The first time I heard the name Elliott Smith

rkdomino

“The first time I heard the name Elliott Smith was in America in 1996. I was on a whistle stop trip to Los Angeles with Laurence Bell and Jacqui Rice where we were attempting to convince Scott Kannberg and Stephen Malkmus that Pavement should sign to Domino. At that point neither Jacqui nor myself technically worked at the label. We were there in a more abstract capacity. Over the course of one evening talk inevitably turned to music and Malkmus asked us if we were familiar with the two albums by Elliott Smith. As he said his name Steve’s hands made the actions of finger picking. ‘Acoustic player’, he continued, ‘from Portland’. Our reply was a group effort at the universal caveat of anyone hoping to cover his or her tracks:
‘Heard the name….Yes….. think so…..What label?’
‘Kill Rock Stars’
‘Oh right, yeah…… sure…..Sure’
By then Elliott Smith had released both ‘Roman Candle’ and his eponymous second record. During 1996 he had concentrated on his band Heatmiser and the release of their major label debut ‘Mic City Songs’, a copy of which Laurence and I had each been serendipitously given at a meeting during our Los Angeles visit. A few months later I was in the offices of an indie distributor in Holland and looked over a newly arrived import copy of ‘Either/Or’. The cover photograph of Smith sitting in the back room of a club and flashing his tattoos seemed to fit with the post-Riot Grrrl definition of punk that might then have been associated with Kill Rock Stars and the Pacific Northwest. There is just a hint of confrontation in the face Smith presents to the camera, an expression that makes the music within all the more startling.

