his new album is called figure eight, so we asked elliott smith to reveal eight firsts from a truly misspent youth.
"when i was a kid, all i wanted was to be in a band." the man in the leather wristband lights another fag. mine, in fact. "when that didn't work out, i thought it was game over." well, it wasn't, and with his new album, "figure eight", as likely to sucker-punch your heart as anything elliott smith has ever recorded, the maker wanted to know more. so, armed with only a comfortable chair, some chilled beer and an old acoustic guitar, smith will help you "figure eight" (a belfast accent helps here) an octet of the early events in his life that made him who he is now. "my first memory," chuckles elliott, cradling his guitar in a hotel room that towers over west london, "is of breaking the tv by repeatedly flicking the volume and turning the set on and off. i was three. it was the first piece of electronic equipment i was ever allowed to operate. the first day i was, i broke it."
what was it about the tv? "the colours, just the colours! later, 1 got really into cartoons - 'h&r' 'puffenstuff', y'know, crap like that."
it may well have been those very cartoons that turned young elliott - current holder of the most-sensitive-man-in-rock trophy - on to those unwisely shod, clown-faced freaks, kiss. "the first record i ever bought was kiss' 'alive II', with gene simmons all covered in blood on the front. as a boy in dallas, they were about as good as it got. when i heard the clash though, anything that wasn't kiss or ac/dc became cool: punk! for example, bauhaus was punk, wearing plastic pants was punk, a friend having a skateboard made us all punks!" elliott picks up his guitar and picks out a tune. ok, i offer, now your songs could make henry rollins weep, but the first ones were rubbish, right? "they were ambitious more than anything else," he admits, reaching for a fresh beer. "they had no words, just sequences that didn't repeat. i'm sure i'd find them irritating to listen to now. when i started writing lyrics, people just complained, like, oh, fuck all this! everybody seemed set to do the same thing, like go to a job they hated every day."
did the adolescent pressure turn you to drink? "oh, that was years earlier," he trumpets. "i was 10 years old." ten! "new people moved into the house next door to mine and they had a pool table so, obviously, i was over there all the time. there was this big kid who was 14 and he was on the football team. i looked up to him, as he was older and i didn't want him to beat me up."
"anyway, one day he had this bottle of clear liquid
with a root in. i had no idea what it was, and glugged it like water."
as we all know, booze leads to harder stuff. like, erm,
pot, which a 14 year old elliott first tried behind his local church.
what do you remember about it? "it didn't really work for me, but my friend was running around shouting (adopts heroic voice] 'this is great!' about an hour later, he looked at me and said, (adopts whispery, whiny voice) 'what if it never goes away?' he was freaked out. the second time it worked, music sounded amazing."
what about your first heartbreak? "that was around the end of school." elliott fixes the ashtray with a keen stare. "my girlfriend was going to college. i didn't fancy it, but ended up going to the same place as her, an experimental college with no grades. before we went, she said to me, 'there'll be a lot of new people and it probably won't work out', which i assumed meant it was over. actually, she just wanted me to say that it wouldn't be." head-fuck, thy name be woman. "exactly!"
smith stuck it out and eventually graduated with his
first qualification, a
well, there's always pop stardom. smith in tried it with his first band heatmiser, but nothing really happened for him until he buried himself away and started making records at home, for himself, opening up a rich vein of heartfelt, bitter-sweet jewels that shows little sign of drying up. but, if it does, there's always tv. "i leave it on now," he smiles, "but with the sound turned down. i've learnt my lesson."
thanks to lynsey