With some very interesting things being done and posted on the tenth anniversary of Elliott’s passing, I thought I’d dig up what I wrote the day that I heard the news. I put it up on my band’s website the day after and haven’t seen it since (thanks, Archive.org!). I usually cringe reading things I wrote that long ago but I’ll try not to play editor much. Not sure where I got those photos ten years ago but feel free to let me know if you can help give credit where credit is due.
LAST WALTZ (#3)
Adam’s memories of Elliott Smith
I’m getting over bronchitis. I was about to go to work for the first time in 5 days when I heard the news. Luckily, I was sitting down. Was it a surprise? Not really. He’d looked like death for years, sang the saddest songs ever and canceling shows because of “health reasons” didn’t leave much to the imagination anymore. It’d been going on for so many years and he’d been so out of the spotlight, I’d almost forgotten about him. Almost begun not to care. Kurt Cobain had NOTHING on Elliott when it came to how obvious it was that he didn’t want to be a big rockstar and how hard a time he was dealing with it. “Everybody wants me to ride into the sun but I ain’t gonna go down.”
My introduction to Elliott was one of the saddest moments of my life. He’d been recommended to me by a lot of friends and he was close with many of my favorite LA singers but I’d never gotten around to checking him out. On the night of the Oscars in 1998, my girlfriend, Summer, was living her last days, suffering from kidney cancer and a terrible headache while a biker-neighbor across the alley that looked like he was born with a shotgun by his side was working a powersaw during primetime. We were both beyond miserable but cried tears of joy watching Elliott perform “Miss Misery” and then take a bow hand in hand with Celine Dion. It was the strangest sight but it seemed like such a huge victory for our little world. Of course, it put him into a place that he was never meant to be. With his talent, he DESERVED to be far more well-known, but this man was just not equipped to live that life. Didn’t seem to want it remotely.
It was only a few weeks later that Summer passed away and almost all music sounded awful or just reminded me too much… I decided to rent a movie one night to try to forget a little, thought of Elliott and grabbed Good Will Hunting, which I’d never bothered to see. I’ll never forget standing on my couch, screaming at the TV, “WHY THE FUCK DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME WHAT THIS WAS ABOUT?!?!” Ok, maybe Robin Williams’ character (a man who can’t get over his wife dying of cancer) wasn’t the main focus of the movie but NO ONE told me to avoid it!? It reminded me how a few people recommended that I rent Titanic while Summer was sick, which made it all the more strange to see Elliott standing up there with Celine that night. The movie wrecked me but it also introduced me to other great Elliott songs.
I went out and bought Either/Or and the Good Will Hunting soundtrack right away and had all of his albums soon thereafter. I was always so happy that I’m so bad at remembering lyrics because I could enjoy his words over and over. It helped that he wrote hopelessly catchy melodies but rarely repeated choruses. I’d never really wanted to play albums repeatedly before this. I couldn’t stop listening to the point that I almost listened to nothing else for months. Then XO came out. The Beatles influence was more pronounced, the arrangements were much more lush and the songs were AMAZING. I remember visiting San Francisco and spending a rainy day listening to it on headphones but it was so hard to concentrate on anything but the piano riff from “Waltz 2” that I had to keep going back to listen to it. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It might be the prettiest thing ever written and it’s so damn SIMPLE. A few weeks later, I was going through withdrawls in Seattle without any Elliott to listen to and feeling the most amazing wave of calmness come over me when I walked into a thrift store and XO was playing.
As somber as a lot of the songs were, there was a new melodic pop sheen that added more hope to the mix that was really comforting at a time that I really needed it. When he came to San Diego in October 1998 at Brick By Brick, I decided to write him a letter thanking him for getting me through my worst days. I figured I’d just give it to someone to give to him or just hand it to him because I didn’t think I’d even be able to talk without losing it but he was so incredibly nice that I ended up being able to tell him most of what I’d written. I mentioned the charity record I was doing and he actually told me I should contact his label about using one of his songs. We talked a little about Big Star (he’d heard me yell out for “13” amidst a million requests and played it that night) and I actually walked away smiling. I went online today and read about a ton of really great fan exchanges that people wrote about. Just reassures me that deep down, he was a very nice guy.
The next time I saw him a few months later was amazing but a bit hard to watch at the same time. It was a last minute solo show at the Troubadour up in Los Angeles. I’d always wanted to see him play by himself and me & a friend lucked out with tickets. The show was completely packed but you could hear a pin drop while he played. To see and hear the fragility of those songs performed was unreal. The response after each song was like Beatlemania. People yelled out for all kinds of things in between songs and he just didn’t know what to say. He looked so scared and sad at the center of it all, playing a beat-up acoustic guitar on a folding chair. I wondered if I was the only one that was worried for him.
