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Recorded Music: Elliott Smith, 1969-2003


When I was a freshman in high school, the guy who sat behind me in biology class told me one day that his brother was in a band. They were called Stranger Than Fiction, they were all students at my high school, and they had a few albums out. I was enchanted by the idea that I could get music made by people I knew, so I hounded Josh until he brought in copies of their first two tapes, and then hounded him some more until he brought in their new, final album (of which I only have a truly terrible dub).

Even looking back, they were pretty good, and were far more sophisticated than a high school band has any right to be (although they were pretty much about as pretentious as a group of people who called themselves “pseudo-intellectuals” and published a zine named Son of Death Quarterly would be). There was some Beatles in their songs, some Joe Jackson, some quiet, haunted folky stuff, and a walloping large dose of Steely Dan. I loved them unconditionally and without reserve, even forcing my parents to listen to them (they said Stranger Than Fiction “weren’t bad”, which is parent-code for “slightly better than godawful”).

Garrick Duckler, the bassist and very occasional singer for the band (his singing voice at that point could charitably be called “amusing”) was in my high school’s Russian Club, and one day near the end of the school year the Russian Club had a picnic. Garrick brought his friends from the band, and in my shy, awkward way I sidled over to them and told them how much I appreciated their music. I don’t think they really knew what to do with fans, so it was awkward all around. Their main guitarist, Steve Smith, who I was slowly figuring out was the author of the aspects of their sound I liked best (the folky and Beatlesesque parts that weren’t completely overwhelmed by piano histrionics), wasn’t there that day, so I tracked him down and told him how much I liked what he did. He was even more awkward than the rest of the band, but I got a shy smile out of him and some mumbled thanks.


I pestered my classmate to find out what his brother and friends were up to musically, but they’d all gone their separate ways to school, and didn’t seem to be doing much. Nevertheless, later that year I was browsing the local tapes at a record store I have long since forgotten the name of, and came across some familiar faces. There were Garrick Duckler and Steve Smith (who was by then going by Elliott Stillwater) in an outfit called The Greenhouse. I bought the tape eagerly and had it in my Walkman almost immediately.

It was weird.

There were things I liked about the tape, but it was a more-or-less uncategorizable chunk of arty college rock, and while I listened to it often, it never caught on with me the way the Stranger Than Fiction albums had.

Sometime during the school year, Steve showed up at my high school, for reasons I can’t even guess at today. I tried to say hello to him, but he seemed intensely uncomfortable to be there and in a hurry to get out, which I understand a lot better now than I did then.


During my fourth year in college I had the good fortune to live in a dorm at the University of Montana with a truly nice guy (hi Dave!), but we just didn’t see eye to eye when it came to music. I was in the grips of an intense fixation with techno and jungle, and had very little patience for other stuff, especially stuff I hadn’t chosen to listen to myself. Dave, on the other hand, had broad tastes which were rooted in what those of us who lived in the Northwest would have called “grunge”, even though that particular version wouldn’t have been very recognizable to the hordes of Pearl Jam fans who found them through MTV.

One of the albums that Dave had that we both enjoyed was Heatmiser’s Dead Air, a quirky chunk of Portland post-punk that was almost overflowing with hooks and painfully stark explorations of how tough it is to come to grips with yourself. I don’t know how long it took, but I eventually realized that the “Elliott Smith” in the band was Elliott Stillwater was the Steven Smith I’d gone to high school with. It was like a key in a lock, and when Heatmiser’s Cop And Speeder came out later in 1994, I fell in love with it and listened to it all the time. It was about how hard it was to make it through the world, and as someone who had just moved in with his girlfriend and was approaching the end of school and a very uncertain future, it connected straight to my core. I think it even brought me to tears a couple of times. It’s still one of my favorite records from that era of Portland music-making, and I think that Portland had the most exciting music scene in the US at the time.


