The Time It Took a Cigarette to Burn:
Scenes from the Life and Art of Elliott Smith
by S. R. Shutt
I saw you
made a pattern
The old records
THE PAST IS PRELUDE..........
April 15, 1998. It was an unseasonably sultry night in Cambridge. I pushed my way cautiously through the crowd at the famed (but still gloriously tacky) Middle East, relieved to see lots of faces as nerdy, socially ill-at-ease and psychically overdrawn as my own. This murky throng may have been packed with strangers but at least some of them were people to whom I could relate, and I already felt a lot more comfortable than I had expected to feel-here, in this club, where I had come to hear the man who had rekindled my interest in the contemporary music scene.
He seemed very self effacing, especially as the individual who was the heart and soul of those amazing lyrical lines, slouching, a little voluptuous, even when shod in scuffed worn out shoes and sullen sideways looks. The music of the album that bore the strange title Either/Or-derived, I eventually learned, from a nineteenth century philosophical treatise written by Kierkegaard. And the lyrics, with their intense poetry, peppered with four letter words, that excited me the way James Joyce excited other people. I've never been a modernist, myself; was always far too sentimental and spiritually predisposed for that particular creed. With Elliott, I had found someone who gave voice to the outsider's way of looking at the world. Not looking past the sleaze, the meretriciousness, and the garbage, but looking INTO them and still finding little glimpses of beauty. Lines like "When they clean the street, I'll be the only shit that's left behind" made me realize, as I turned them round and round in my head, that here I had not just found an artist-I'd found a brother.
I walked around the club, trying to get a decent view, trying to figure out how this small man in the soft blue knit cap could fill this big room with such an incredible vibration, trying to figure out where the sense of love and mystery came from.
These notes provide some clues to answering those questions. I realized fairly soon into this project that a conventional biography would not illuminate very much of what I found so magical and compelling in Elliott's art, and in his presence. What I have done is to create a collage from interviews, song lyrics, observations from fans, and the strands of my own woolgathering thoughts while listening to Elliott. I would like to thank everyone who helped with encouragement, information, or suggestions, everyone who traded tapes with me or shared copies of articles ... most of all Charlie ... I couldn't have done it without you.
Lastly, I want to apologize for the very long delay in making this available to the public. I am not a professional writer, and had to work on this project in what I laughingly describe as my spare time. Real life often threw a mighty spanner into the works. The one advantage to waiting has been that I've managed to get a few things sorted out that might have otherwise evaded me. I hope all of you wonderful fans out there in the dark find the result worth the wait. For those of you who find it all severely underwhelming ... what can I say but: "I'm running speed trials, standing in place."