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."
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.
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
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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."
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."
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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 to care
what people thought about me when no one knew who i was."
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.
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.
rock bands, there's quite a repertoire of categories to choose
from. they have maybe 20 categories. for the singer/songwriter,
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
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?
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
pay our whopping bar tab, both elliott and scott win fairly sizable
jackpots at video poker. "we got lucky," scott says.
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.