is a philosopher, a jocular barroom buddy, but he's also a loner,
the bukowski-esque malcontent with a great american sadness etched
into his gnarled visage. truly, he is of the grand tradition...
tequila (with orange), and wine. whiskey (Irish). another lager.
another guinnesss. a couple of bottles of bass. with more whiskey
still irish. always irish. welcome to the post-elliott sith concert
experience, tonight visiting o' donnell's irish pub in downtown
minneapolis. the establishment is rammed, its customers substantially
guttered, the time ten after 11. Less than two legal drinking
hours to go.
in hand, elliott smith looks happy and, for the alleged undisputed
shyest man in pop, positively relaxed. sixty minutes earlier
he came offstage at the first avenue club just across the road,
the minneapolis venue of legends where purple rain's concert
footage was filmed. now, he has the opportunity for a little
liquid r&r before getting onto the bus and yet another nocturnal
drive from somewhere or other to somewhere else. elliott's
drinking harp (you remember harp, the one that 'stays sharp -
to the bottom of the glass'). harp lager, lager, lager, lager...
a woman is
struggling to be heard above the din and through the beery haze.
eventually she has elliott within gushing range. most likely
his delicate touch with melody, or his band's deft power, or
maybe the delicious and unexpected cover of neil young's 'harvest
That was a wonderful show! your songs are so beautiful! I haven't
been so moved by anyone's lyrics since, oh... since, ummmm...
oh, since roger waters! They're the best lyrics since 'dark side
of the moon'!"
the roger waters, grumpy fella who used to be in pink floyd but
sought the freedom to compose grossly overwrought concept albums
unencumbered by his erstwhile colleagues' occasional spasms of
taste. the man whose 'the pros and cons of hitch-hiking' lp sleeve
featured a not obviously ironic shot of a slender young female,
thumb outstretched and inescapably naked. the lyricist who gave
the world, "we don't need no education". The same roger
waters with whom elliott smith, our oscar-nominated soul minet
supreme, is now being earnestly and favourably compared.
this one over. he's been touring the usa for seven-and-a-half
weeks, the latest installment of an extended global road kick
that began in august 1998 and won't be concluded until the middle
of may. he's played in large halls, small halls and halls that
don't really deserve to be called
halls, he's played in tents and in fields, he's played in broom
cupboards cunningly disguised as radio studios, and in television
sudios littered with bona fide pop stars, both dead and alive.
he's come a long way, babies, in the past nine months, met a
lot of nice people along the way, too, but one can safely assert
this is the first time elliott smith has been compared to roger
waters. Under the circumstances, he copes as well as could be
uh... (looks at feet) mmmm i... (looks at ceiling)... err (coughs),
thank you. thank you very much." well, what would you say?!
elliott sensibly decides it's time to have another drink, then
start dancing like michael jackson.
thickest at its middle, and you can't get much more middle american
than minneapolis, proud home to the largest shopping mall in
world. unless, that is, you have the opportunity to compare it
with lawrence, kansas, where elliott smith shall wake up tomorrow
morning. yesterday it was chicago. considering he's been living
out of an
eight-wheeled steel test tube for the past two months, he's looking
pretty good. tired eyes, greasy hair, woebegone deportment -
but hey, he can still
smile about it.
sat with his
girlfriend joanna in a near deserted o' donnell's as his band
begin soundchecking in the first avenue, elliott shudders and
holds his head
in his hands. he's just caught his reflection in a mirror.
barnet is a bone of contention. it's greasy because he's been
wearing his trademark red woolly hate for the past fortnight.
he wears the
hat because he doesn't really like the way his hair looks. and
so on. cutting it short isn't an option, joanna explains, because
elliott is receding unevenly all around his pate.
a weird shaped head, too," adds elliott.
a bad hair
day, every day. is it possible to pursue a schedule like this
and not go insane?
been touring a lot for the last two years in the us, it has a
certain rhythm to it that I'm used to," he says, in his
careful, measured tones. "a tour goes in phases. at the
start it's like, 'this is exciting.' then the second week is
like, 'ok, we're playing really good together.' and then the
middle's like not the beginning or the end, it's just... the
laughs. "it always seems to be the south in the middle."
and now towards
the end he finds himself in the middle, as it were. for a relatively
small city and despite - or no doubt partly because of - its
demeanour, minneapolis has been a disproportionately important
for years. Having given birth in years gone by to prince and
husker du, and presently the kernel of america's keenest underground
electronica scene, its punters reckon they know what's what.
mid-set at the first avenue's downstairs bar, while the likes
of 'speed trials' and 'pictures of me' from elliott's pre-oscars,
pre-major label, pre-mtv-approved alt-rock-pin-up past are being
appluaded and mouthed along to with as much respectful gusto
as the 'xo' material, a heated debate breaks out as to which
smith song is the most 'poetic'.
such an issue
is not the usual currency of rock gig discourse, but then smith
is not he usual rock gig performer. eighteen months ago he appeared
at the knitting factory in new york's soho for a spoken-word
evening featuring, among others, fellow emo-warrior mark eitzel
("i had to talk him into it").
the knitting factory is a small place, so the following day elliott
disciples everywhere hit the worldwide web to find out what they
had missed. "the one
thing I heard somebody wrote on the internet was that I read
some 'bad poetry'," smith deadpans.
and how would
you assess their assessment?
it wasn't poetry!" he laughs. "it was just a bunch
of crap i made up that day. i wind up making up a lot of stuff,
i wouldn't say that it's good or bad, it's just a bunch of stuff
that comes about on the way towards a song. it didn't particularly
rhyme, didn't make a whole lot of sense, it was just a big cloud
of words obscuring something that i might want to try and figure
out at some point. honestly, i can't remember what it was i was
talking about that night. something about numbers."
