biography - page 7

vi. "getting good marks"

By the Spring of 1995, Elliott had already clinched a deal with another label, Kill Rock Stars, for his second LP, which was duly released in May 1995. Though untitled, the record is commonly known as "Elliott Smith" since his name appears on the cover. (In press releases from the '95-'96 period it is also referred to as "Kill Rock Stars.") This came about thanks to a 2 week tour he did with Kill Rock Stars owner Slim Moon, who became a friend and offered Elliott considerable freedom in putting together this album and its sequel, eventually titled Either/Or.

In a March 2000 interview, he stated that among his albums, "the self-titled one was a turning point. At the time I felt it was fully what it was and I had no concern about what people would think of it."

In the Spring of 1997, looking back from the vantage point of the then brand new Either/Or, Elliott remarked: "The last one wasn't specifically about dope, but I used dope as a vehicle to talk about dependency and non-self-sufficiency. I could have used love as that vehicle, but that's not where I was. During all the interviews for the last album [Elliott Smith], everyone read the songs at a very surface level. They wanted to know why there were so many songs about heroin. ..." (Rocket interview)

Whatever the reviewers thought, the songs of "Elliott Smith" explore the eternal theme of life on the skids with lots of little psychological and topographical details that have you sweating out there right on the streets with the desperate, depressed junkie protagonist. "Needle in the Hay" (originally recorded with a trumpet solo by Eric Mathews-this had to go out when Elliott mixed the song down) had the feel of a bitter letter home: "You ought to be proud that I'm getting good markssssssssss..." Three years later, in a 1998 interview, he reflected: "Needle in the Hay is, for me, the darkest one and it's a big 'fuck you' song to anybody and everybody."

"Christian Brothers," with its driving raw energy beat, gives the tattoo version of every outcast adolescent's experience of loss and alienation. The song's rivetingly hooky chord work and tragic wailing choruses make it a favorite at shows. "Clementine," perhaps like "Sweet Adeline" inspired by his grandmother's glee club singing, strikes a lonely scene in a deserted club: "the bartender's singing Clementine, while he's turning around the open sign." "St Ides Heaven" lets you feel what it's like to be tramping around town in the wee hours high as a kite and feeling fine: "High on amphetamines, the moon is a light bulb breaking, it'll go around with anyone, but it won't come down for anyone." When bedtime finally comes and you crash, "you wake up in the middle of the night, from a dream you won't remember, flashing on, like a cop's light, you say she's waiting, and I know what for: the white lady loves you more." What was she waiting for? Death by accidental overdose?

vii. The Corner Seat

What was to be the final Heatmiser LP, bearing the koan-esque title Mic City Sons (did they come up with this on the tour bus one afternoon playing Exquisite Corpse?), was finished by late February or early March 1996. After the album was finished, Elliott immediately left for a tour with Mary Lou Lord. "Mic City Sons" has something of a divided nature, apparently containing two albums in one: an EP by Elliott and a short album of tracks by a newer, more lavishly upholstered Heatmiser (thanks to the usual seamless production by Schnapf and Rothrock). The track on which the two divergent styles of the album come closest to dovetailing is Neil's song "Pop in G," on which Elliott sang lead. The production style and the mood of Elliott's songs on the album look ahead to his 1998 release XO, also produced by Schnapf and Rothrock.

Plainclothes man, the second track on the disc, contains some of Elliott's most directly stated lyrics:

i only really needed alcohol
something that'll treat me okay
and wouldn't say the things you'd say
he's so unhappy inside
he's serious with everyone
and he thinks he'll win you with his angry kiss
acting like he has no needs
wanting you to watch him bleed

The other songs on the disc saw no staunching for the narrator's bleeding wounds. "You gotta move" ironically pinpointed how changing location fails to make any real difference in how he feels about his life:

you're just below dallas town
where the sky burns bright white
i watched the sun go down
and the moon lights you up like a spotlight
so stumble and trip down the broken strip
with your planet packed in your car
you just move, don't go far

"Not half right," the unlabeled final track of the disc, seems to be the narrator addressing his own reflection in the mirror:

would you say that the one of your dreams
got in you and ripped out the seams
that's what i'd say
with a broken sink for a face
in a head that just takes up space
he's not half right

Although the focus of these songs is upon a very personal calculus of despair, it's easy enough in hindsight to glimpse signs in these lyrics of Elliott's discomfort with his position in the band. In "The Winter of Heatmiser," one of the few press pieces at the time to focus more on Neil Gust than Elliott, music journalist Dave Lott comments: "Gone are the closeness and fraternity of the past. And, of course, the emotional strain that existed on their earlier albums is still around, but now it's almost overshadowed by loneliness, panic and desperation that befits a band taking a critical look at its own history." While Neil expresses the hope that he and Elliott might continue to work together in the band, Elliott might have quoted the lyrics to a song from Yellow No. 5, "The Corner Seat," to express his own feelings of life in the band:

these people don't know who you are
they've seen you play and they'd probably say
you think you're some kind of star
and they've got their powers of conversation
and they need someone to dominate
it's a hip trip man you can never get out of
you're the one who brought me down here in the first place
oh man i'd rather be in outer space
than follow over to the corner seat

In "The Fix is in," one of the Mic City Sons songs, he had written:

i can't stand by here waiting while they dumb me down
i fit the perfect picture that you want for all
the fix is in i'm going where i don't belong

This could be viewed as his final comment upon the band's later period.

The Fall of '96 saw the release of Mic City Sons, the final spate of Heatmiser gigs, and further work on Either/Or.

About Heatmiser's final concert in 1996, a fan named Trav recalled:

My favorite Heatmiser moment was their last show, when they played, "It don't Come Easy", by Ringo Starr. It was fabulous and after they finished, they had the most contented look on their faces. I know that
they were proud of that cover. Definitely a moment not to forget.

Journalist Jeff Stark reviewed one of the final gigs the band played, on December 1, 1996, at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. Stark described Elliott "strapped with an electric guitar and surrounded by amps" as very much in his element: "part charismatic rock-star, part bar-band regular oozing nonchalant confidence." Clearly, it was a good night for Elliott, and for the band. The following interchange was recorded:

Sam: We've got Soren Kierkegaard on guitar.
Elliott: This one's called 'Fear and Trembling.'

"Rock and roll with swagger" was how Stark described the band's performance of the song "Get Lucky," and seems a fitting way to remember the end of Heatmiser.

Jem Cohen's film Lucky 3 (released eventually on a Kill Rock Stars compilation video) provides a poignant snapshot of Elliott at this time. As in one of his own songs, the film shifts between grainy and clear images, scenes shot head on or at an oblique angle, sequences in monochrome and color, objects (including Elliott's own eyes) seen in extreme close-up, or at a charitable distance. Although he did other music "videos" before and since, this is probably the most apposite cinematic counterpoint to the interior landscape of his songs. It is telling that the terrain of Portland is as much a part of what we see as the rooms of Elliott's home, or the studio where he records his songs. Covered in grime and more than worn at the edges, the town turns weary eyes towards a dark sky, hoping for a dawn that may or may not be waiting at the end of night.