elliott smith is a philosopher, a jocular barroom buddy, but he's also a loner, the bukowski-esque malcontent with a great american sadness etched into his gnarled visage. truly, he is of the grand tradition...
lager, guinness. tequila (with orange), and wine. whiskey (Irish). another lager. another guinnesss. a couple of bottles of bass. with more whiskey - still irish. always irish. welcome to the post-elliott sith concert experience, tonight visiting o' donnell's irish pub in downtown minneapolis. the establishment is rammed, its customers substantially guttered, the time ten after 11. Less than two legal drinking hours to go.
pint glass in hand, elliott smith looks happy and, for the alleged undisputed shyest man in pop, positively relaxed. sixty minutes earlier he came offstage at the first avenue club just across the road, the minneapolis venue of legends where purple rain's concert footage was filmed. now, he has the opportunity for a little liquid r&r before getting onto the bus and yet another nocturnal drive from somewhere or other to somewhere else. elliott's drinking harp (you remember harp, the one that 'stays sharp - to the bottom of the glass'). harp lager, lager, lager, lager...
a woman is struggling to be heard above the din and through the beery haze. eventually she has elliott within gushing range. most likely she'll praise his delicate touch with melody, or his band's deft power, or maybe the delicious and unexpected cover of neil young's 'harvest moon'...
"wow! That was a wonderful show! your songs are so beautiful! I haven't been so moved by anyone's lyrics since, oh... since, ummmm... oh, since roger waters! They're the best lyrics since 'dark side of the moon'!"
that'll be the roger waters, grumpy fella who used to be in pink floyd but sought the freedom to compose grossly overwrought concept albums unencumbered by his erstwhile colleagues' occasional spasms of taste. the man whose 'the pros and cons of hitch-hiking' lp sleeve featured a not obviously ironic shot of a slender young female, thumb outstretched and inescapably naked. the lyricist who gave the world, "we don't need no education". The same roger waters with whom elliott smith, our oscar-nominated soul minet supreme, is now being earnestly and favourably compared.
smith chews this one over. he's been touring the usa for seven-and-a-half weeks, the latest installment of an extended global road kick that began in august 1998 and won't be concluded until the middle of may. he's played in large halls, small halls and halls that don't really deserve to be called halls, he's played in tents and in fields, he's played in broom cupboards cunningly disguised as radio studios, and in television sudios littered with bona fide pop stars, both dead and alive. he's come a long way, babies, in the past nine months, met a lot of nice people along the way, too, but one can safely assert this is the first time elliott smith has been compared to roger waters. Under the circumstances, he copes as well as could be expected.
"well, uh... (looks at feet) mmmm i... (looks at ceiling)... err (coughs), thank you. thank you very much." well, what would you say?! elliott sensibly decides it's time to have another drink, then start dancing like michael jackson.
america is thickest at its middle, and you can't get much more middle american than minneapolis, proud home to the largest shopping mall in the world. unless, that is, you have the opportunity to compare it with lawrence, kansas, where elliott smith shall wake up tomorrow morning. yesterday it was chicago. considering he's been living out of an eight-wheeled steel test tube for the past two months, he's looking pretty good. tired eyes, greasy hair, woebegone deportment - but hey, he can still smile about it.
sat with his girlfriend joanna in a near deserted o' donnell's as his band begin soundchecking in the first avenue, elliott shudders and holds his head in his hands. he's just caught his reflection in a mirror.
the smith barnet is a bone of contention. it's greasy because he's been wearing his trademark red woolly hate for the past fortnight. he wears the hat because he doesn't really like the way his hair looks. and so on. cutting it short isn't an option, joanna explains, because elliott is receding unevenly all around his pate.
"i have a weird shaped head, too," adds elliott.
a bad hair day, every day. is it possible to pursue a schedule like this and not go insane?
"i've been touring a lot for the last two years in the us, it has a certain rhythm to it that I'm used to," he says, in his careful, measured tones. "a tour goes in phases. at the start it's like, 'this is exciting.' then the second week is like, 'ok, we're playing really good together.' and then the middle's like not the beginning or the end, it's just... the south!" he laughs. "it always seems to be the south in the middle."
and now towards the end he finds himself in the middle, as it were. for a relatively small city and despite - or no doubt partly because of - its bland demeanour, minneapolis has been a disproportionately important musical centre for years. having given birth in years gone by to prince and husker du, and presently the kernel of america's keenest underground electronica scene, its punters reckon they know what's what. mid-set at the first avenue's downstairs bar, while the likes of 'speed trials' and 'pictures of me' from elliott's pre-oscars, pre-major label, pre-mtv-approved alt-rock-pin-up past are being appluaded and mouthed along to with as much respectful gusto as the 'xo' material, a heated debate breaks out as to which smith song is the most 'poetic'.
such an issue is not the usual currency of rock gig discourse, but then smith is not he usual rock gig performer. eighteen months ago he appeared at the knitting factory in new york's soho for a spoken-word evening featuring, among others, fellow emo-warrior mark eitzel ("i had to talk him into it"). the knitting factory is a small place, so the following day elliott disciples everywhere hit the worldwide web to find out what they had missed. "the one thing I heard somebody wrote on the internet was that I read some 'bad poetry'," smith deadpans.
and how would you assess their assessment?
