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Elliott Smith
by John Chandler & W. Scott Wagner

               (First appeared in The Rocket magazine, 4/9/97)

               "You gotta get out there and show what it's like to be a person.
               That's what I'm gonna do. It might be good or it might be bad, but
               I'm gonna show what it's like to be a person."

               Bargain bins throughout the cosmos are littered with "solo"
               albums--those second helpings of the same ol' shit aimed at the
               mentally defective, die-hard fan, excreted from a member of some
               established rock band. Usually these nasty little buggers are the
               offspring of an ego-laden lead singer who feels that the band
               format is too confining for his/her wide-ranging genius. The most
               ubiquitous of all rock stars, Mick Jagger, has recorded solo
               albums, and nary a one of them is worth a squirt of warm pee.
               Most songwriters simply don't have sufficient creative salt to make
               that much worthwhile music. Elliott Smith would appear to be an
               exception. After three full-length albums and one EP with
               Heatmiser, and three highly-acclaimed solo albums, it would seem
               Mr. Smith has the best of both worlds.

               With Heatmiser, we get volume. We get riffs. We get brains-out
               hard rock that doesn't drag its knuckles over the grave of the
               lowest common denominator. The last album, in particular, Mic
               City Sons (Virgin/Caroline), is as rewarding a journey through
               crash chords and buttoned-down bitterness as you're liable to
               embark upon.

               With the solo albums we get a quiet glimpse of rock bottom, with
               Elliott serving as the whispering narrator. We get unapologetic,
               unsentimental, harsh charcoal sketches of life-turned-to-shit by
               caving in to the self-destructive devil in the ear. Like the
               unrepentant drunk in "St. Ides Heaven" or the relapsed junkie in
               "The White Lady Loves You More," Elliott Smith's songs are
               peopled with losers, boozers, dreamers and ghosts that alternately
               drift and plummet through their existence, looking for the next big
               fuck up. One might think that, as an artist, Elliott would be
               creatively fulfilled by having outlets for both his reflective yin and
               raging yang. Wrong. His two-world time share proved to be a
               disaster. "With Heatmiser, I couldn't really write anything pleasing
               to me lyrically. I was really unhappy," he admits. 

               It's taken a while, but Elliott Smith is finally happy. The gifted
               Portland singer/songwriter has shed the trappings of a musical past
               that resigned his talents to loud power chords instead of the
               carefully crafted moods exhibited on his new Kill Rock Stars
               release, Either/Or. It's the first sunny day in Portland in months,
               and we're holed up in the darkness of My Father's Place for a
               session of bad jukebox music, watery beer and video poker. Over
               the course of three hours, Elliott describes his songwriting as not
               only an artistic process, but his chance at ongoing self-discovery
               and, most importantly, liking what he has found. 

               "I was in total denial about the music I was playing," Elliott says
               about his tenure with the late Heatmiser. "I was being a total actor,
               acting out a role I didn't even like. I couldn't come out and show
               where I was coming from. I was always disguised in this loud rock
               band. I'm happy I'm not doing that now. It's not a fun way to live."

               Heatmiser weren't exactly Helmet, but it wasn't until Mic City
               Sons that Smith was able to somewhat satisfy his songwriting
               instincts, resulting in a much more subdued, but ultimately
               rewarding, record. "Me and Neil [Gust--the other half of the
               Heatmiser writing duo] decided to crash the party and take over,
               which pretty much destroyed the band," recounts Elliott.

               "[In the beginning] we all got together, everyone wanted to play in
               a band and it was fun, then after a couple of years we realized that
               none of us really liked this kind of music, and that we didn't have
               to play this way. You didn't have to turn all these songs you wrote
               into these loud...things." 

               Many longtime Northwesties would disagree with Smith's
               assessment, at least in terms of Heatmiser's formidable body of
               work. Dead Air and Cop and Speeder (both Frontier) are both
               standout rock albums--more intelligent and well-written than most
               card-carrying members of the genre can muster. "It was kinda
               weird--people that came to our shows, a majority of them were
               people that I couldn't relate to at all," Elliott says. "Why aren't
               there more people like me coming to the shows? Well, it's because
               I'm not even playing the kind of music that I really like."

               Coaxed into it by a friend, Elliott released Roman Candle (Cavity
               Search) in 1994--his first stab at going solo. Though a bit tentative
               (there are four unnamed songs), the album displays glimpses of the
               understated, confessional brilliance that would mark his later work.
               "I'd been recording stuff like that since I was about 14 on
               four-track," Elliott recalls. "I had tens of hours of songs. I didn't
               play them for anyone except for one friend. I never thought about
               them as anything that would work for Heatmiser. I never planned
               to do any solo shows." Encouraged by the positive feedback from
               his debut, Elliott continued to record, and began playing out as a
               solo artist. 

               It was around the time of his self-titled, second solo album (Kill
               Rock Stars, 1995) that the shit really began to hit the fan. Another
               Heatmiser album loomed large on the horizon, and by this time
               Elliott was dreaming of life without the band. His despair over
               dragging himself through an unwanted recording session and losing
               valuable time for his own songwriting was taking its toll. There is
               certainly no ambiguity over the tone of the second solo album,
               which is rich in bleak imagery and tales of addiction, failure and
               doom, leading journalists and fans alike to speculate over the
               "Smith Myth." Elliott acknowledges that his songs are a mixture of
               autobiography and observation, but offers few specific details. 

               "The last one wasn't specifically about dope," he says, "but I used
               dope as a vehicle to talk about dependency and
               non-self-sufficiency. I could have used love as that vehicle, but
               that's not where I was.

