in 1997, elliott smith was committed to a psychiatric hospital against his will. a year later he was singing to a tv audience of a billion. so why is the world's most gifted singer-songwriter still so terrified to talk about himself?
the door of a large tour bus opens and a pair of considerable scuffed shoes descend to the sidewalk. a small man blinks in the failing chicago sunlight. unsure of which direction to proceed in, he looks first to his left, then his right, before choosing the former. dressed in an ancient orange t-shirt which boasts the legend bust a move--something, it is probably safe to vouch, the owner has rarely ever done--and a pair of battered, schoolteacher-beige cordoroy trousers which have no hem to speak of, he looks so self-consciously unremarkable. he also looks pointedly poor, and the temptation to slip him a few quarters for a cup of soup is a powerful one.
in one hand, he holds what suspiciously looks like a laundry bag; in the other, cigarettes, a lighter, a mobile phone. elliott smith, for it is he, shrugs and fails to make eye contact once again.
'i've got to wash my stage clothes,' he deadpans. 'so, um, well.' and that's all he says.
as rain begins to fall, smith fails to pick up pace on his ambling journey down the road towards the laundromat. his detergent of choice is tide, although it remains unlikely that he will ever be asked to endorse it. once his clothes are in spin cycle, he retreats to a cafe across the street where they are playing some fm rock that is not to his liking. he says nothing, but attempts to placate mounting irritation by ordering a pot of calm-inducing green tea. conversation, of sorts, ensues, but it is awkward, stilted. presently, he makes a suggestion. after transferring his clothes into the dryer, he says, we really should think about changing location.
'there's a bar over there,' he says, pointing in some or other direction. 'we can drink there. and smoke.'
in the bar over the next hour, the gipsy kinds pouring steadily from the speakers, elliott smith will work his way thru just two beers, but upwards of five cigarettes. a sixth will remain unlit between his fingers, serving as an occasional punctuation instrument. before conversation really does start to flow, he will disappear to collect his washing, and he won't return. a famously reluctant interviewee, and quite possibly one of the shyest men on earth, he would much rather do his talking thru his music--which, he later says, often doesn't represent him at all.
although he looks every one of his 30 years,his demeanour remains that of a child: bashful eyes peering form behind an unkempty fringe, his arms hugging his slight frame for security. hard to believe that this man, one of america's most respected singer-songwriters, recently performed to a television audience of one billion souls.
with the release of his fifth solo album, figure 8, earlier this year, the position of elliott smith was set in stone. here stood a songwriter of no little repute, someone whose way with a vocal recalled simon & garfunkel, whose lyrics brought to mind an undead nick drake, and whose kaleidoscopic melodies could shine like smile-era beach boys and the beatles circa rubber soul. while he remains strictly a cult figure, the voracity with which his fans--and critics--love him suggests that word-of-mouth could make him this year's macy gray. in other words, someone who could creep along the periphery stealthily before, quite suddenly, becoming very successful indeed.
'i don't like to think about things like that,' he says, looking faintly bewildered.
smith doesn't do stardom. only once in his career has he bothered to enquire about album sales. a year into the release of 1998's crossover record xo, he learned that it had sold upwards of 300,000 copies. 'it's hardly multi-million, is it? i mean, it made me happy, but i wasn't sure exactly how i was supposed to feel. after that, i decided not to get any more updates. it's not healthy for what i do.'
that same year, smith found himself in the unlikely position of having been nominated for an oscar. he had contributed five songs to the soundtrack of good will hunting, at the behest of director gus van sant, and one, miss misery, landed a nomination. on 23 march, 1998, smith performed at the ceremony--dressed hilariously in a suit--in between other nominees, including celine dion and michael bolton. a fifth of the world's population tuned in.
'yeah, but they probably didn't pay much attention to me,' he says with a customary shrug. 'to be honest, it wasn't really a big deal. it's only journalists who seem to think it is.' the gong, perhaps predictable, went to dion. 'i'm glad i didn't win. if i did, i'd have been placed in this little box forever, and never able to live it down.'
nevertheless, it did have an impact on his career. his
first three solo lps--1994's roman candle, an eponymous effort a year
later, and 1997's either/or--were re-released to great acclaim and xo
yielded a hit single in watlz #2. none of this gave him any gret pleasure.
currently halfway thru a six-week tour of america, smith gets nightly
requests from crowds to play waltz #2, requests he continually
'i'm sick of that song,' he says later, his mouth downturned.
born 30 years ago in omaha, nebraska, eliott smith had a nomadic childhood. after his teacher mother and hippy preacher father split, he moved with the former to dallas. by 14, he was living with his father in portland, oregon. by then he had already experienced a brief heavy metal phase (to which he would one day return), and had learned how to play the piano along to works by debussy and rachmaninov. his first song was composed when he was 13. 'it had no words to it,' he recalls. 'it was just instrumental, full of, you know, musical transition stuff.'
after college, he first worked in drywall--an occupation made famous by john goodman in tv's roseanne, and something no-one outside america has any comprehension of --then became a baker. and while he was pondering whether or not to next become a fireman, he formed his first band, heatmiser. the year was 1991, and smith was back listening to his first musical love. as incongruous as it may now seem, heatmiser were metal. local legend has it they kicked ass.
'there was a lot of emphasis on volume,' he remembers. 'looking back, i think i was probably stifled by it, because noise was often more important than the lyrics.' regardless, he found screaming into a microphone quite cathartic. 'it was often very satisfying, and if you think about it, what i'm doing today isn't that dissimilar. i can rock out. you saw me do it at the show last night.'
beg pardon? last night, smith played for 75 pronoundecly sensitive minutes. the songs, culled from all his solo albums, were uniformly delicate, punctuated by delightfully cascading piano and a voice that could make a cat purr.