"well, it wasn't poetry!" he laughs. "it was just a bunch of crap i made up that day. i wind up making up a lot of stuff, i wouldn't say that it's good or bad, it's just a bunch of stuff that comes about on the way towards a song. it didn't particularly rhyme, didn't make a whole lot of sense, it was just a big cloud of words obscuring something that i might want to try and figure out at some point. honestly, i can't remember what it was i was talking about that night. something about numbers."
elliott likes words, they're a lot of what he does, but he recoils from the notion that his lyrics can be read in isolation, from the lyric sheets he makes a point of including with each record. to him, they're not in any way 'poetic'. he prints his lyrics simply because as a child he liked looking at the back of 'sgt Pepper' and following what the beatles were singing about.
"occasionally, there's a song that I don't wanna print the lyrics to," he says. "i left one off 'either/or' - 'cupid's trick' - because I didn't know what the lyrics meant any more. I made them up... in a state. they made sense to me then, but they were so far from being something that could be taken apart from the song that i didn't want to write them down."
his fans, however, think differently. the words to 'cupid's trick', along with every other smith song ever released and half-a-dozen that haven't, are on public view at the sweet adeline website. as well as accessing the latest news from elliottworld, here fans can trade bootlegs, express their love for the man in endearingly wholesome terms ("elliott's the tops!") and enter a competition to win a bunch of elliott rarites. the quesitons range from the disconcertingly easy - "what's the tile of elliott's second solo record (hint: it's not called 'kill rock stars')" - to the worryingly esoteric: "what is the extra song on the import japanese version of 'either/or'?" ooh, that's a toughie.
doubtless aware that the intense scrutiny impelled by this goldfishbowl world can cause sensitive young people already given to more than usually intense bouts of introspection, to fold in on themselves competely, elliott professes to keep a distance from his virtual self.
"sometimes I slip up and read stuff, but in general I had to stop monitoring the little sea of opinions, 'cos it's just not healthy to think about yourself all the time. especilaly being on tour, it's so centred on myself. but it's mostly a matter of my attitude, and if I can keep it positive then that's the main battle."
and is it a battle?
"there's a time that I could be talking to my friends about them, and not about me. that's what i have to do. it's only a battle if the world all gets boiled down to me and what I'm doing. that seems to happen to a lot of bands, y'know? their world gets really small and it all has to centre around them and then they just lose it. no, i've figured out things to do to get around that."
are you doing this for you, primarily?
"i don't know. it sounds corny to say, but... i
like music! i've liked it since i was a kid and I'm doing it for that.
some people are like, 'you've got to do it for the kids,' and some people
are like, 'i just do it for me.' and i don't really feel like either
of those. those options are small. anything that people can do that's
creative is definitely worth doing, so
drinking in the day is a marvelous thing - provided you don't have anything too complicated to accomplish later on. half-past-two in the afternoon, and elliott smith is well on the way to getting near the point where he could justifialby consider having his second pint of harp. he's got a gig to play in six hours, but ten years of rock life have told him what he can and can't get away with.
for all the trauma of his eponymous second album, his notorious 'smack record', alcohol is a far more consistent thread in smith's work than the thin white rope. drinking establishments, their patrons and the stuff these people do, say and drink are forever swimming through his songs. witness new single 'baby britain', a cherub-faced nod to the beatles' "it's getting better' whose subjects aren't sure whether another round is really what they need, but it's what they're gonna have anyway. as with all the best smith songs, its strength lies in the ambiguous perspective of the narrator and it's deluge of terse imagery. not to mention a heady inducement to have a tipple.
"yeah, but these days i'm tring to take that piece of the puzzle back out," says elliott. "just 'cos i think that's cropped up enough already in my songs. but it's hard to fully dispense with because it's such a permanent feature of people that i know. not that they're necessarily alcoholic, some of them, but... y'know, it's the only legal drug! (laughs) i don't think drugs are very interesitng to write about in themselves, but he reasons why people want to feel differently from how they would normally feel is a very interesting subject. a couple of records back, there was more hard drug imagery, and some people thought, 'oh, all these songs are about dope'. well no, they're not about that, they're about something about people. they're trying to paint a little portrait of this fight between the thing people like about themselves and the thing they want to get away from.
"y'know, some people do drugs, some people exercise. people find all kinds of ways to get out of the humdrum repetitive nature of having to be the same person all the time," he pauses for a second or two's thought and a mouthful of harp. "but it might not be very interesting to write a song that describes the experiecne of jogging!" hahaha!"
elliott smith first got drunk when he was 11. the big kid who lived next door invited him round to play pool then got him to drink some homemade moonshine. "i wasn't very good at pool after that, " he admits. "but i didn't have a hangover. too young. at one point i built up a big tolerance, then i had to cut back. i've kinda narrowed all drugs down to just beer and irish whiskey, and that's it. and even then, i've come to the conclusion over the past several years that it doesn't make my life better to drink lots and lots of whiskey every night! i like to drink it sometimes."
and tonight, he earns his tipple. for such a bashful performer, elliott smith can grip a crowd with unexpected force. once hooked we're dragged in a half-embace to places everyone's been to, but just hasn't gotten around to really looking at properly. it's a gift, but then again, as he says, he likes music. it's what he does.
do you know any jokes, elliott?
"jokes? i've actually hear a lot of jokes on the bus on this tour. but i'm better at appreciating them than telling them! hmm, trying to think of a good one. all the ones i know are just so stupid! ok, here's one! why don't cannibals eat clowns?"
we don't know, elliott. why don't cannibals eat clowns?
"because they taste funny!"
no, really, it's the way he tells 'em. and there's more!
"there's a whole series of cannibal jokes! one was... haha! so dumb! what does a cannibal get after he eats someone's head?" elliott smith giggles helplessly. "the cold shoulder! hahahaha!!!"
he's special. he's sharp
thanks to helen