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I didn’t know Elliott Smith. I knew a Steve Smith. He and I went to the same school in Duncanville, TX, a Dallas suburb. He had blonde hair, and a characterful, acne-scarred face, even as a thirteen year old. He was quiet, older kid, with a demeanor that implied intelligence and maturity. It’s possible he wasn’t mature for his age, but at the time I imagined he was. I liked and respected the guy, even though I didn’t know him that well. The fact that he was also a year older than mean 8th graderdidn’t hurt his image, either. That made him almost as intimidating as a teacher.
I wasn’t friends with Steven Paul Smith (who later changed his name to Elliott Smith). I was friends with his friends. I very briefly dated a girl he once dated. I wasn’t in a band with Elliott Smith, but I did play in rock bands with a few guys who, reportedly, played in Elliott’s first band. Pathetic joke: actually, I did play in one band with Elliott Smith: The Byrd Junior High Symphonic Band. He played clarinet; I played xylophone and snare drum. I was sometimes first chair; he was almost always first chair.
So from the beginning I knew Elliott was talented musically and apparently intelligent, perhaps in ways I didn’t understand. I remember that he didn’t smile much. But he also didn’t seem to be faking anger or making a show of his seriousness. Strangely, if my memory of him at that time reminds me of anyone else, it would be Kurt Cobain. Blonde angst.
Our mutual friends from those days would probably laugh at that comparison. I suppose I could have asked them, back in 1998 when I last spoke to them, what Elliott had been like years before. We were all at Elliott’s show the night he played Trees in Dallas. As opposed to his later, reportedly, shambolic performances, that night he was amazing. His singing was on, his guitar playing was on, he seemed to be in a good mood, sober, etc. All of us who knew him back when were beaming uncontrollably, probably looking like idiots to the man on stage. Elliott’s old friend Kevin Denbow was standing next to me, a few feet from the front of the stage enthusiastically singing every word to every song back at Elliott. I think Elliott later saidor maybe we imaginedthat it was very strange to see all those familiar faces from Junior High in the audience, only aged 15 years. After the show, one of the friends was brave enough to ask Elliott if he would want to talk to any of his old acquaintances. He said sure, and minutes later we were all backstage talking to the guy we once knew as Steve.
He said hello to everyone by name and claimed to remember me, which surprised me. Maybe he did: I was one of the tallest guys in band. What really surprised me, though, was how small he seemed. He was much shorter than I remembered, extremely small-boned and thin. His voice was practically a whisper. Was this the same 8th grader who seemed as intimidating as a teacher? If he got in lots of fights when he was younger I could understand why: he looked like an easy target.
At the time I didn’t know about his violent teenage years in Duncanville. Looking at a band photo taken of us a year before he moved to Oregon, I notice a distinct difference in our appearances. I look ridiculously happy, and I probably was. My childhood was ideal almost to a ridiculous degree. Steve looks more serious, even worn down. Again I don’t recall him smiling very much. But I never got the sense that he was either humorless or determined not to smile. He just seemed to be thinking hard about something. Or maybe he had matured and knew something I didn’t. Anyway, it’s obvious which one of us was going to grow up to be a tortured, original songwriter and which one of us was going to work in a cube and play drums in an Elvis Costello tribute band.
Backstage, we all sat around him with the same stupid grins as during the show. His good friends exchanged pleasantries with him. He seemed pleased and perhaps slightly embarrassed. During the show, I had been amazed at his intricate guitar work and, when it was my turn, I asked him where his unique style came from. It didn’t seem to fit in with the whole 90’s grunge/punk scene from which he had emerged. Elliott replied that ever since he was a kid he had really loved the Beatles and that he had acquired his style from playing along to their records. I pictured him playing along with “Julia” over and over again in his bedroom.
I also had read somewhere that he loved Russian literature, and the next time it was my turn to talk I asked him if he had read Master & Margarita, the literally fantastic novel by Bulgakov concerning Pontius Pilot and a talking cat. I told him that when I lived in Russia my literature professor told me that not only was it the greatest Russian novel ever writtenit was the greatest novel ever written, period. Elliott seemed very interested in it and wrote down the novel’s title. I wonder, did he ever read it? It would be nice to think that I helped turn him on to something positive, interesting, and creative, after all the great music and inspiration he had given us that night.
Speaking with him reminded me that once I had gone head-to-head with Elliott Smith, musically speaking. It was the Byrd Junior High Art Contest, open to all grades. I was a pretty good pianist, so I thought I might have a chance of winning. I wrote a piano piece that sounded like a runaway train in an avant-garde film. I still think it’s pretty good. I wrote it out on staff paper, and there were a lot of notes. I was sure to win.
