“I’ve just received a hefty volume aboutElliottSmiththat’s been put together by the photographer Autumn De Wilde. Flicking through, it looks great, and it really hammers home something that bugs the shit out of me when people often talk or write about Smith. It’s just too easy to write about him as this “troubled”, “unhappy”, “doomed” figure, to spend an hour with a profoundly shy man and divine from it that he was somehow not long for this world. Of course, Smith had problems: at times, when I was never quite sure whether he was talking on or off the record, he was fairly explicit about them to me. But really, the habit of simplifying his life into one inexorable downward spiral winds me up time and time again; it reminds me, too, how glib writers can come across – and i’ve certainly been guilty of this – when they try and psychoanalyse their subjects. Continue reading →
“The more research I did for this article, the less I wanted to write it, all aware of the irony – or flat-out hypocrisy – of writing an introduction like this to yet another article on the very subject I am chastising; fearing all I was doing was insensitively adding to this pile and being yet another unqualified person to talk about the life and death of a person whom I never knew or met. Article after contradictory article I read, an overwhelming strand often found tying these together – aside from the more canonizing, unctuous pieces – is the removal of compassion, treating Elliott as though he was nothing but a story, an object, a subject for copy. Continue reading →
“The biggest misconception, I think, is that Elliott was a sad-sack folk artist whose work was a direct extension of the darker parts of his life. Even a cursory listen to an album like XO should roundly disprove that notion, but I think there are a lot of reasons we’ve collectively bought into the romantic myth of the suffering artist. I don’t think writing my book had as much to do with the strength of my relationship to Elliott’s music as it did with the sudden, overwhelming sense that Elliott’s work was broadly and sadly misunderstood.”
“In person, Smith was much that his songs suggested he would not be: direct, relaxed, easy to talk to. In fact, he talked for hours and even let me interview his father, Gary, backstage in Portland. There was only one thing he would not do,and it was instructive. According to Smith, for theSpinphoto shoot, he was asked to wear a tight, white T-shirt artily spattered with fake blood. (FormerSpinstaffers deny that this happened.) Smith felt that he was being asked to play the role of the tortured artist, marketing his pain. He walked out of the shoot, though he later returned and offered to pose in less theatrical ways. (For a variety of reasons, he ultimately did not appear on the cover.) At the time, I thought such stubbornness was an example of someone taking a principled stand about controlling his own image. Now, I wonder whether it was a case of an acutely conflicted artist finding a brand-new way of sabotaging his success.”
“I spent nearly a decade missing the point of Elliott Smith’s music for reasons that I really wanted to interrogate. When I first heard about Elliott’s music, it was in the context of, “Here’s this guy who was basically a homeless junkie and did tons of drugs and now he makes this sad folk music about it.” When I finally started paying attention to XO –really paying attention– I was pretty shocked to realize that Elliott was not only avoiding those clichés, he was actively taking them apart. Here was a record where a guy was actually saying, “Look, pain isn’t beautiful, creativity isn’t borne of suffering,” and he’s saying it through these impossibly precise Beatlesque pop songs. Yet it still gets pretty consistently described as sad folk music.
I find the romanticized connection between suffering and creativity hugely troubling. I’ve seen it used to justify awful, self-destructive behavior. I wanted to write about Elliott’s music in a way that sheds some light on all the actual work that went into his creative output; it’s not like he just put down a syringe, picked up an acoustic guitar, and channeled his deep existential suffering into beautiful words and melodies. I also wanted to dig a bit into why we find the romanticization of suffering so compelling, why we assume that an artist’s most compelling work must have roots in their darkest personal histories.”
“I’m not a pussy and I don’t wanna sound like one, and that’s why I’ve declined most opportunities to write about Elliott Smith post-suicide. After Smith split for the Great Whatever in October ’03, the critical outpouring was gross, precious, and unbecoming. Honoring dude’s life by writing about vintage sweaters and tearstained cheeks is bullshit and doesn’t do the man justice. Because, really, that’s what he was: a man. His songs, even at their most quote unquote emotional, weren’t nearly as wussy or melodramatic as, say, Matchbook Romance or that dumb cunt from Dashboard Confessional. Smith’s music was—and is—unflinching and fully brutal, tore-up ache; over-sentimentalizing it in print is just reductive.
Still, with music this intimate it’s easy to slip into breathless homage and maudlin indulgence, and that’s how a lotta Smith’s obituaries rolled. But fuck that; there are better ways to eulogize your heroes!”
“Speaking of someone who can never be forgotten, I would like to bring up Elliott Smith. I used to watch him transform on your stage. He may not have wanted to perform, but you had a gentle way of reminding him how much he needed to. It went from not being sure whether he’d get on stage to being hopeful that it may not come to an end. Those were special nights. And, in addition to Elliott Smith, you offered us the space to experience the deep friendship between Elliott Smith and Jon Brion. It seemed as if they felt, on some level, that they were the only ones who understood each other. Jon had a way of “being” with Elliott that seemed to put him at ease, or at least make him feel significantly better. And Elliott had a way of sparking a look of pure admiration and awe on Jon’s face when he’d sing “Say Yes” with his eyes closed. This kind of experience can’t happen everywhere. The moments that “happen” at Largo happen because you’ve created, and consistently provide, the space and tone that are required for them to occur.”