What a difference a year makes. Late 1995 found me with a job, without a girlfriend, and a thousand miles away from my rooted existence in Montana. My new life would have been perfect, but I’d just gotten booted out of the only long-term relationship I’d had and it really hurt. Right around then I got the first two solo Elliott Smith albums, and then and there Smith’s music found the central role it’s had in my life ever since then. Smith really understood loss and pain and sadness, and he’d been through things far worse than anything I’d even dreamed of, and he’d come out the other side. Even then, part of what appealed to me about his songs was the sense they left that even when you survive loss, you leave part of yourself behind, never to be recovered. It was comforting to hear such a disquieting truth coming from someone else. That such sadness was coupled with his bare-bones, Simon and Garfunkel-style folk guitar and wispy vocals made it all the more effective.


I was really excited that there was a new Elliott Smith album out, although I wasn’t sure how I felt about the more rock and roll aspects of either/or’s sound. It felt like a step backwards after the uncompromising purity of Smith’s first two albums, although it seems more likely that those records were raw because Smith couldn’t afford to produce them the way he wanted to. Regardless, either/or was an event, and Smith was touring to support it. I really wanted to see his show, but there was a party at a friend’s house that night, so I settled to going to an in-store performance at Aquarius, just Elliott and his guitar. Elliott looked terrible, like he’d been sleeping in the gutter for the previous three months, and he had a hard time meeting anyone’s eyes, but when he found his groove he sounded just as amazing as he did on record.

After the show, I found the courage to talk to him (he was a hero of mine, after all). He didn’t remember me from high school, and he was embarrassed that I still had and remembered his old Stranger Than Fiction tapes, which he begged me not to give to anyone else. He was clearly nervous to be at the focus of so much attention, but he was also deeply kind and appealingly shy. He was the kind of guy you wanted to hug and buy a meal for — he had the look of someone who needed to be protected. I remember thinking that he didn’t look like someone for whom fame would come easily, if at all.

(And not that it’s directly relevant, but at the party that night I got to know my next girlfriend, who’s still one of my closest friends. I’m not suggesting any kind of cause and effect, just showing the way that the way I think about love and Smith’s music are intertwined.)


A friend of mine at work was an even bigger fan of Smith than I was, and was also doing some design work for his unofficial web site (which, in time, became his official web site). She’d gotten an advance copy of Smith’s new album XO, which she loaned to me for a while and which hit me like a bomb. At the time, I was in the grips of a near-obsessive crush on another of my coworkers, which in time turned into a brief, intense relationship that melted down in a spectacular fashion. One of my first dates with this coworker was to go see Smith live, and I remember holding her hand (for the first time) and feeling like I was going to explode.

Everywhere I went that spring, I had an Elliott Smith CD in my CD player. I must have listened to “Between The Bars”, “Rose Parade”, and “St. Ides Heaven” a couple hundred times over the period of a month. Every time my scarily strong feelings would start to get out of control, I’d put on my headphones and let Smith’s morose, gentle loser ballads float me back down to Earth. They were a link to Portland (my home), a tie to my adolescence, and a quiet inner voice telling me that it was OK to be fucked up sometimes. I don’t know what I would have done without them.

I really don’t know what I would have done without them a few months later, when my too-brief relationship had evaporated into thin air and my only thought was to get the hell away from working side by side with my ex before I lost my mind. By the time XO had come out, it had to operate as psychic duct tape rather than balm, and as a result my feelings towards it are still somewhat ambiguous today. “Baby Britain’s” bouncy Britpop was so at odds with what I was feeling that every time it came on I just about started crying, but my connection to “Tomorrow Tomorrow” and “Waltz #1” was so deep and intense that I think it may have been the closest I ever came to understanding the narcotic rush of heroin. It made all the pain I was feeling seem so deep and pure that it almost didn’t feel wrong. Smith’s melodrama and my own were completely in sync, but when I saw him come back through San Francisco on tour that fall, my head was too broken and he was too lost in trying to make his sound rock that I just couldn’t connect to seeing him live. Even so, where he’d seemed surprisingly at ease and good-humored when I’d seen him in the spring, by fall he was as twitchy and uncomfortable inside his skin as I’d ever seen him.


