"you gotta get out there and show what it's like to be a person. that's what i'm gonna do. it might be good or it might be bad, but i'm gonna show what it's like to be a person."
bargain bins throughout the cosmos are littered with "solo" albums those second helpings of the same ol' shit aimed at the mentally defective, die-hard fan, excreted from a member of some established rock band. usually these nasty little buggers are the offspring of an ego-laden lead singer who feels that the band format is too confining for his/her wide-ranging genius. the most ubiquitous of all rock starts, mick jagger, has recorded solo albums, and nary a one of them is worth a squirt of warm pee. most songwriters simply don't have sufficient creative salt to make that much worthwhile music. elliott smith would appear to be an exception. after three full-length albums and one ep with heatmiser, and three highly-acclaimed solo albums, it would seem mr. smith has the best of both worlds.
with heatmiser, we get volume. we get riffs. we get brains-out hard rock that doesn't drag its knuckles over the grave of the lowest common denominator. the last album, in particular, mic city sons (virgin/caroline), is as rewarding a journey thru crash chords and buttoned-down bitterness as you're liable to embark upon.
with the solo albums we get a quiet glimpse of rock bottom, with elliott serving as the whispering narrator. we get unapologetic, unsentimental, harsh charcoal sketches of life-turned-to-shit by caving in to the self-destructive devil in the ear. like the unrepentant drunk in "st. ides heaven" or the relapsed junkie in "the white lady loves you more," elliott smith's songs are peopled with losers, boozers, dreamers and ghosts that alternately drift and plummet thru their existence, looking for the next big fuck up. one might think that, as an artist, elliott would be creatively fulfilled by having outlets for both his reflective yin and raging yang. wrong. his two-world time share proved to be a disaster. "with heatmiser, i couldn't really write anything pleasing to my lyrically. i was really unhappy," he admits.
it's taken awhile, but elliott smith is finally happy. the gifted portland singer/songwriter has shed the trappings of a musical past that resigned his talents to loud power chords instead of the carefully crafted moods exhibited on his new kill rock stars release, either/or. It's the first sunny day in portland in months, and we're holed up in the darkness of my father's place for a session of bad jukebox music, watery beer and video poker. over the course of three hours, elliott describes his songwriting as not only an artistic process, but his chance at ongoing self-discovery and, most importantly, liking what he's found.
"i was in total denial about the music i was playing," elliott says about his tenure with the late heatmiser. "i was being a total actor, acting out a role i didn't even like. i couldn't come out and show where i was coming from. i was always disguised in this loud rock band. i'm happy i'm not doing that now. it's not a fun way to live."
heatmiser weren't exactly helmet, but it wasn't until mic city sons that smith was able to somewhat satisfy his songwriting instincts, resulting in a much more subdued, but ultimately rewarding, record. "me and neil [gust*the other half of the heatmiser writing duo] decided to crash the party and take over, which pretty much destroyed the band," recounts elliott.
"[in the beginning] we all got together, everyone wanted to play in a band and it was fun, then after a couple of years we realized that none of us really liked this kind of music, and that we didn't have to play this way. you didn't have to turn all these songs you wrote into these loud . . . things."
many longtime northwesties would disagree with smith's assessment, at least in terms of heatmiser's formidable body of word. dead air and cop and speeder (both frontier) are both standout rock albums more intelligent and well-written than most card-carrying members of the genre can muster. "it was kinda weird people that came to our shows, a majority of them were people that i couldn't relate to at all," elliott says. "why aren't there more people like me coming to the shows? well, it's because i'm not even playing the kind of music that i really like."
coaxed into it by a friend, elliott released roman candle (cavity search) in 1994 his first stab at going solo. though a bit tentative (there are four unnamed songs), the album displays glimpses of the understated, confessional brilliance that would mark his later work. "i'd been recording stuff like that since i was about 14 on four-track," elliott recalls. "i had tens of hours of songs. i didn't play them for anyone except for one friend. i never thought about them as anything that would work for heatmiser. i never planned to do any solo shows." encouraged by the positive feedback from his debut, elliott continued to record, and began playing as a solo artist.
it was around the time of his self-titled, second solo album (kill rock stars, 1995) that the shit really began to hit the fan. another heatmiser album loomed large on the horizon, and by this time elliott was dreaming of life without the band. his despair over dragging himself thru an unwanted recording session and losing valuable time for his own songwriting was taking its toll. there is certainly no ambiguity over the tone of the second solo album, which is rich in bleak imagery and tales of addiction, failure and doom, leading journalists and fans alike to speculate over the "smith myth." elliott acknowledges that his songs are a mixture of autobiography and observation, but offers few specific details.