But when the results were published, who wins but good ol’ Steve Smith. And he wins first place with…a love song. The music and lyrics are published in the school paper. I look at the sappy thing, unbelieving. How could Paul McCartney and Wings beat Arnold Schoenberg? I immediately question the intelligence and taste of the administration, and resign myself to a life of poverty and the highest artistic standards.
While talking to Elliott backstage, I decided to bring up this Junior High contest, wondering if he would remember it. He rolled his eyes and said yes. I told him that I thought I should have won and that I couldn’t believe he had beaten me with a ballad. Was the ballad that good? Elliott replied, no, it was horribleit was a love song written by an 8th grader, for God’s sake. I asked if anyone in the press ever found out about it. He said yes, there was a reporter who somehow got wind of the song and decided to drive down to Duncanville to interview Elliott’s mother about it. Elliott’s mother told the reporter that she had always been very proud of the song and said that she still had it somewhere. The reporter asked if he could borrow it and Elliott’s mother loaned it to the reporter, who then promptly published the piece of juvenilia in a newspaper article, much to Elliott’s embarrassment. Elliott told me after relating this that I probably should have won the contest, which made me feel better.
Or am I just making that up? I can’t remember. I’d like to think he said that, anyway.
I can’t remember who first told me about Steve changing his name. Supposedly, Elliott thought “Steve” sounded too much like a jock. I thought at the time that he changed it so he wouldn’t be confused with Journey’s drummer. But when I heard that Steve had changed his name to “Elliott,” I thought, “What is he now a poet? A Smiths fan? A wuss?” I wasn’t sure either name was going to work for him.
I also can’t remember who first told me that Steve/Elliott had released some albums. Maybe I already knew about the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, I don’t know. Anyway, I was interested, but didn’t expect much. I mean, 90% percent of all music is typical or mediocre, so what was the chance Steve’s/Elliott’s music would be any different?
Then one day I walked in a Borders book store and caught sight of the Elliott Smith name on a listening station CD. The album was called XO. I looked at the cover: pretty cool, subtly psychedelicbut who on the cover was Steve? I put on the headphones and sampled the first few tracks. Sounded like Nick Drake. After a few minutes I put the headphones down and walked away without taking a disc with me. But I had a smile on my face: local boy done good.
A few months later one of my co-workers who I traded CDs with asked if I liked Elliott Smith. All of a sudden I’m feeling like a schmuck, finding myself saying, “Yeah, I actually know him. We had a class together.” This co-worker loaned me XO and I got to hear the whole album this time. Wow. Just good, good, good!
But, for some reason, I still didn’t buy it.
A couple of years later, I decided to check out the new Wes Anderson flick, The Royal Tenebaums. The whole thing seemed a bit gimmicky. I wasn’t too impressed, but Gene Hackman was good. Then, midway through the film, came Luke Wilson’s mind-blowing suicide scene, silent but for the soundtrackan incredibly original, visceral song that matched the image perfectly. My God, I thought, what was that song? Who the hell was that? I immediately went to Borders and searched for the soundtrack. There on the CD was that name again, Elliott Smith, and the song “Needle in the Hay”.
This time I did buy the CD. And some time later I bought Either/Or, XO, and Figure 8. Most of it I liked, some of it I didn’t, but I was never in doubt that Elliott was one of the best songwriters around.
One day, years later, and during a time when I was dating a girl whose favorite artist was Elliott Smith, I started getting emails all at once from my Duncanville friends. Steve had killed himself. Sadly, I wasn’t that surprised, having read some recent articles and record company press releases all claiming that, yes, Elliott had been heavily addicted to drugs, but was “clean” now and back on track. That kind of official, corporate reassurance is never a good sign.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Since Elliott’s death I haven’t spoken with any of his Duncanville friends. And a year later, I’m not even sure what there is to say. He was their friend, really, and somehow I would feel uncomfortable bringing his name up, even now among them. I don’t feel I have much to offer them where Steve is concerned.
So why did I write this article? I’m not sure. It wasn’t to brag about once knowing Elliott Smith, despite how it might sound. It is strange to me, though, that as a kid I knew someone who became famous, who wrote songs that Ihypercritical as I amwould be proud to have written. He also showed me that somebody from Duncanville, TX of all places could make it in the unforgiving rock industry without a particularly pretty face and without any apparent compromises. He accomplished everything in music I’ve always dreamed about. But I’m also sure that I would never have traded my life for his, no matter how many great songs his violent teenage years in Duncanville inspired.
The rest of my thoughts on him are really just impressions, about how strong he seemed as a teenager, how vulnerable he seemed as an adult. Like his music, he, in person, was slightly mysterious to me. But I am proud to have known him and, like everyone else, feel extremely grateful for his music.