Monday, October 21, 2013
It came to my attention earlier this evening that it has been ten years since Elliott Smith committed suicide. The topic has been covered extensively today, so I'm certain that my little story won't add a whole lot to the discussion. But I'm doing it anyway.
I probably first heard Elliot Smith around 1996, in the basement of my guitar player, Matt's, house.
This was a period when I was soaking up a whole lot of new music. I was in a punk band with Matt and a bunch of good natured (but highly opinionated) music nerds. They were quite a bit older than I was, and they knew their stuff. They took me under their wings and tried to course-correct me from my 90's metal and classic rock leanings. It so happened that I had an open mind back then, so the arrangement worked nicely.
Which is important, because Elliot Smith was decidedly not rocking.
Matt played me something off of Either/Or, while he raved and raved about the vocal arrangements and the quality of the harmonies. And while it didn't exactly speak to me, I couldn't say that the arrangements weren't impressive. Heck, just watching Matt I was impressed; the guy seemed to be positively jealous of Smith's talents.
It's funny how you remember a moment like that, when you hear something impressive for the first time...
A year or two later, I moved in with another guitar player, a guy named Greg.
Like Matt, Greg was smart and passionate, and he suffered no fools when it came to music. But he was a heck of a guy: he shared his unbelievably massive record collection without a second thought, and he took the time to expose me to all kinds of books and music. I learned a lot from him.
On the other hand, living with Greg could be a challenge. He was prone to bouts of depression. And I should have been more sensitive to that reality, except that his depression was consistently triggered by a compulsive desire to be with women who were mean, crazy and (more than a few times) lesbians. It was hard to watch a guy be such a ninja of self-sabatoge.
The one and only thing that made it tolerable was that Greg also had a passion for awesomely sad music. And for weeks on end, certain records would serve as the soundtracks to his various heartbreaks. His house was where I first heard Belle and Sebastian. It was where I first heard Nick Drake. And it was where I fist heard Elliot Smith's X/O.
X/O was in heavy rotation in Greg's house for months. Like four or five months. Perhaps half a year. And around month two, I grew to hate the record. I mean absolutely-fucking-detest it. If Greg wanted to take it personally that some girl wouldn't change her entire sexual preference just because he *liked* her, that was fine, but why did he have to drive everyone in the house into depression with that fucking album??
A funny thing happened, though.
A few years later I moved out of that house and gave a go at living alone. And for about a year or more, I spent nearly all of my free time throwing myself into destructive relationships. It's hard to explain why, so let's just say I was lonely.
The details beyond that aren't important, but I guess I'd be a total hypocrite if I didn't mention that the girl who left me most screwed up happened to be an individual who was living through a crisis of sexual orientation.
Suffice it to say, this was a sad, humiliating time. I was angry at myself a whole lot back then, completely full of disdain for my dumb decision making. I was too embarrassed to even tell my friends what was going on, which only made me feel more isolated and discouraged.
And that's when I downloaded "Waltz # 2".
I've written about this before....more than once, I think. But "Waltz # 2" was always a masterpiece for me, even during those days in Greg's house when I couldn't stand to hear it one more time. The lyrics ooze with exactly the kind of defeated resignation I was living with -- that place when depression isn't yet behind you and acceptance seems unbearable, so you park yourself in a stubborn stasis, consciously planting boobie traps of self-defeat all around you. Because...well, because it seems obvious at the time that you just aren't good enough for anything else.
Beyond the lyrics, there was the music, rooted in that plodding 3/4 time; it felt so much less like a waltz and more like the lost, lumbering pace with which I remember myself moving through that time....quite fitting, because I swear to God, my memories of that period mostly take place in slow motion.
It was a song I could sink into and wallow within. But it also brought me tremendous comfort. It was satisfying through every single listen, precisely because I had refused to share with anyone what was happening to me. I needed that song; as adolescent as it sounds, it was my confessional.
"Waltz # 2" is still a lovely work of art, and a magnificent capsule of pain. To this day, it receives my full attention each time, and I remain in awe that Smith was able to articulate all of that torment in the way that he did.
It's unfortunate that my entire appreciation of Elliot Smith basically boils down to one song...I know for certain that I have a tendency to look down on music fans who can't make a better effort than to learn just one song by an artist.
But I suppose that sometimes one song is enough.