I got over that particular disaster, eventually, somehow, and by the time Figure 8 came out, it just didn’t connect. Well, that’s not true; the first time I heard “Junk Bond Trader” I nearly fell over, because its melody had come straight out of an old Stranger Than Fiction song, and hearing it on Figure 8 was like suddenly encountering an old friend in an unexpected place. But as for the rest, Smith was finally making rock and roll, and it just didn’t feel the same to me. Worst of all, some of the sentiments in his lyrics, which had always seemed so direct before, were starting to seem like an affected sad-guy parody of themselves, like he couldn’t tell how he felt anymore. He’d been on the Oscars, he had an adoring fanbase, and he just wasn’t a mopey Portland / LA / NY indie rocker anymore — he was a celebrity. I was bummed, but I just figured that that he’d gotten outside his envelope and he was making music for somebody else now.


While hitching a ride home from a show with a guy I’d just met that night, I discovered that he’d gone to high school and college in Portland, and so the talk turned to the music scene of the time. Both of us know way too much about that stuff, so the conversation was veering all over the place as we dredge names out of storage that we hadn’t thought of in years. Eventually the conversation turned to Elliott Smith, and I was trotting out some of my favorite “hey I went to high school with that guy” stories when a mutual friend, who had been checking her voice mail, leaned forward into the front of the truck and said, “Hey guys, Elliott Smith died tonight. He committed suicide.”

It was a spooky moment, as synchronicities always are. It was hard to wrap my head around. It still is. As I’ve hinted here and there, I was always slightly amazed that Elliott had survived as long as he had, because he just didn’t seem to be well-suited to the world in which he found himself. His life had wronged him too many times for happiness to come easily, and it seemed like periodically all of the bullshit and pain he carried around with him engulfed him. So I sort of thought of him as a marked man.

Even still. That’s an abstraction, and suicide is about as cold and hard a reality as there is. I didn’t know Steven Smith all that well, but I did know him, and I love what he made. I miss knowing that he’s out there, writing songs in an effort to deal with his pain and loneliness and brokenness. There will never be another like him, and in a way that’s good, because his art came from a place that hurt him very badly, and his suffering, at least, is over. But, like I said, I wasn’t very close to him, and I’m hurt by his death. I can’t imagine what it was like for his girlfriend to discover him dead and bloody on their kitchen floor, and I can’t imagine what his other friends and ex-lovers and estranged family must be going through right now. I’ll miss him, and I’ll always love his music, but I wish he’d found the strength to pull himself out one more time, and I wish he’d lived long enough to create the happiness he deserved.


Thanks for sharing this! It's so sad that he still couldn't find happiness as he grew older.

Posted by:
Lisa on October 23, 2003 08:21 PM

What a lovely series of memories, well-phrased-

It triggers memories of Dharma Bums gigs in Salem and Portland, and of the innocence of the early scenes-

Thank you!

mr b

Posted by: mr b on October 23, 2003 08:46 PM

Willamette Week remembers Elliot Smith.

Posted by: locke on October 29, 2003 06:43 PM

Oddly enough, I know one of the authors of the Willamette Week piece, Zach Dundas, from Missoula. Of the people who were quoted in the article, I think Garrick Duckler's statements were the most perceptive and accurate, or at least jibe best with what I saw of Elliott. He wasn't a Kurt Cobain (and neither was Kurt, really), he was a depressed guy who never really figured out how to rise above his problems. This is a hard thing to say, but I think that if he could see all the hullabaloo that came in the wake of his death, he'd feel even more justified in what he did.

Posted by: forrest on October 31, 2003 01:53 AM

forrest - not sure if you read your comments for old posts, but if so, drop me a note. have a better copy of that last stranger than fiction tape (menagerie) i'd be happy to share.

like the writing.


Posted by: adam on October 25, 2004 02:39 PM
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