biography - page 4

i. "... a tongueless talker ..."

At some point in high school, he had started to be known to a few close friends as Elliott, which soon became his preferred name. Elliott recalled: "When I was in high school I hated my name and, um, somebody started calling me ... uh, Elliott, and I still haven't gotten it legally changed. ... I didn't like that my first name started with the same letter as my last name. That really irritated me. And also, like, there's no good versions of it, ya know like there's, Steven ... Steven is like sort of too ... hard to say, and kind of like, bookish. Steve is like ... like jockish, sorta. Big handsome Steve, big shirtless Steve, ya know, like football playin' blond haired Steve. Ya know? I didn't like it." [Unknown zine interview, attributed to Jamie] At one point, Elliott announced that his full new name was Elliott Stillwater Otter Smith. (The spelling of the name Elliott may have been derived from Elliott Street in Portland; it cuts diagonally through Ladd's Circle connecting to Division.)

Towards the end of high school, he wrote Last Call, a meditation upon themes that recur throughout his later work. It begins with a pretty flatly worded statement: "sick of it all," and goes on to quote phrases a friend or lover evidently hurled at the singer: "you're a crisis, you're an icicle, you're a tongueless talker, you don't care what you say, you're a jaywalker and you just, just walk away..." The singer is specifically "sick of" this person who keeps coming around, "trying to crawl under my skin when I already shed my best defense, it comes out all around that you won, and I think I'm all done, you can switch me off safely," as if he were a video game monitor.

all you aspired to do was endure
you can't ask for more ask for none
knowing you'll never get that which you ask for
so you cast your shadow everywhere like the man in the moon
you start to drink you just want to continue
it'll all be yester year soon
you start to drink you just want to continue
it'll all be yester year soon

The song ends with a kind of prayer to God, in whch the singer despairingly asks, "like I was as good as she made me," that "I wanted Her to tell me that She would never wake me." The harrowing words of the refrain, repeated with the raging relentlessness of somebody literally banging his head against the wall, subside into the wordlessness of an unquiet slumber. The open chords of the ending hint that there is no real resolution possible for the emotions caught in these dark, angry words.

Senior year and graduation led to the next big upheaval in his life. In a Summer 1998 interview with Matthew Fritch, he described applying to Hampshire College in order to follow his girlfriend, who had been accepted there. Although that may have been part of his motivation in choosing Hampshire, Elliott had been named a National Merit Scholar at Lincoln, and his thoughtfulness and seriousness were both fully in evidence when he did win admission to the College, where he designed a major for himself focussing upon political science and philosophy. (His mother commented, "We thought he would become a lawyer.")

Elliott's evaluation of his time at Hampshire is straightforward enough. "I didn't like it at all, but I did like the professor I had that was the main guy. I graduated from there. Philosophy, political theory type of thing. It was a place with no grades and no majors. It was like make your own program, and it was pretty hippie in a good way. But the people going to school there were a real problem to me. I didn't like it. I moved off campus as soon as I could, y'know, second year. So, I tried not to really get caught up in all the crap going on with people coming out of high school who are, like, "I wasn't cool in high school, so now I'm gonna be really cool." I just did my work. I liked what I studied, and I liked the classes that I took, but I couldn't stand the atmosphere. So I lived in Northampton.

Q: Did you like it there better or was it still kind of oppressive to you?

Elliott: No, I liked it there better. I mean, it was still just a total college town until the summer. I spent the summers there because I had to work. I was going there on a grant and a lot of loans, and I had to work all the time, like full-time. And I stayed there over the summer, and over the summer all the rednecks would come out, y'know? Like the townie guys would come out and drive down the street calling me a faggot, y'know? And the rest of the year it was this college town with a bunch of people running around talking about post-structuralism. So it was like a total hot-and-cold, both extremes, both bad extremes. It was just kind of a bummer all the time, but it wasn't as bad as actually being on the college campus. (M. Bates, Walkin' after Midnight, JIMZine, November 1997)