biography - page 9

ix. "... comedy of errors ..."

On the eve of Either/Or's completion, another alliance, this one of professional and artistic significance, came with Elliott's collaboration with producer Larry Crane in building his own studio, Jackpot! Elliott and Larry, in the latter's words, "spent a solid month [in February 1997] turning the place from a gutted office setup to a brightly colored and decent sounding studio. Elliott, it turned out, had worked in drywall for a while and we put in long hours finishing the place up. When we opened the place was instantly booked solid for three months." Just as the Heatmiser house had been for a few months in 1995-96, Jackpot! provided a space where Elliott could do his own studio work in between his busy touring schedule.

One of the first songs he recorded there was the ballad he had composed for the Gus van Sant film, Good Will Hunting. "Miss Misery" walked around some of the farther reaches of heartbreak, "a comedy of errors ... about taking a fall to vanish into oblivion":

I had plans for both of us
that involved a trip out of town
to a place I've seen in a magazine
that you left lying around
I don't have you with me but
I keep a good attitude
do you miss me, miss misery
like you say you do?

Elliott's chronic despair came to an abrupt anticlimax late one night when he jumped off a cliff and nothing happened. In real life taking a fall to vanish into oblivion had become its own freaky comedy of errors. His friends didn't see the "nothing happened" part of it; through their intervention, he wound up in a psychiatric hospital in Arizona. The week he spent there he has frequently described since as "my idea of hell." It was his persistent declaration of his intent to sue his doctors that finally won his release from the facility.

Jonathan Valania summed up what Elliott was willing to tell him about this period in an article published in the Jan/Feb. 2001 issue of Magnet magazine:

By the time of 1997's Either/Or , things were beginning to fall apart. Smith's drinking was getting out of hand: blackouts, alcohol poisoning, getting into fights he couldn't remember, waking up on the street covered in cuts and bruises. Friends staged an intervention in Chicago in the middle of the Either/Or tour. "It got kind of weird," says Smith. "I started drinking too much and I was taking antidepressants, and they don't mix." (end of quote from Jonathan Valania article)

In a 2000 interview in the British music magazine NME, he recalled:

it was a psychiatric hospital. let's just say i didn't want to go there. if you took tv culture and then focussed it through a magnifying glass onto a blade of grass and burned it up - that's what it was like in there, this concentrated version of the same kind of pressure that people feel all the time. y'know, get ahead! get ahead! be like everybody else! it's ridiculous. it made things worse. a lot of that seemed to be based on fear: maybe if we scare these people enough they'll act like they don't feel like they do

In the early version of the song, "Everybody cares, everybody understands" (probably first sketched in the Fall of 1997), he says fairly straightforwardly:

but if you don't act just right, they kick you
in the head
but it isn't a real offense, you see
they're doing it out of sympathy


the dream-killing doctor says to describe my dream:
some things are for no one to
know and for you,
twelve-stepping cop, to not find out

His references in published interviews to this event in his life have for the most part been far more oblique than these lyrics. One of the few really explicit comments from him about it is in a later segment of the Jan. 2001 Magnet interview. Asked about suicide, he replied:

It's ugly and cruel and I really need my friends to stick around, but dying people should have that right. I was hospitalized for a little while and I didn't have that option, and it made me even crazier. ... I'm not a tortured artist, and there's nothing really wrong with me. I just had a bad time for awhile.

Also worth recalling are his comments about the song Amity on the 1998 album XO:

Some friends of mine said it sounded like I was trying to get something romantic going with someone, and that's not what it was supposed to be about. It was supposed to be, "You're really fun to be with and I really like you a lot because of that, but I am really, really depressed," but I don't know if that came across. When I said, "ready to go," it was supposed to mean tired of living. (Big Takeover no. 43)

Some lines from Amity:

God don't make no junk but it's plain to see
He still made me
He told me so
I'm good to go
I'm ready to go

x. shooting star

The Winter of 1997-1998 proved to be an eventful period in Elliott's life. In a series of events that have been too thoroughly chronicled in the press (check the articles section of Sweet Adeline for sample) to require detailed recital here, Elliott met Gus van Sant and agreed to have music from Either/Or plus one new song used in the film Good will hunting. Shortly thereafter, he was signed to Steven Spielberg's new Dreamworks label. He was diligently doing the studio work for his new album (eventually titled XO) when the surprising news came that "Miss Misery," the plaintive ballad he had written for the movie, had been nominated for Hollywood's favorite golden statuette award. A sampling of Elliott's comments upon the bizarre circumstances that led to him standing on stage taking a bow between Trisha Yearwood and Celiine Dion in Hollywood's mammoth Dorothy Chandler Pavilion:

"No, I shouldn't have won it .... If I won it, I would put it in my closet! But Celine will put it on her [mantelpiece] ... You like the suit? There was a suit I could never afford. This is as good as it looks, right here." Elliott on the Oscars La Luna, Portland, 5.16.98

It was surreal. The whole thing was a dream. In fact, it was someone else's dream. (John Chandler, "Hollywood Squares: Elliott Smith to Block," Rocket, Fall '98)

All this happened at a time when I was trying to finish the album and it was a pretty big distraction. (ibid.)

"It was a shortened version of a song that I made up. I mean, it wasn't difficult. I thought it would be either really fun 'cause it was so weird, kind of like riding on the space shuttle or something, or it would really suck because it's so fake and worthless. But it wasn't really either of those, it was sort of fun and really hollow." (Interview by David W. Jackson, Music Monitor, Fall '98)

I met Gus van Sant in Portland, Oregon when I lived there, through a mutual friend. He records himself at home also. We hung out and talked about microphones and cameras and stuff. I'd known him for like, maybe a year. He didn't discover me playing in a coffeeshop or anything, like I heard somebody wrote. In fact, I've never played in coffeeshops." (ibid)