It’s strange sometimes, even when everything in life seems to be going exactly as planned, when one can even stop long enough and revel in something resembling happiness-the birth of a child, a job you love, witnessing the spiritual growth of some one close to you, great health, success, creative outpouring, accomplished goals, comfort- you still find joy in listening to really disheartened music. As if in your abrupt rush to profess victory and triumph, you may have missed something in the gloom.
When I was younger, my band of choice was Nine Inch Nails. I found comfort in Mr.Reznor’s self-deprecating pain. Many tortured nights I sat in dark rooms, a bottle of something filled with answers in hand, screaming into the void.
But we grow, we mature, and hopefully appreciate the fact that hating yourself is easier an activity when not done with so much zeal. One might even suggest doing it sober, in the light of a reading lamp, in front of a keyboard, and with a mind not prone to writer’s block. And the soundtrack, ladies and gentlemen, for this new, more mature brooder should always be Elliott Smith. I strongly believe that even as you live each day appreciating your swimming pool, the ever-growing attention span of your students or your wife’s growing belly that you should put on a few Elliot Smith songs every now and then and let your sadness take you to the places that you may have not visited in a while, but nonetheless need to stay in touch with.
I have been sober now for over seven months, and while by and large I think it is the best decision I have ever made- I have never felt better emotionally, physically or spiritually in my life- sometimes I get to reminiscing about the feeling of drinking all alone in a smoky room and listening to Elliott Smith songs. For those of you who may not be familiar with Mr. Smith, he was a singer/songwriter/guitarist/piano player who after a marginally successful career and a lifelong battle with alcoholism, depression, and drug abuse finally ended his life by stabbing himself in the chest with a knife.
A friend of mine first introduced me to Elliott Smith’s music in 1999 just before I left for Africa. I remember the night we drove to the store so he could buy the Good Will Hunting soundtrack because “some guy does all the songs and he is amazing.” I scoffed at the idea and refused to even listen to it (this is a bad habit I have since remedied- not listening to people when they suggest new music). I left for Mozambique, and for some reason I thought it would be okay to simply take about 5 cassette tapes of music for two years. Thank god that this same friend had made me two tapes: Elliott Smith’s Kill Rock Stars, X/O and Roman Candle.
Many a day was spent draining time in training, off to the side watching my peers wait out their various levels of shock and assimilation. As I scribbled lonesome poems in my journal, I listened to the prettiest voice I have ever heard whisper over a blend of finger-picked, strummed guitar chords and piano. The songs told stories of loss and desperation- misfits skirting the edges of the ordinary. Here was a soundtrack for everyone not fit to understand. Period. Life in these songs was an album filled with old photographs of people looking down, their eyes begging for you to look away, but still daring you to make contact.
Day after day, I listened to these confessions of vulnerability and obscured strength. The lyrics were more than poetry, more than prose. The music itself was soft and aggressive, like a character to be considered in each narrative. The melodies helped tie the days together, and suddenly two years had gone by.
Smith’s music, like Charles Bukowsi’s poetry, brings the listener down to the foundation of life, at the bottom with the depression, the feelings of inadequacy, and the pain. But from the underside of our emotional worlds, they both elucidate our next destination. There is nothing more dejected, and in turn nothing more hopeful, than an Elliot Smith song. He left us a substantial collection of amazing songs, ranging in subject matter and emotional landscapes.
Every now and again, I don my sullen cap and lose myself in his stories. I imagine myself- eyes barely open, a cigarette burning in an ashtray, a half bottle of Johnny Walker on the table, melting ice cubes, a guitar sleeping on the couch, and me- pen in hand dead set to prove that beauty comes in many shapes and sizes.
Before leaving New York, I saw him perform live at the North Six, a tiny bar in Williamsburg; he was sullen, mumbling and disconnected. This was months before his suicide. A girl yelled out, “We love you Elliott.” To which he answered, “What am I supposed to say to that?” Tell us you love us back, is what I wanted to hear him say. Listening to his music now, I realize that is what he has been saying his whole life.
My days are of drinking and glorifying my pain are gone, and for my wife’s sake I hope for good. But the emotional journeys that his songs afford me will always play a pivotal role in my day-to-day life. I recently came across a website that is filled with unreleased music by Elliott Smith. If you are a fan of his music, I suggest you investigate Elliott Smith B-Sides dot com and have a field day. If, however, you are new to his music and have been inspired to hear for yourself, I recommend you start with his self-titled album Elliott Smith , X/O , Roman Candle , and Figure 8.