words, they're a lot of what he does, but he recoils from the
notion that his lyrics can be read in isolation, from the lyric
sheets he makes a point of including with each record. to him,
they're not in any way 'poetic'. he prints his lyrics simply
because as a child he liked looking at the back of 'sgt Pepper'
and following what the beatles were singing about.
there's a song that I don't wanna print the lyrics to,"
he says. "i left one off 'either/or' - 'cupid's trick' -
because I didn't know what the lyrics meant any more. I made
them up... in a state. they made sense to me then, but they were
so far from being something that could be taken apart from the
song that i didn't want to write them down."
however, think differently. The words to 'cupid's trick', along
with every other smith song ever released and half-a-dozen that
on public view at the sweet adeline website. as well as accessing
the latest news from elliottworld, here fans can trade bootlegs,
express their love for
the man in endearingly wholesome terms ("elliott's the tops!")
and enter a competition to win a bunch of elliott rarites. the
quesitons range from the
disconcertingly easy - "what's the tile of elliott's second
solo record (hint: it's not called 'kill rock stars')" -
to the worryingly esoteric: "what is the extra song on the
import japanese version of 'either/or'?" ooh, that's a toughie.
aware that the intense scrutiny impelled by this goldfishbowl
world can cause sensitive young people already given to more
than usually intense bouts of introspection, to fold in on themselves
competely, elliott professes to keep a distance from his virtual
I slip up and read stuff, but in general I had to stop monitoring
the little sea of opinions, 'cos it's just not healthy to think
about yourself all the time. especilaly being on tour, it's so
centred on myself. but it's mostly a matter of my attitude, and
if I can keep it positive then that's the main battle."
and is it
a time that I could be talking to my friends about them, and
not about me. that's what i have to do. it's only a battle if
the world all gets boiled down to me and what I'm doing. that
seems to happen to a lot of bands, y'know? their world gets really
small and it all has to centre around them and then they just
lose it. no, i've figured out things to do to get around that."
are you doing
this for you, primarily?
know. it sounds corny to say, but... i like music! i've liked
it since i was a kid and I'm doing it for that. some people are
like, 'you've got to do it for the kids,' and some people are
like, 'i just do it for me.' and i don't really feel like either
of those. those options are small. anything that people can do
that's creative is definitely worth doing, so
this is what i do, for as long as i can do it.
the day is a marvelous thing - provided you don't have anything
too complicated to accomplish later on. half-past-two in the
afternoon, and elliott smith is well on the way to getting near
the point where he could justifialby consider having his second
pint of harp. he's got a gig to play
in six hours, but ten years of rock life have told him what he
can and can't get away with.
for all the
trauma of his eponymous second album, his notorious 'smack record',
alcohol is a far more consistent thread in smith's work than
the thin white rope. drinking establishments, their patrons and
the stuff these people do, say and drink are forever swimming
through his songs. witness new
single 'baby britain', a cherub-faced nod to the beatles' "it's
getting better' whose subjects aren't sure whether another round
is really what they need, but it's what they're gonna have anyway.
as with all the best smith songs, its strength lies in the ambiguous
perspective of the narrator and it's deluge of terse imagery.
not to mention a heady inducement to have a tipple.
but these days i'm tring to take that piece of the puzzle back
out," says elliott. "just 'cos i think that's cropped
up enough already in my songs. but it's hard to fully dispense
with because it's such a permanent feature of people that i know.
not that they're necessarily alcoholic, some of them, but...
y'know, it's the only legal drug! (laughs) i don't think
drugs are very interesitng to write about in themselves, but
he reasons why people want to feel differently from how they
would normally feel is a very interesting subject. a couple of
records back, there was more hard drug imagery, and some people
thought, 'oh, all these songs are about dope'. well no, they're
not about that, they're about something about people. they're
trying to paint a little portrait of this fight between the thing
people like about themselves and the thing they want to get away
some people do drugs, some people exercise. people find all kinds
of ways to get out of the humdrum repetitive nature of having
to be the same person all the time," he pauses for a second
or two's thought and a mouthful of harp. "but it might not
be very interesting to write a song that
describes the experiecne of jogging!" hahaha!"
first got drunk when he was 11. the big kid who lived next door
invited him round to play pool then got him to drink some homemade
moonshine. "i wasn't very good at pool after that, "
he admits. "but i didn't have a hangover. too young. at
one point i built up a big tolerance, then i had to cut back.
i've kinda narrowed all drugs down to just beer and irish whiskey,
and that's it. and even then, i've come to the conclusion over
the past several years that it doesn't make my life better to
and lots of whiskey every night! i like to drink it sometimes."
he earns his tipple. for such a bashful performer, elliott smith
can grip a crowd with unexpected force. once hooked we're dragged
half-embace to places everyone's been to, but just hasn't gotten
around to really looking at properly. it's a gift, but then again,
as he says, he likes music. it's what he does.
do you know
any jokes, elliott?
i've actually hear a lot of jokes on the bus on this tour. but
i'm better at appreciating them than telling them! hmm, trying
to think of a good one. all the ones i know are just so stupid!
ok, here's one! why don't cannibals eat clowns?"
we don't know,
elliott. why don't cannibals eat clowns?
they taste funny!"
it's the way he tells 'em. and there's more!
a whole series of cannibal jokes! one was... haha! so dumb! what
does a cannibal get after he eats someone's head?" elliott
helplessly. "the cold shoulder! hahahaha!!!"