It's Elliott Smith season; the time between his birthday (August 6th) and the date of his passing (October 21.) There's a certain segment of fans that treat these 3 months as a time to reflect on his work. Retrospective think pieces will be written and XO vinyls will be dusted off, but you can see this most at the Figure 8 mural in Los Angeles. It's around these dates that there's an uptick of messages scrawled along its black, white and red lines. As if it were a holiday, some fans leave flowers or candles.
In the nearly 10 years since his passing, there's no doubting that he's remembered as an avatar of suffering through art. He's become indie's Kurt Cobain. Depending on your temperament, this is either the canonizing of a saint or the reduction of a rich and unknowable life.
I understand the ways it is problematic. Even in life, Smith seemed to resist the idea of being the sad, confessional artist that many of us channeled from his work. It didn't matter. As fans, we used the idea as a totem to explore our own troubles. Falling in love with the tragic story required assumptions on our part that were easy to make. It's even easier to characterize him these days. In death, there's no one to stop us from forming whatever romantic image we want.
But a lot of talented singer-songwriters have committed suicide since then, each with a similar knack for hitting right at the heart, like Mark Linkous and Vic Chestnutt. Neither have come close to the mythologizing that Smith's memory has gone through. Part of that is that Smith simply had a bigger spotlight. He was fresh off of a signature feature in GOOD WILL HUNTING, one that earned him a nomination and performance at the Oscars. FIGURE 8 was still on the mind and fans were just waiting for him to come back.
But another reason is that Smith's death cut so thoroughly that other artists were pulled to memorialize him in song. Culture is the conversation and impact surrounding art, and his friends made him part of the culture. Elliott Smith was going to leave a hole regardless, but it's these songs and more that helped people understand just how deep it was.
1. Ben Folds - Late
In 2005, Ben Folds remembered Elliott with an upfront honesty. It's the least subtle ballad on this list, but his reflection is more personal recollections of a peer and a friend. On the lines, "Elliott man, you played a fine guitar / and some dirty basketball," Folds recalls a game with him, Smith and Beck. "Elliott was just throwing fucking elbows like there was no tomorrow," Folds told Rolling Stone. This was easily the most indie rockingest pickup game until 2009's Ezra Koenig/Sufjan Stevens/James Murphy game of horse at Rucker Park.
This has always been one of the songs that forbids self-insertion or inhabiting the perspective as a listener. The anecdotes are too specific and too personal and instead it trades on sympathy. It's like this through the whole song except for one, simple and plain line: "The songs you wrote got me through a lot / just want to tell you that / but it's too late." When I first came upon the Figure 8 mural, that was the line I looked for. Not one of his own, but one about him. It didn't take long to find, and I wouldn't be surprised if it kept coming back with each new repaint.
2. Weezer - The Other Way
At the time of his death, Elliott Smith was dating Jennifer Chiba, who was once involved with Weezer's Rivers Cuomo. "The Other Way" is about the complications in that aftermath of Smith's passing. In the song, and apparently in life, Cuomo wants to console her but fails to act for several, heavy reasons. As the song goes: "rejection," "memories of pain," "doubts about my motives." It's easy to imagine Cuomo looking on from afar and wrestling his anxieties and impulses to the ground.
We always focus on the protagonist in a tragic story, but rarely on those around him and what he leaves in his wake. Their very real and on-going pain doesn't have the allure. We can't turn it into narcissism or a surface for reflection. But in terms of just being a story to think about, it's as tragic as any other component. They're the ones that were left behind, they're the ones that are still here.
3. Bright Eyes - I Will Be Grateful For This Day I Will Be Grateful For Each Day To Come
Neither of these Bright Eyes songs have been "confirmed" to be about Elliott Smith, but at least this one drops a few heavy hints. It's all, ultimately, assumption but maybe it makes for a better song that way. It's a more flexible tool that can be applied and reapplied to new situations.
The first verse deals with a girl in the speaker's life who doesn't necessarily die, but she does exit his life. It's in the second, closing, verse that the hints at Smith start to surface. Both were Omaha natives working in similarly confessional styles, and Oberst was a longtime admirer of Smith and his work. On "Grateful," he sings:
I had a friend who changed his name
but couldn't change himself.
Never did quite figure out
how to deal with what life had dealt.
He put a needle in his arm
to calm his handsome hell.
Who could've imagined it
would've worked out so well?
The clues aren't exactly dramatic illuminations: Elliott Smith was born Steven Paul Smith before changing his name, and he made reference to his heroin use in songs. The verse continues with a ghostly image -- "Now he's an echo that floats through my empty room" -- to help us understand the absence. It could all be romantic hearsay, as fans are wont to engage in. But the song works so wonderfully in the context of his memory that it would be a shame if it wasn't about him. It's also something we need. It takes the tragic story and turns it into something to draw strength and resolve from, instead of a burrow to crawl into.
4. Bright Eyes - Reinvent The Wheel
There's a greater chance that this rare b-side isn't about Smith. It's broad enough this time around, in 2006, that it's conceivable it's just about any resonant artist that left us before their time. But, again, considering Oberst's affinity for Smith and the impact he had on everyone, it's a good fit if you want it to be.
My friend, you were the model,
a priceless work of art.
Boys would fashion their emotions
to the pattern of your heart.
I can't think of any late songwriter of his generation that exemplified this effect ore than Elliott Smith. It's painfully true - so many people have styled themselves after his emotions because he worked so intimately that it grabbed you. It happens to any popular artist that bares enough of themselves, and it's only amplified when they die. I think of all the times I saw Elliott Smith posted in forum signatures, or set as away messages or how I used to scrawl his lyrics in tiny letters in my notebook during class. We all wanted to have not just his emotional depth, but his ability to express it in a way that made others understand.
I doubt you'll ever come back now
From wherever it is you are
Because you never understood
What we loved you for.
Smith was not naturally inclined to the celebrity status that was creeping up on him. Not because of any concern for indie cred, he just always seemed terrified of it. In some interviews he seemed to reject the idea. His Academy Awards performance was almost shy, and they used it as a quiet reprieve before the soaring and bombastic Celine Dion entrance. This was during CASSADAGA-era Bright Eyes, when he was working with supernatural, psychic imagery, and here he treats death as just a different place. Except one where he doesn't want to leave. He's made his decision.
The one detail that I've always been morbidly fascinated by in Smith's suicide is that he used a knife. It's unideal in every way. Pills are painless and guns are quick so you don't suffer through second thoughts. Two stab wounds to the chest, on the other hand, are hideously purposeful. He had to be sure of himself, and that certainty had to hold even in between the terrifying, disgusting cuts. If all we know about his last day is accurate, if the public record is how it happened, the tragedy is that he just couldn't understand any other way.
Or, perhaps, that's more of that dreaded mythologizing. Matthew LeMay makes a strong case for remembering Smith as a consummate craftsman and meticulous writer. It's not a bad idea, and in some ways it's preferable. There's a lot of tragedy to the Elliott Smith story as we've constructed it. The only possibility for a happy ending is in what message we take from his life, and it's more comforting to remember his way with words and a guitar than the story we build on top of it.