Elliott Smith
San Francisco, CA
Dec. 17, 2001

All I know for sure after seeing Elliott Smith is that Elliott Smith is a hard guy to figure out.

First, the good side of the story. Smith played a sold-out, solo-acoustic show at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall that had San Francisco’s main ticket-trading Web site flooded with requests. He debuted an album’s worth of new songs (a dozen, by my count), none of which was bad, most of which were pretty good and one (dubbed “Shooting Star,” according to various Smith Web sites) that was as good as anything he’s ever done, prompting someone in the audience to shout out, “That was a beautiful song, Elliott!”

Now, the bad side of the story. Smith looked worse than I’ve ever seen him look. When he appeared onstage, the friend sitting next to me blurted out, “Oh my God, is that him?!” His hair was so long it almost completely obscured his face and dangled all the way to his lap when he sat down to play. While the length itself wasn’t worrisome, his hair showed no signs of having been washed recently. His clothes were torn, and not in a hipster way. I’ve seen street people who looked better than Smith looked tonight.

Worse than his appearance, however, was his almost complete inability to remember any of his older songs (“Needle In The Hay” being the sole exception). He started and quit so many older songs that I lost count; it was at least a handful. A few times, he mumbled it had been too long since he’d played these songs, but I’d seen him just more than a year ago, playing all kinds of older songs. The most telling moment came when he tried to sing “Say Yes.” After failing for a second and third time to get through the first verse, the crowd began prompting him with his own lyrics, eventually just singing the song aloud as he played along on his guitar. He left the stage after this, but he returned to play a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Friends” before struggling through “Independence Day” and “Between The Bars.”

With any other performer, the combination of run-down appearance and total lack of familiarity with his own material would make me think, “Wow, there’s something really wrong with that person.” But because it’s Elliott Smith, I’m not sure that’s the case. Even in the best of times, he’s so reclusive and odd that I think maybe his ragged looks and strange forgetfulness are just the way he is. Maybe, to borrow a Smith lyric, there’s nothing wrong with him that wasn’t wrong before. All I know for sure after seeing the show is Elliott Smith is a hard guy to figure out.

- Peter Stoltz