               "During all the interviews for the last album, everyone read the
               songs at a very surface level. They wanted to know why there
               were so many songs about heroin. I'm just trying to make things so
               I enjoy being me." 

               While weathering this emotional low-point, Elliott grew weary of
               local scrutiny. Craving anonymity, he considered an extended
               change of scenery. "I was going to move to New York, but now
               I'm not," he says. "This is where I'm from, and I'm going to stick
               with it. I probably will live in New York for a while, but I'm not
               dying to do it anymore. 

               "My problems won't be any different in New York than they are
               here. I can't pretend anymore like I could just be anybody. That
               was part of the attraction of moving to New York--that I could go
               there and be anybody. I'm through with that. I can't just be
               anybody. There are things about me that would be present in New
               York, just the same as here."

               In the midst of wading through contractual mire for Mic City Sons,
               Smith's solo recordings and intimate performances had already
               netted him healthy notoriety (including a blurb or two in Rolling
               Stone)--something he wasn't prepared to deal with. "There's a
               part of me that wants to go as far as I fucking can with this," he
               explains with something resembling confidence. "I had a real
               problem with that the whole of last year. I felt it was essential to
               never get anywhere in a commercial sense in order to feel like
               what I was doing was worth anything.

               "I spent like a whole year with my head spinning around because I
               had a name for myself. I considered myself impenetrable to having
               any sort of notoriety turn my head around. What little notoriety
               that I've gotten, which is not even on the same scale with someone
               like Beck, bummed me out bad. It made it almost impossible to
               get Either/Or done. I recorded 30 songs for the album, and I
               couldn't pick out any that I liked. I thought they all sucked,
               because it was like a little germ of what other people see me as
               infected everything. It was extremely easy for me not to care what
               people thought about me when no one knew who I was."

               Part of the goodwill Elliott now feels for both himself and his
               abilities stems from his coming to grips with the dreaded
               "singer/songwriter" tag--a term which brings a mountain of
               preconceptions to the table. "It sounds like you're talking about
               someone whose craft is more important than anything else," Elliott
               replies, when that description is leveled his way. "Then there's the
               usual cute contrivance in the lyrics and the heavy-handed reliance
               on metaphor; one giant metaphor that's supposed to carry the
               whole song.

               "With rock bands, there's quite a repertoire of categories to
               choose from. They have maybe 20 categories. For the
               singer/songwriter, there's like two categories; the funny, cute one
               [Jonathan Richman] or the downcast, corny one [Leonard
               Cohen]. The only one who kept getting out of the box consistently
               was Dylan. He continually shirked off all the crap that was piled on
               top of him based on whatever stylistic mood he was in before."

               The shirking of crap piled on him by the expectations of others is
               something that Elliott Smith continues to strive for. "I'm doing my
               best. I felt it really hard last year, but not nearly as hard as
               someone like Dylan. I mean, how many albums do I sell? How
               many people know who I am? 

               "I'm feeling good about [songwriting] right now. I feel pretty
               positive; probably because I'm taking anti-depressants. I already
               did my time where I felt everything I did was a big piece of crap,
               and that the music business was going to grind me into the dirt.
               Now I just feel good about it. I want to do it."

               With Heatmiser finally laid to rest, Elliott can concentrate on the
               business at hand--namely promoting Either/Or, an album where his
               talents are focused and are on full display. 

               Many of the songs employ multiple instruments, all of which Smith
               plays nimbly, weaving the various textures that make up his craft.
               "What's interesting to me is to wear all the hats; play the bass and
               think like a bass player. Play the drums and think like a drummer,"
               Elliott says. "I make a band with chemistry out of how I would like
               it to be if there were other people." Add to that some clever, clean
               production (courtesy of guess who?) that lets you really
               experience all of Elliott's hats, and you've got something. 

               While there are some happy, even uplifting, moments that shine
               through--clearly a departure for Smith--the record does not
               always reflect his current good spirits. Don't let the Beatles-esque
               bounce of "Pictures of Me" lull you into snacking in sugar-pop
               paradise--"Jailer who sells personal hells/Who'd like to see me
               down on my fucking knees/Everybody's dying just to get the
               disease"--this candy apple has a razor in it. 

               "I was on a big pop kick when I was recording," Elliott explains. "I
               listened to Magical Mystery Tour every day. The first two
               records, and especially the second one, were more idea-driven
               than catchiness-driven. If you didn't catch the feeling I was writing
               about, then the music probably wouldn't reel you in."

               Either/Or concludes with "Say Yes," an unblinkingly positive song
               that (the first time around, anyway) sounds as out of place on an
               Elliott Smith album as a trombone solo on a Slayer tune. "I'm in
               love with the world, through the eyes of a girl," he gushes without a
               trace of irony. 

               "It's an insanely optimistic song," Elliott says. "I'd just broken up
               with my girlfriend. I'd never been able to stay with anyone before,
               and I couldn't handle it, but then I really wanted her back. I'd
               fucked everything up and I wrote that song while we were broken
               up, and it was kind of a fantasy. It took me about five minutes,
               music and words." 

               For those curmudgeons out there who don't want to hear the artist
               when he's in a good mood, shame on you, because this is the best
               album that Elliott Smith has produced, and that's saying something.

               Before we pay our whopping bar tab, both Elliott and Scott win
               fairly sizable jackpots at video poker. "We got lucky," Scott says.

               "Life pretty much dictates what's going to happen," Elliott says as
               we shuffle toward the door. The sun is still shining. Happy days
               are here again.

               (c) 1997 John Chandler & W. Scott Wagner

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