This past weekend I was in Portland, Oregon – aka the City of Roses. Portland is a great place that channels the vibe of other cities at opposing ends of the I-5 corridor here on the West Coast – the Beat sensibility of San Francisco and caffeine-induced Grunge introspection of Seattle. Even though it is a city that sports one of the greatest independent used bookstores on the planet – Powell’s – and a wonderful riverwalk, Portland had been the lesser cousin of major cities on the West Coast. That is, until it found its hero and martyr. Today’s cities become personalities when they lift up an icon that both embodies what the collective urban culture is yearning for and challenging the city’s future along the way. An artist who, for a brief time, embodies the unique urban history of a place, while adding chapters to that history. New York had Lou Reed in the 1960s, Detroit had Iggy Pop in the early 1970s, Seattle had Kurt Cobain in the early 1990s. And Portland has Elliott Smith.
When most people think back on Elliott Smith’s career, three words come to mind: Good Will Hunting. It was through Gus Van Sant (a fellow Portland auteur and indie darling) featuring his fractured and tortured songs in his 1997 film about a genius trapped in the life of an abused emotionally fragile Peter Pan starring then-unknown Harvard Grads Matt Damon and Ben Affleck that Elliott Smith went from Portland indie scene to standing on stage at the Oscars next to Celine Dion (define ‘evil’ = Celine got the Oscar). In many ways, if the movie had been focusing on a musical genius rather than a mathmatical wunderkind, we would have been watching “Good Elliott Smith” on the screen. Elliott Smith’s music came at a time when the Pacific Northwest grunge mania was finally dying out and his brand of ‘miniaturized psychodrama’ seemed the ideal balm for a regional music scene that felt as if it had just been raped. In a retrospective article of Elliott’s career, Portland writer John Graham talks about Elliott’s connection to his sense of place as a Portland musician:
“Elliott’s early solo albums are like cheat sheets for comprehending every Rose City songwriter who ever wrestled with a four-track recorder in his or her bedroom: Fighting the guitar for that elusive transitional bridge chord. Trying to decipher lyrics scribbled onto a bar napkin at last call. Whispering into the microphone so as not to wake the housemates. It was these confessional tales, on Roman Candle, Elliott Smith and Either/Or, which made him such an adored figure around town. There was something about the solo albums–so private and yet strident at the same time–that hit some kind of Portland indie-rock G-spot. Witnessing the odd symbiosis that occurred between Elliott and his audiences during those early shows was like being privy to a cerebral orgy.”
Elliott Smith’s music is the sound of Portland – lyrics like “They’re waking you up to close the bar/ The street’s wet, you can tell by the sound of the cars” (from the song “Clementine”) could describe Glasgow’s Ashton Lane at 3am, but it’s a scene that is deeply grounded in almost every rain- and beer-soaked curb that a Portlander can identify. In “Condor Avenue,” a song Smith wrote at age 17 that later became the centerpiece for 1994’s Roman Candle, he writes like James Joyce describing Dublin in Ullysses: “She took the Oldsmobile out past Condor Avenue/ The fairground’s lit / A drunk man sits by the gate she’s driving though/ Got his hat tipped back bottle back in between his teeth/ Looks like he’s buried in sand at the beach.” Same goes for “Needle in the Hay” from his self-titled 1995 album: “Now on the bus/ Nearly touching this dirty retreat/ Falling out 6th and Powell/ A dead sweat in my teeth…..” I saw Elliott Smith in Glasgow at a bar called The Garage. It was one of the hottest days I ever spend in Scotland, probably 80 degrees in the crowded bar. Smith had a wool cap on and my wife, 7 months pregnant with our daughter Clara, was wondering how loud was too loud. It was a great show, but he looked like one of J.M. Barrie’s Lost Boys – scanning the crowd during each song, looking for the exit… or maybe the entrance to somewhere else.
Question: What happens to music that strives for such a global reach that it loses its sense of humanity found primarily in the particular? Or better yet, to a musician? The rest of the story regarding Elliott Smith following that Oscar night performance next to Celine Dion is tragically basic: gets major contract with Dreamworks, releases a couple of great albums – XO, Figure 8 – moves his base to LA, and stabs himself to death twice in the heart in 2003. I am sure there were psychotic issues surrounding the depression he faced, but I continue to wonder – maybe, akin to Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, those stabs to the chest were the clicking of the metaphyscial ruby heels and those whispered lo-fi lyrics were really saying “there’s no place like home.” We won’t know. But when I do listen to Elliott Smith now, I think about going home – because that seems to be where Elliott wanted to go all along.
If you interested in hearing some downloads of Elliott Smith’s back catalogue, there is a great fan site here.
Play quiet music loud…