks who signed Smith, provides a map of the neighborhood. "Mike D from the Beastie Boys lives across the street two houses down. Beck's up the street. Lou Barlow [from Sebadoh and the Folk Implosion] is around the corner," Wood says. "At first it seemed so bogus. I could imagine people saying, 'Why are they doing that? Why are they living in L.A.?' But when Elliott was here doing demos in my house, it began to make sense, because he lives so close to everyone. He's happy here, he's productive, and there's great studios. It's the perfect neighborhood."
Smith seems to have taken to the change of scene. The first afternoon of interviews with him wraps up with a couple rounds of croquet in Mittleman's back yard, evidently manicured for various lawn sports. As Smith gets to a quick start with a couple well-placed shots and a few strategic roquets (Oxford English: "Strike [another player's ball] with one's own"), he explains his poise on the field. "Croquet's a big white-trash status symbol," he says. "Back in Dallas, you'd buy the croquet set right after you were set up with the aboveground pool."
He insists that he hasn't actually played the game that much, neither back when he lived in Dallas nor among the alt-rock quasi-suburban bliss of Silver Lake, but there's no question that he seems pretty damn happy amidst the mallets and wickets.
"WHAT I USED TO BE WILL PASS AWAY," Smith sings on his new album's first single. As the voices swell, he continues, "And then you'll see/That all I want now is happiness for you and me." The cover of the single is a thumbs-up on a field of sunshine yellow. It's titled "Happiness," and Smith seems primed for it.
But are the suburbs and the pop marketplace ready for him? Smith still writes all of his own songs, plays most everything on his albums, and the result sounds a little like folk music and a little like rock & roll. If you're counting, that is several strikes against him. Above all, let's remember that 150,000 sales is grounds for getting dropped from most major labels these days.
For their part, those at DreamWorks believe we might still care for songcraft, and though historical credentials are suspect in the world of pop, those running the label have some credibility. In charge are Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker, the duo responsible for the singer-songwriter revolution that carried Warner Bros. Records to the top in the '70s and '80s, and a duo whose exit from the label coincided with its decline in market share.
"We're trying to expose the music however we can expose it with the notion that at some point the audience will catch up," says Waronker, who, along with Wood, signed Smith. "It's not difficult to listen to Elliott Smith. It's not abrasive music. It's not a thing that people have to be fearful of. It's beautiful and it's complex, and it's all the good things that music should be . . . We just want to allow it to be what it is, and we want people to hear it. And once that happens, all sorts of great stuff happens."
Wood shares Waronker's hopes, and thinks that Smith, too, hopes for greater success. "Elliott wants to reach people. He wants to play to more people. He wants to sell more records. He isn't insular in terms of his community. He doesn't want to be a cult artist who in 15 years gets acclaim retroactively. He doesn't want to be like Jonathan Richman, where 20 years down the line some person hears his records and says to a friend, 'Wow, the Modern Lovers were great. Have you â ever heard this?' He wants people to be exposed to what he does while he's active. He wants to be able to participate."
Reflecting on the marketplace and cultural tenor that have made people label his music as dour, Smith is slightly less sanguine about his chances. "People will always compare what you're doing to what is popular at the moment, and right now, almost anything that's not like a sports metal song or a boy band, or whatever the three or four kinds of songs on the radio are now, is going to get people going, 'Ohhh, that's weird.' It's like the mid-'50s, when there were all these sort of happy teenybopper guys, like Pat Boone. Anything that wasn't that way was going to be darker than that."
So the question is: Will Figure 8 be the album that brings Smith's kind of darkness to light? Like the emotional depths he probes as a songwriter, the answer is uncertain. There's still that something. But where on earlier albums that something was what you could hear of the vocals through the hiss and pop of a basement 8-track, now, recording in considerably less dicey situations -- London's Abbey Road, Hollywood's Capitol and a handful of other L.A. locations -- Smith is able to forge his eerie vocal intimacy one moment and, in the next, double his voice, quadruple it and double it again, building up small symphonies of harmony and interwoven melody, yet leaving room for keyboards, chamberlains, string sections and finger-picked guitars traced over chords. The songs have the builds and breakdowns of a great old-fashioned megalomaniacal rock record; it's dramatic and bathetic, loud and soft, anonymous and particular, all at once.
Another question: Is Smith that artist singer-songwriters everywhere have been waiting for? Again, he's got something -- a softness you want to protect wrapped in a cynicism that doesn't really need you. "He might be too shy, though," demurs Slim Moon. "And when was the last time we had a shy male solo artist? For a male solo artist to be successful there has to be a certain level of identification, and if the person is just a big mystery . . . Elliott certainly has the personality, but I think he might not be willing to access those powers."
And most pressing of all, is Smith simple enough to be, like, a star? "Lyrically, I don't know. I never think of them as being particularly dark," Smith says, musing on the ultimate fate of his songs. "I just think of them as being real. I look for songs that are sort of happy and sad at the same time, that have conflicting feelings coexisting. I think there should be more words that represent that kind of combination. Melancholy is the only one that people really use, and that one has a huge stigma. It's essentially used to mean dark, when I think what it's actually supposed to mean is that combination.
"What's the point in a one-dimensional song?" he asks. "There's gotta be a certain amount of darkness so the happy parts pop out. It's like a bright color. It won't look so bright surrounded only by other bright colors. It would just sort of be hard on the eye."
As Smith explains the title to his new album, it becomes apparent that whatever happens, he actually will be quite all right: "I like the idea of a twisted circle that represents some sort of interior pursuit that actually kind of leads nowhere, but is constantly going somewhere but not actually getting anywhere in particular."
And, yeah, that really is how it works.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.