While Domino was kept busy for much of 1997 with ‘Brighten The Corners’, Elliott’s name regularly came up in conversation, and by the end of the year it was decided that we would be releasing his catalogue in Europe. As Domino began its working relationship with Smith in the spring of ‘98 his career in the States had started to progress beyond the world of strip lights and marker scrawled clubs of ‘Either/Or’. He had recently performed ‘Miss Misery’ at the Oscars dressed in a rumpled white suit and completed the recording of a new album ‘X/O’ for release later that year on the Dreamworks label.
Along with master copies of each of Elliott’s Kill Rock Stars albums, Domino had been sent a VHS of ‘Lucky Three’, a short film by Jem Cohen. At roughly ten minutes in length ‘Lucky Three’ features Elliott playing three acoustic songs intercut with footage of workaday Portland. Sometimes Smith appears in these cutaway shots holding a cup of coffee in the street or looking relaxed while dawdling on a corner. Watching it for the first time I was struck by the film’s atmosphere. The streets were rain splashed and wide, the sound of Elliott alone with a guitar had a ringing clarity and Cohen cut between the colour and black and white film stock with a deftness that meant these subtle shifts in texture added to the tenderness of the songs and performance. In particular, I noticed that in comparison to what was then the received idiom of the American singer-songwriter – Gothic Western or alt. country, – ‘Lucky Three’ portrayed Smith as an artist of the commonplace urban environment, one of low-rise midtowns, parking lots and of traffic lights suspended across the road.
By 1998, even by the standards of the late 1990s, my computer skills were highly underdeveloped. I had however learned how to write screen savers. These consisted of a short line of text drifting endlessly across the desktop. Originally I had written ‘It’s hip to ship’ as a reminder that part of my job, a fairly significant part, involved selling our releases to Europe. Tired of this attempt at self-motivation I had substituted my original aphorism with a phrase that I thought might romanticize my working environment: ‘The Wichita Lineman is still on the line.’
Elliott arrived in London in May with his then girlfriend Joanna Bolme and his manager Margaret Mittleman, whose engaging demeanour and attention to detail was nurturing Elliott through the subtle but significant gear changes in his career. During his first visit to the Domino office in Wandsworth Elliott and Joanna sat together in silence perched in a cramped corner near the fax machine and stared into space. We were in the habit of receiving visits from jetlagged and introverted American musicians, and having left sufficient time for them to adjust to their surroundings, I turned around to engage them in some innocuous conversation. Before I had a chance to speak Elliott pointed to my screen saver and asked ‘Did you write that?’ As I nodded in confirmation his face broke into a beatific smile.
That evening Elliott played his debut European show at The Borderline. It was a warm evening and as he walked on stage there was still a patch of lambent daylight visible through the doors of the club.
Elliott opened with ‘Angeles’. There was an unexpected forcefulness to his guitar playing and the overall intensity of the performance spoke of his experience of playing to crowds brought up on the dynamics of grunge. Other than perhaps having watched grey haired survivors of the folk circuit, I doubt many in the audience had witnessed finger picked guitar on stage before. He played a cover of Big Star’s ‘Thirteen’, that even then, after what felt like a lifetime of Big Star covers in venues like the Borderline, sounded as fresh and unblemished as the original version. The next morning he and Margaret flew to Europe for a handful of dates and interviews in Paris, Amsterdam and Stockholm.
On his return the following week he played Upstairs at the Garage, one of the unloveliest venues in London. We were informed on the morning of the show that Elliott could have sold out the main downstairs venue twice over, but it was decided to let the original booking stand. I played some records as a warm up and between sets and watched the show from the DJ booth. At one point a member of the audience with wide, filibrating eyes started shouting aggressively at a couple standing immediately in front of him:
‘I’m going to fucking smash your fucking face in, and your fucking girlfriend’s I’m going to fucking kill you’.
His threats were accompanied by jabs to the chest of the man in the couple who turned to me, his face cracked with adrenaline, and began imploring for help. I waved to a security guard who immediately caught their assailant in a headlock and dragged him out of the audience with noticeable relish. A few moments later the sound of the troublemaker being thrown down the stairs was just about audible above the performance. After the show I relayed the incident to Elliott and Margaret, Elliott nodded in recognition and smiled once again ‘I often have fights at shows’ he said ‘Yeah’ he nodded, almost with a hint of pride ‘I’m used to that’.
Towards the end of the summer Dreamworks released the new Elliott Smith album ‘XO’ and Elliott returned to play Reading as a trio with Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss of Quasi. Two days later they played Dingwalls on a rainy Bank Holiday Monday. Elliott stayed on in London and during another visit to the office he spent almost an hour downstairs in the small warehouse playing a battered guitar. Its provenance was unknown and it was usually stored out of sight on a row of boxes. He sat picking its brittle nylon strings for minutes on end before retuning and resuming once more, as he did so he gazed into the middle distance with a resolute blankness.
I also remember him coming out one evening to a Quickspace and Clinic show that was staged in a faintly exotic location. The exact details escape me but I seem to recall it taking place in a cloistered part of the LSE. Elliott sat alone in the bar with the diffused aura of not wanting to be approached. A circle of empty seats surrounded him and the room developed an overwrought and neurotic energy as he began to be recognised. A colleague from the office eventually kept him company and within a few minutes he was speaking in the half sentences and silent nods with which he conducted a conversation. A few weeks later Elliott let her have the use of his apartment in New York when he was away on tour. ‘It was as you’d expect’ she said ‘it was pretty messy’.
Within a week Elliott had joined Belle And Sebastian as the support act for their first major British tour. The venues were halls and theatres and were the largest the band had played outside Glasgow, and in recognition of this amelioration they were touring with their own PA system. The only other UK band Elliott had supported had been Tindersticks the previous year in San Francisco. I remember Laurence and I joking that Elliott was experiencing a fairly distorted view of how British bands approached the business of live performance, particularly sound checks.
Belle And Sebastian played two London shows at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. On the second night the promoters had oversold the venue beyond the point of discomfort. Elliott walked on stage, sat on a stool and almost succeeded in making himself heard over the drinks queue chatter. Sam Coomes from Quasi (and once Heatmiser) accompanied Elliott on guitar for a few songs; it was hard not to laugh at the realisation that Sam was playing the battered guitar from the Domino warehouse. After three or four numbers Sam left Elliott to finish the set and as he did so, he gently kissed the woolly hat that had become a permanent feature on his friend’s head. In a little over twelve weeks Smith had played London five times. When he returned for a final date towards the end of the year he was firmly in the hands of Dreamworks. His four albums had all been released in Europe within a space of six months and he would be drawing a remarkable year to a close.
At the beginning of this year I finally dispatched my stereo off to the repair shop. I started to gather a small stack of records in anticipation of its return and placed ‘Either/Or’ near the front. As the descending notes to ‘Speed Trials’ began I heard the song as if for the first time and was drawn to the finer details that create its air of intimacy – the double tracked vocals panned left and right, the drum fills that scatter across the chorus, the manner in which Smith reaches for the high notes and sings a harmony line against his own voice – but most of all I was reminded of the sweetness and simplicity of his smile.”

Richard King

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