'well, i may not have the same vocal power of, say, henry rollins, but that's probably due to the limitations of my voice,' he shrugs. 'but i can still get quite loud. i still scream.'
after three albums, heatmiser broke up and elliott went on to scream alone. the nomadic urge hit him once again, and he moved to brooklyn--here he would spend the next several years in and out of bars, pen and paper in hand, waiting for inspiration to find him.
'but not in a voyeristic way,' he insists. 'i didn't choose to write song in public places so i could eavesdrop into the lives of other people. that's cannibalistic. i just like the white noise of bars, the fact that there is always something happening. but i don't sit there with my eyes peeled or anything.'
after the first of two sold-out nights at chicago's metro, elliott, his band and former girlfriend/travelling companion, joanne, go to a bar for post-show drinks. while the general air is one of honhomie, smith seems somewhat downcast, lost in himself. perhaps it is because of q's presence--he claims to hate being observed by anyone--but he looks like a little boy waiting for his dad to pick him up and take him home.
the next day, smith is in typically ebullient form.
'hey,' he says, in mumbled greeting, before shuffling off to the toilet.
initially, talk revolves around the night before. he doesn't know exactly how long they went on drinking, not because memories have been obliterated by alcohol but because he is naturally vague. recently, for example, he met tv geek documentarian louis theroux. they chatted for some time. what was he like? smith can't remember. when he recounts chatting to a strange man in the laundromat, someone asks him how old the strange man was. smith has no idea. recently, he left his beloved brooklyn and moved to la, despite the fact that he doesn't like la, and prefers teeming rain to blazing sunshine. why la, then?
he frowns, and reaches for another cigarette. 'i don't know. maybe because that's the last place anyone would expect me to live?'
right. does he like it there?
'not particularly. but it will do for now.'
has he made many friends?
'no,' he says, shaking his head slowly. 'i don't really meet new people so much. i just kinda have short interactions with them and move on.'
so he's a loner?
'no, i wouldn't say that at all.'
suddely, purpose becomes visible on his features. he actually sits himself up straight. 'i'm really not keen on that stereotype of the singer-songwriter as archetypal loner,' he says. 'that's so obvious. i don't fit anyone's perceptions of what i should be. and i will do anything i can within my power to prevent myself becoming just another cartoon rock star with all manner of dysfunctions.'
so he isn't particularly dysfunctional, then?
'not particularly,' he decides. 'well, no more than anyone else, but i wouldn't describe myself as normal either.'
'i just don't feel like have much in common with anyone else. especially within the music industry. there's a lot of pressure to make money in this industry, to wear the right kind of clothes and to become as famous as possible. 'i don't feel i'm in that kind of circle. it's also a very confessional kind of culture, which is something else i'm not into.'
while he will confess to having experimented with drugs--his 1995 release, elliott smith, has since been dubbed his 'heroin record' (although not by him)--and the fact that he continues to do so, occasionally, if only to widen the scope of his songwriting, he'd rather not talk about it at all. the mere mention of the 'd' word makes him wince.
'people are forever trying to interpret my songs as if they are all particularly revealing about my life,' he grumbles. 'if i experiment with certain things, that's my business. people can look all they want into my lyrics but often my songs don't really mean anything. they are just snapshots of life--but not necessarily my life. i think the suggestion that all my songs are personal is insulting because that assumes that i just have a bunch of issues that i feel the need to unload on strangers. that,' he says with emphasis, 'is not the case. it also assumes that i just talk about myself the whole time which, again, is not true songs for me are about mystery. their charm is that they are open-ended.'
one interpretation of the songs on figure 8 is that the elliptical references to doctors and infirmaries refer to the episode in smith's life when, almost three years ago now, he was committed to a psychiatric hospital against his will. do they?
smith ponders this question for some time and blows cigarette smoke towards the window, from which he'd presumably like to make his getaway.
'maybe' is all he says.
later that eveing, a determinedly friday night crowd are affording smith's show a rapturous reception. tonight's set predominantly features songs form his latest lp, and the performance is considerably more affirmative than the previous night's. although he never manages to let himself go in the manner he imagines, there are flashes of the heatmiser power he talked about earlier.
intermittently he will force a smile, perhaps even offer a thank you after every fifth song, but that is about as much singer/crowd interaction as he will indulge in. when able simply to get along with the business of singing, smith is clearly in his element and, live, he sounds far less fragile than the records suggest. cries for waltz #2 continue throughout, and smith continues to ignore them. flowers are presented to him during the encore, as is a home-made monkey stitched together out of several socks. a note is passed to him: 'elliott, you were wonderful as ever.'
75 minutes later, the show is over, and the house lights go up. while the rest of the band quickly make their way onto the tour bus which, later tonight, will head fo rminneapolis, smith sits on a chair in the small dressing room, alone, and drinks a beer. he looks awkward again, although he does admit the show tonight went very well. in a few minutes he will head outside and sign a few autographs. if any fans become a little too zealous--as some occasionally do--then the tour bus door will open and he will quickly run for cover.
'mostly they just want me to sign things, which is fine,' he says, cautiously. 'sometimes, though, certain people can be a little weird, like they are convinced i wrote a song with them in mind, even though we've never met before. or they think i'm not as good as i used to be, and take it personally.'
do any of them become aggressive?
'once in a while, yeah,' he says. 'i've had people approach
me in bars just to tell me they don't like me. if that happens, i just
try to diffuse the situation by telling them that it's really not worth
them going out of their way to criticise me, because
an ironic smile flashes across his face for the briefest of seconds. and then it's gone. five minutes later, so too is he.
thanks to rebekah