Ballad of Big Nothing

An Elegy for Elliott Smith, 1969-2003

Though the Beatles penned "Blackbird" as a racial allegory, it tells a story about Smith as well--too hard-edged to be in the Top 40, too soft-spoken to be a rock star, he was a dark horse waiting for his moment to come. And when it finally came in 1998, with his Oscar nomination for the Good Will Hunting song "Miss Misery," Smith appeared on the Academy Awards looking like he was just some dude in a scruffy white suit and a T-shirt who accidentally wandered onstage before hundreds of multi-million-dollar celebrities. You couldn't help but root for him. And he couldn't help but lose.

No two words have appeared more frequently in articles about Smith than "beautiful loser." In his lyrics, he's like Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's On the Road, wandering solo through alleys and hotels, his freedom stemming from the fact that no one else cares what he does. At times, Smith even played up his own outsider status as a tragic joke: On his fourth album, XO, the penultimate track, "Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands," is followed by the closer, "I Didn't Understand."

The more Elliott Smith wrote about losing money at the racetracks or missing the F train, the more he became an idol for a generation of kids who grew up fearing that all epicritic artists ended up like Kurt Cobain. Now he's confirmed their worst expectations. The knife wounds in his chest almost feel like they were prophesized, as if Smith was swallowed up by the language of a pop song, his legend suspended in a literal manifestation of what it means to be a sad man with a broken heart.

"It's tragic and ironic that the times when I least felt like living, I've always turned to his music," Twin Cities singer Jeaneen Gauthier recently wrote about Smith on her band's website. I know what she means. In Smith's songs, there was always a sense that you didn't have to strive for something better--carrying on was enough.

And now it's not anymore.

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