The Moon Is A Lightbulb Breaking: In Memory Of Elliott Smith


Like Elliott Smith—as big a Beatles fan as there probably ever was—I never met John Lennon. I saw Nirvana as many times as most people of my relative age and musical proclivities (maybe even a few more, since I was practically in their backyard when the band and grunge “broke”), but Kurt Cobain was always more of a generational icon to me than any kind of tangible presence. I was living in New York when Jeff Buckley emerged fully formed from his residency at Sin-e to go on to critical acclaim and superstardom. But standing several rows back from the stage in a Manhattan nightclub was as close as I ever got to him.

Elliott Smith, on the other hand, was decidedly real to me. Human. Humble. Flawed. Generous. Opinionated. Fragile. He was all of these things (and a good deal more) to countless others as well.

I had the good fortune to meet Elliott on a couple of occasions and saw him lurking around Portland on many others. His preferred mode of operation was stealth; to be out and doing his thing, but silently—trying his damnedest not to draw attention to himself (hence the knit hat, the mangled trucker cap; camouflage devices that shielded his face from prying eyes). Sometimes this even seemed to be true when he took the stage and sat down in his omnipresent chair to play his songs of quiet desperation, inner struggle and (ultimately) the futile hope that things would eventually get turned around. He’d literally try to disappear before your eyes—mumbling something like, “Hi,” fumbling with whatever passed for the set list that night (he’d deviate from it anyway when he forgot the words to a song midway through), lighting up a cigarette and playing as though he was holed up in his living room, strumming and humming only to himself. Just when it seemed any remaining barriers between Elliott and his audience had been completely erased, overwhelming applause would erupt, requests would be shouted out and Elliott would look embarrassed, shift uncomfortably in his seat and move as quickly through the evening’s task as possible.

It was this utter lack of pretense—and the palpable undercurrent of truth that made Elliott’s music so real to so many people—that converted me to an unabashed fan of the man and his music. A secret to be shared with those you trusted, the ones you loved.

Elliott is gone now.

It was his choice, but this knowledge doesn’t make it any less devastating, and I still can’t shake the feeling it all could have turned out so differently for him. The details of how it purportedly happened are awful and terrifying, and the violence of his final act stands as a symbol of the contradictions so evident in his music: songs characterized by beautiful, intricate melodies that nearly (but not quite) masked some of the most brutal, unvarnished emotions and raw truth-telling of the past several decades.

These opposite impulses are what made Elliott so fascinating as an artist, and so conflicted and complicated as a human being. His music, a mixture of beauty and brutality; his personality, fraught with impulses to both create and to destroy; his simultaneous desire to be both in the background but to have the opportunity to fulfill the talent that would render this wish impossible to grant. In the end, he knew no other trade but to put his very personal observations on display in a very public place. It is the space between that Elliott explored, and the tug-of-war between these sparring catalysts that he spent his life attempting to reconcile.

Comedienne Margaret Cho wrote a blog entry this week that began “What is heaven like, Elliott Smith?” It went on to tearfully ponder some of the same puzzles that Elliott could be counted upon to ruminate over so thoughtfully in song: Is sadness a religion? Is love really all you need? Can someone be too beautiful on the inside to survive their painful existence here on earth? If I can see you, does that mean you can see me? After you’re gone, does the hurt finally subside? Universal questions. And in Elliott’s specific case, all unanswerable now.

Tonight marked Portland’s memorial for Elliott. It was originally to be held outside of Jackpot! Studios—the do-it-yourself recording kingdom managed by Elliott’s friend and frequent engineer Larry Crane and ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme, who were in sessions at the time and requested that it be held elsewhere—but eventually migrated to a block between Division and Elliott streets, a bohemian pocket of the city featuring a wall with a Warholian banana illustration and a sign insisting that “Art Fills The Void” (eerie, but ultimately misleading and on this evening, nakedly false). The impromptu event was organized by e-mail—Elliott’s unofficial fan site provided the chatboard that organizers used to generate word of mouth—and was attended by well more than a hundred people throughout the evening, at points resembling one of Elliott’s early shows as mourners and well-wishers sat in front of the wall and offered encouragement to those brave enough to bring a guitar and try their hand at a version of “(I’m) Already Somebody’s Baby,” “Happiness” and “The Biggest Lie.” The same tragic scene has been replicated in city after city since Elliott’s passing—the wall was plastered with photos of Elliott, a line of votive candles throwing flames against the images (including a large one with an old set list wrapped around it), while flowers, poems, various Elliott seven-inch releases, a pumpkin with “XO” carved into its face, a pile of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and other flotsam and jetsam were lined up like weary soldiers presenting themselves for inspection. Cameras clicked; videocams whirred; and utter silence, interrupted by occasional sniffling and whispering, prevailed.

And, of course, the graffiti on the wall: “I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow.”