If that made me worried, the next time I saw him flat-out SCARED me. 15,000 screaming fans doing the wave before he came onstage at the fairly full Key Arena at Seattle’s Bumbershoot (holds 17,000 people). I almost left before he came out. This was more than a case of someone bitching about their favorite band getting too big. In a lot of ways, I couldn’t be happier that there was somewhere I could go where this many people wanted to listen to him. All I could see was a very fragile guy being forced out to rock in front of the masses. He was great but it just didn’t work and drunk idiots around me made me worry for his sanity, not mine. I almost wanted him to retire to avoid it all. I think it’d be fun as hell to play for that many people but I was worried the whole thing might scare him to death.
He put out one last amazing record, Figure 8, and finally came back to San Diego to play. I’ve never seen so many friends at one show. We were all excited and planned to watch the new Elliott short film “Strange Parallel” afterwards. After the show, we weren’t really up for it. He’d looked pretty bad and kept apologizing for forgetting words and chords. A few of us went back to a nearby friend’s but even the beautiful rendition of “Waltz 2” that he did on an acoustic guitar that he literally digs out of the ground in the film wasn’t enough to erase the memory of the night.
I wondered what his future would be. It seemed predictable that he’d only get worse. Every time I saw him in a magazine, he looked more gaunt and tragic. Talking about his drug use was a matter of fact instead of conjecture with fans and people who knew him. It was nice to hear that he was working on new material and had done a brilliant LA show (covering Oasis’ “Supersonic” even), but then he cancelled a San Diego show due to “health reasons”. It was rescheduled and those who’d never seen him before thought it was great but most longtime fans said it was depressing to see. I needed a pick me up that night so I chose to go see Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s instead. I’d seen him share a stage with Elliott, Jon Brion and Fiona Apple one night at Elliott’s favorite LA club, Largo. There hadn’t really been any planned collaborating that night and everyone, including Rhett, was surprised to see Elliott whip out a harmonica and start playing on Rhett’s brand new song, “Rollerskate Skinny”. Of course, it was fantastic.
Some of my friends didn’t know I was so close to his music. I guess it’s been awhile since he was on my mind so much. It reminds me of how mad I’d get every time I referred to him as my favorite singer and people would roll their eyes because they were sure I’d said it about countless others. I’d never been attracted to solo singer/songwriter types but the man was simply a genius, playing almost all of the instruments himself and going far beyond his last record with each one he put out. I couldn’t wait to see what he would do next.
His next move I could’ve done without but, again, it’s no huge surprise to anyone who knows of him. The way he did it is shocking but I can’t pretend to know what state of mind he was in when he did it. Probably fueled by any number of substances but DEFINITELY not himself. Would he have been too sad about himself to go on living even if he hadn’t gone through “a bout of overexposure”? Quite possibly. I can’t begin to understand it. In some ways, I’m glad it’s over even though I was never close enough to him to pretend that I was constantly worrying about it. Some people’s lives become so sad that they really feel better off without life. I’m sure Elliott knew how much he meant to so many people but the man who wrote the beautiful song “Happiness” was singing about something he couldn’t find. It’s selfish, sad but totally understandable. I don’t judge him. I’m just sad that his life was so sad and hope he’s happy now.
Then again, without his sadness, would we love his music so much? Or Nick Drake’s? Or Morrissey? Or, um…Deborah Gibson? But seriously, that’s part of what made his music such a guilty pleasure. I’ve been listening nonstop for almost six hours. It’s bringing me the same comfort it did years ago.
“Help me kill my time/
’cause I’ll never be fine.”
(A.G. October 22, 2003)
LAST WALTZ #3 by Rookie Card
I wrote this song shortly after, trying to use some of the things he’d taught me without actually sounding like him. I could not figure out what song the middle section reminded me of and it’s driven me crazy ever since. Out of nowhere, a few weeks ago, it hit me: the end of “Breathless” by Adorable. I wish I hadn’t made the Bon Jovi reference but I still like how it came out all these years later.
I sure like your untitled songs.
That’s sure one way to not get it wrong.
Shot through the heart & you’re to blame.
You should call all of your songs “No Name”.
Repeating yourself just might bore us.
‘Specially in the chorus.
What are you wearing to the Oscars this year?
You look an angel in white, my dear.
Woe is you singin’ your favorite ditties.
“Don’t Fear The Reaper” & “Isn’t It A Pity”?
Come over here, you big lug
I don’t want your fucking hug
You cut the power on me and yourself.
It came back on the clocks all flashed 12 12 12 12
Now everything here just screams your name.
I wish that it could be quiet again.
This is the last waltz of the year.
These things happen in 3’s so I hear.
Sorry you wanted to leave so fast.
This waltz is the last.