N.B. I started writing this before I realized I hate writing about musicians even more than I hate writing about hating to write about musicians.
To the millions of Americans watching at home during the 1997 Academy Awards, Elliott Smith must have seemed a strange sight. This was the year of the juggernaut, of Titanic and Celine Dion. The question that night was not if Titanic would win, but by how big a margin.
So it is perhaps understandable then if no one paid much attention to the unknown songwriter from Portland who appeared suddenly, incongruous and shy, in an ill-fitting white suit with a guitar tucked close against his chest.
It was, even by his standards, a muted performance. He played as if unsure of himself, his eyes never once leaving the middle distance between his guitar and the floor. At one point his hands seemed to slip on a chord. It was over quickly.
His career had started, as these things so often do, on a whim. A friend had lent him a four-track and, upon hearing the results, encouraged him to shop the record around. It was quickly picked up by a small imprint, Cavity Search Records, and in July of that year it was released under the name Roman Candle. A smattering of live appearances followed, including a brief tour with Mary Lou Lord, and by the end of the year people were beginning to pay attention. The buzz had started. It was 1994.
Roman Candle was a curious record, as notable for its arresting musicianship as it was for its lack of polish. By turns dense and spare, deliberate and decaying, it retained a hushed, reverent quality throughout. It was, above all, a quiet record. His voice, while expressive, rarely broke above a whisper. It was the kind of voice where you could tell that the singer had his eyes closed the entire time.
But if his voice searched, his guitar compelled. The unorthodox chord structures and inventive changes that would serve as a blueprint for later recordings were already on prominent, astonishing display. The intro to Condor Ave. alone was staggering. Combining multiple ideas into a single passage, it flicked effortlessly between wide, thrumming bass notes and graceful, stacking runs. It was surprisingly playful, and you got the sense that he was enjoying himself, and that he was listening to it as intently as we were.
Other records soon followed, each more pronounced and orchestrated than the last. Where once a guitar was his sole accompaniment, he began to add other instruments. By the time of 2000’s Figure Eight, he was an artist in full bloom, experimenting with tape loops and exotic arrangements. He was also reportedly working on a soundtrack to the movie Thumbsucker, and had even recently claimed to have given up alcohol, red meat and the dizzying array of various prescription drugs which had for so long dominated his life.
From the outside, at least, it looked as if he was finally turning a corner.
He didn’t make it of course.
Looking back now, his suicide on October 21, 2003 in Los Angeles doesn’t seem that surprising. From the very beginning, his lyrics reflected a troubled, turbulent life, one spent openly struggling with the by now familiar refrain of drugs, rehab and more drugs. Towards the end of 2001, for all of its initial promise, his career had effectively stalled, and a lack of official communication had spurred the inevitable onslaught of rumors. Depending on who you asked, he was either sober and living with a girlfriend in Portland, or near death and homeless in New York City.
This confusion also extended to his closest friends, many of whom in those last months knew him simply as the lost voice on the other end of the telephone.
Those last two years were long ones. He became more and more distant and incoherent, and would speak cryptically of a white van which he claimed was following him. His appearance also suffered, and at one point he was thrown out of a friend’s show after being mistaken for a homeless man by a police officer. His own live shows were similarly disastrous. He would often have to stop himself in the middle of a song to ask the audience for help because he couldn’t remember the next verse. It was becoming increasingly obvious to any who cared to look that he was coming apart.
Still, almost despite himself, he managed to hang on just long enough to leave behind a remarkably prolific musical legacy, considering. Over the course of a little under a decade, he gave us five records, a smattering of B-sides and the sketches of what would become his posthumously-released From A Basement On A Hill.
Not enough of course, but it never is. And besides, Elliott Smith always seemed to say more with less anyway.