What Elliott Smith means to me

I heard Elliott Smith’s music for the first time in a movie theater over Christmas break when I was in high school. I was seventeen and for years had sought refuge in music, from OK Computer to Sondre Lerche. By this point in my life, I had managed to catch a Rilo Kiley show before the band broke up. I watched international music channels every morning before school. During that time, I sought out new music far more than I do today.

Remembering myself in this context, I’m still surprised that I had never listened to Smith’s music before. October 21, 2003, was just another day for me; I had no idea that years later, I would absent-mindedly think that I’d like to see Elliott Smith in concert some day, only to remember with renewed shock that he’s not here any more.

The first song I heard was “Angel in the Snow,” and the film was Up in the Air. In a rare move, I ended up buying the film’s soundtrack a few days after seeing it, and I quickly settled into listening to “Angel in the Snow” again and again on repeat. “Don’t you know that I love you? / Sometimes I feel like only a cold still life / That fell down here to lay beside you,” Smith sang in a soft, whispery voice that underwhelmed me. I knew that he was famous and maybe expected more punch from that song. But like most of Smith’s work (and like his death), I didn’t feel the impact until after the fact. Now, when I hear that song, I’m immediately transported back to a moment crystallized in my memory: the plummeting opening melody stuck in my head as I sat in the hall of my high school during lunch, surrounded by other stressed-out kids frantically studying for midterms but completely in my own head. Outside, the football practice field was crunchy with snow.

Since then, I’ve gradually collected Smith’s discography. Either/Or was the soundtrack to my morning commute to school during my senior year and has stayed in my car’s CD player permanently since then. Self-titled played in my headphones during my first semester of college. The end of last summer was all about From a Basement on a Hill, snagged at a record store for $4. A friend gave me XO and I listened to it ten times in a row when I moved back home this summer. Last fall, I bought a used copy of Figure 8 at a record store in Charlottesville and since then I have wondered why anyone would ever give that CD up. Disc one of New Moon played during a strange interim between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year. I have purposely not listened to disc two of New Moon or Roman Candle, preferring to save a few records while I continue to digest the ones I have.

What I appreciate the most about Smith’s fan community is the sense of mutual respect. Too many circles of indie listeners waste their time trying to one-up each other with “I bet you’ve never heard” and “you can’t really appreciate so-and-so unless you’ve listened to so-and-so.” Smith is off limits in this way. His music feels too personal, too painful to use as a bartering tool for social status among listeners – and not just personal to him, but personal to his listeners, who habitually seem to incorporate his words and melodies into private personal soundtracks impossible to otherwise express. On YouTube, commenters are so frequently nasty – “if you came here because of a film, you’re not really a fan,” people constantly snipe at one another – but I’ve never encountered that type of conversation on a Smith page. On a comment thread beneath one song, someone commented that they had felt suicidal and that the song had helped them. A few months later, another comment appeared in response to this one: “Are you okay?” it said. “Did you manage to get help?”

Last summer, a friend and I reread The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, the source of one of Smith’s tattoos, and noticed for the first time how haunting the ending really is:

Ferdinand ran to the middle of the ring and everyone shouted and clapped because they thought he was going to fight fiercely and butt and snort and stick his horns around. But not Ferdinand. When he got to the middle of the ring he saw the flowers in all the lovely ladies’ hair and he just sat down quietly and smelled. He wouldn’t fight and be fierce no matter what they did. He just sat and smelled. And the Banderilleros were mad and the Picadores were madder and the Matador was so mad he cried because he couldn’t show off with his cape and sword. So they had to take Ferdinand home.

And for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly.

He is very happy.

Does Ferdinand live or die? Can he exist in a world that’s fundamentally hostile to his personality? These were the harrowing existential questions that we couldn’t answer, buried in what at first glance seems to be a simple, lovely children’s book.

Smith means something different to everyone, but listening to his music has made some bad days a little less bad for me. None of this has anything to do with Scotland, but the post I planned to publish today can wait. I can’t attend any of the memorial concerts, so from where I’m sitting, this the closest I can come to contributing to a vast, emotional literature of Smith’s value. I don’t want to write puns of his song titles and I don’t have anything to prove; he just means a lot to me, and today I want to share that.

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