"the last one wasn't specifically about dope," he says, "but i used dope as a vehicle to talk about dependency and no-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, everyone read the songs at a very surface level. they wanted to know why there were so many songs about heroin. i'm just trying to make things so i enjoy being me."
while weathering this emotional low-point, elliott grew weary of local scrutiny. craving anonymity, he considered an extended change of scenery. "i was going to move to new york, but now i'm not," he says. "this is where i'm from, and i'm going to stick with it. i probably will live in new york for a while, but i'm not dying to do it anymore.
"my problems won't be any different in new york than they are here. i can't pretend anymore like i could be just anybody. that was part of the attraction of moving to New York that i could go there and by anybody. i'm thru with that. i can't just be anybody. there are things about me that would be present in new york, just the same as here."
in the midst of wading thru contractual mire for mic city sons, smith's solo recordings and intimate performances had already netted him healthy notoriety (including a blurb or two in rolling stone) something he wasn't prepared to deal with. "there's a part of me that wants to go as far as i fucking can with this," he explains with something resembling confidence. "i had a real problem with that the whole of last year. i felt it was essential to never get anywhere in a commercial sense in order to feel like what i was doing was worth anything.
spent like a whole year with my head spinning around because i had a
name for myself. i considered myself impenetrable to having any sort
of notoriety turn my head around, what little notoriety that i've gotten,
which is not even on the same scale with someone like beck, bummed me
out bad. it made it almost impossible to get either/or done. i recorded
30 songs for the album, and i couldn't pick out any that i liked. i
thought they all sucked, because it was like a little germ of what other
people see me as infected everything. it was extremely easy for me not
part of the goodwill elliott now feels for both himself and his abilities stems from his coming to grips with the dreaded "singer/songwriter" tag a term with brings a mountain of preconceptions to the table. "it sounds like you're talking about someone whose craft is more important than anything else," elliott replies, when that description is leveled his way. "then there's the usual cute contrivance in the lyrics and the heavy-handed reliance on metaphor; on giant metaphor that's supposed to carry the whole song.
"with rock bands, there's quite a repertoire of categories to choose from. they have maybe 20 categories. for the singer/songwriter, there's like two categories; the funny, cute one [jonathan Richman] or the downcast, corny one [leonard cohen]. the only one who kept getting out of the box consistently was dylan. he continually shirked off all the crap that was piled on top of him based on whatever stylistic mood he was in before."
the shirking of crap piled on him by the expectations of others in something that elliott smith continues to strive for. "i'm doing my best. i felt it really hard last year, but not nearly as hard as someone like dylan. i mean, how many albums do i sell? how many people know who i am?
"i'm feeling pretty good about [songwriting] right now. i feel pretty positive; probably because i'm taking anti-depressants. i already did my time where i felt everything i did was a big piece of crap, and that the music business was going to grind me into the dirt. now i just feel good about it. i want to do it."
with heatmiser finally laid to rest, elliott can concentrate on the business at hand namely promoting either/or, an album where his talents are focused and are on full display.
many of the songs employ multiple instruments, all of which smith plays nimbly, weaving the various textures that make up his craft. "what's interesting to me is to wear all the hats; play the bass and think like a bass player. play the drums and think like a drummer," elliott says. "i make a band with chemistry out of how i would like it to be if there were other people." add to that some clever, clean production (courtesy of guess who?) that lets you really experience all of elliott's hats, and you've got something.
while there are some happy, even uplifting moments that shine thru clearly a departure for Smith the record does not always reflect his current good spirits. don't let the beatles-esque bounce of "pictures of me" lull you into snacking in sugar-pop paradise "jailer who sells personal hells/who'd like to see me down on my fucking knees/everybody's dying just to get the disease" this candy apple has a razor in it.
"i was on a big pop kick when i was recording," elliott explains. "i listened to magical mystery tour every day. the first two records, and especially the second one, were more idea-driven than catchiness-driven. if you didn't catch the feeling I was writing about, then the music probably wouldn't reel you in."
either/Or concludes with "say yes," an unblinkingly positive song (the first time around, anyway), sounds as out of place on an elliott smith album as a trombone solo on a slayer tune. "i'm in love with the world thru the eyes of a girl," he gushes without a trace of irony.
"it's an insanely optimistic song," elliott says. "i'd just broken up with my girlfriend. i'd never been able to stay with anyone before, and i couldn't handle it, but then i really wanted her back. i'd fucked everything up and i wrote that song while we were broken up, and it was kind of a fantasy. it took me about five minutes, music and words."
for those curmudgeons out there who don't want to hear the artist when he's in a good mood, shame on you, because this is the best album that elliott smith has produced, and that's saying something.
before we pay our whopping bar tab, both elliott and scott win fairly sizable jackpots at video poker. "we got lucky," scott says.
"life pretty much dictates what's going to happen," elliott says as we shuffle toward the door. the sun is still shining. happy days are here again.
thanks to jake