Ballad of Big Nothing

An Elegy for Elliott Smith, 1969-2003

There was a time when the stakes were simple: It was me and Elliott Smith against the world. In the summer of 1997, I worked a miserable job in a tiny community in upstate New York. My boss commissioned the only bar in town to cart his underage employees off in a meat truck after hours to blow our $5.00-a-day salaries on Christian Brothers brandy just to help us forget how unhappy we were. Every night, I stood in the back of that truck with my Walkman, holding onto a hook where a pig carcass had hung that morning, listening to Elliott Smith sing. "Waking you up to close the bar/The street's wet, you can tell by the sound of the cars/The bartender's singing 'Clementine'/While he's turning around the open sign."

There was something hopeful about the words, as if Smith knew that we'd all end up drinking too much and getting sick and waking up to the same 9-to-5 grind, but if he warned us that closing time was coming, we'd make sure that anything would be possible in the time before last call.

On October 21, there were still 14 hours left before the bartenders locked up when Elliott Smith's live-in girlfriend found his body in the kitchen of their Los Angeles apartment. He had stabbed himself in the chest with a knife. When I read the news, I thought of the last words to Smith's "Clementine": "Anything to pass the time/Keep that song out of your mind/Oh my darlin' oh my darlin'/Oh my darlin' Clementine/Dreadful sorry Clementine." He'd omitted a line from the old standard. Now those missing lyrics--you are lost and gone forever--speak of the one thing Elliott Smith did in his life that everyone will remember.

"Clementine" was one of the only things that got me through the summer of '97. The line about the wet streets made me homesick for Portland, Oregon, the rainy corner of the country where Smith and I both grew up. Some say that Portland is a city that was famous for having an underdog songwriter, but I think that Elliott Smith was an underdog songwriter who was famous for having a city. On his first two albums, Roman Candle and a self-titled release, you can hear the sound of his hometown: the Oldsmobiles creeping down Condor Avenue, junkies' sneakers slapping the pavement just past Powell Blvd., Smith himself in the Washington Park rose gardens, shouting at the spinning sky. Each song is a street map of sleepy convenience stores, damp train stations, broken photo booths; the lyrics heavy with the romantic industrialism of the Northwest, where cities look like old factory towns that were dropped from airplanes and somehow landed in a forest.

Smith eventually moved to New York and then on to L.A., but long after he was gone, you could judge how close you were to Portland's Saturday Market by how many street musicians were playing his songs. The substance-abuse ballads were most popular: "Needle in the Hay," "St. Ides Heaven," "The White Lady Loves You More." Smith always said that you needed sad songs in order to make happiness matter, and maybe that's why his more optimistic tracks ("Say Yes," "Angeles," his cover of Big Star's "Thirteen") felt like a sonic rendition of an Edward Hopper painting, capturing the beauty of a lightbulb glowing through the shadows of an empty lot. But nobody ever played the happy songs. I never heard "Clementine."

 

In the early '90s, no one would have believed that this awkward rocker kid would pick up an acoustic guitar and become the poet laureate of Rose City. At the time, major labels were scouring the Northwest to find the next Nirvana, and the term "singer-songwriter" simply meant that you sang and wrote songs that you hoped would get you a Sub Pop contract. Grunge and punk groups like Crackerbash, Pond, and Team Dresch ran the local music scene, and Everclear had just reached the point of true popularity: Everyone in town hated them.

Smith made some noise in the hardcore band Heatmiser (Sam Coomes, bassist on Heatmiser's Mic City Sons, will play in town this week with his current band Quasi, which might offer Portland transplants a kind of memorial), but he was known for retreating backstage after concerts to play his guitar on his own. When Roman Candle, his first solo album, debuted in 1994, it was a revelation: This was a self-professed heroin addict whose own band and music scene was mired in the sludgy sound of Hüsker Dü--yet here he was, strumming his guitar and singing softly about the moon.

In retrospect, that transition makes sense: The January/February 2001 issue of Magnet recalled Smith telling an interviewer that when you've grown up around a lot of yelling and screaming, the last thing you want to do is be in a band where everyone is yelling and screaming. Smith rarely talked about his past, but with his pock-marked skin, deep-set frown lines, and eyes that naturally looked as if they were rimmed with black makeup, he had hard luck written all over his face. It was almost shocking when a fragile, champagne-glass voice tumbled out of that mug.

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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