As has been widely written about in the days following his suicide, Elliott moved to Portland during his high school years and returned again after graduating from Hampshire College in Massachusetts before eventually relocating to Brooklyn and then to L.A. in the latter half of the ‘90s. His time in the city coincided with a vibrant period for Portland music—the local scene was a collaborative, family-like affair (it was unusual to hear of a musician who didn’t play in at least two bands) and Elliott’s down-at-the-heels sensibility and penchant for unflinching honesty neatly meshed with the vibe that permeated Stumptown’s loosely knit tribal culture. His association with Heatmiser may have flamed out during this era, but other artists such as Quasi, Pete Krebs and the Dandy Warhols all flourished in this environment and helped put Portland on the indie-rock map. Elliott emerged from this time at the vanguard of a movement, and whether he recognized it or not was destined to become one of the voices of his generation.

Our city’s stamp is unmistakably present on Elliott’s musical output. When Elliott sings about “falling out, Sixth and Powell, dead sweat in my teeth” on “Needle In The Hay,” he’s talking about a very specific location with a particular reference point for those who know anything about the city’s underground drug trade. When he needles an acquaintance who “walks down Alameda” shuffling a deck of trick cards, this is as tangible and knowable an entity as most Portlanders can conjure. The city’s annual Rose Parade was immortalized on Elliott’s song of the same name, made indelible by a rare moment of levity: a (incorrect, as it so happens) smirking reference to the “Duracell Bunny.” “Punch And Judy” gives a shout out to the very street where Elliott’s memorial was held.

There are scads of other secret references that, to Portlanders, aren’t secret at all. They form the basis of our bond with Elliott, our shared understanding of the man and what he was struggling to communicate through his music. They are what make him “ours.” This week, I have felt this bond more strongly then at any time during my decade-long relationship with Elliott’s music. There are moments I’ve shared with him that I will never be able to forget as long as I live, and I’ve relived a number of them lately.

Some of his songs are just too hard to listen to right now. I put on “The White Lady Loves You More” yesterday and skipped ahead as soon as I heard him whisper/sing “keep your things in a place meant to hide.” I was never a particularly big fan of “Miss Misery” when he was alive, and now it’s one of my favorite songs—but one that’s too damn fragile to listen to. And “Say Yes”—perhaps my most revered Elliott Smith composition—is part of an entire record (Either/Or) that is the emotional equivalent of putting your hand in the fire just to see if it will hurt. Shit was always breaking in Elliott’s songs—hearts, lightbulbs, promises, relationships—and just as surely as a window shatters when a brick is thrown through it, listening to Either/Or is like the inevitable end of that film we all watched in high-school driver’s ed class: When the car runs full speed through the railway stop, it always implodes against the train in a shower of glass, metal and human fragments. This is the sum of what remains after listening to Either/Or. And I’m just not up to it right now.

Years ago, I attended one of Elliott’s many shows at La Luna, a long-since-defunct club that was previously known as the Pine Street Theatre (site of a particularly nasty incident involving the Replacements and a couch thrown through a window to the ground floor; the shambolic show that followed is what inspired the group to write “Sorry Portland” on the outgroove of Don’t Tell A Soul). He came out late, the rather smallish environs packed with as many as could be seated on the floor and proceeded to play one of the most amazing sets I’d seen from anyone at any time. A friend of mine from Chicago who’d never seen him before was stunned into near-complete silence by the brilliance of that night’s performance, with Elliott taking requests from the floor and flying through flawless covers of Big Star’s “Thirteen,” the Kinks’ “Set Me Free” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (the latter of which he dedicated to his father, who attended the show and stood around afterward hugging his son like any dad would; a proud and awkward, but nevertheless genuinely affectionate, embrace).

Elliott could be as cynical and cutting as Dylan, possessed an ear for melody and an eye for detail on par with Paul Simon (but without any of the latter’s maudlin, sentimental tendencies) and could craft a three-minute story equal to that of the masters of the form (Lennon/McCartney, Brian Wilson, Alex Chilton). He took a previously braindead genre—the clichéd terrain of the singer/songwriter—and made it entirely his own. Relevant. Alive. “Punk” (if that’s at all possible).
As I write this, I’m going through a pile of bootleg tapes on my floor and thumbing through another stack of seven-inch singles, smiling at some of the memories they bring, cringing at others. One split release recorded with Pete Krebs features some playful insert photography of Elliott and Pete trying on comically giant animal masks. A tape features a cover of the Beatles’ “I’m So Tired” that is as world-weary and final as anything Lennon himself could have mustered. As ever with Elliott, each memento brings with it a flood of both happiness and sorrow.

I’m remembering one particular Satyricon show (sold out, with a huge line around the corner of a club that was located in what can only be described as one of Portland’s more active sites for drug dealing and prostitution) in which an extremely sloppy Elliott came out and stumbled through versions of “Chelsea Girls” and Jackson Browne’s “These Days.” I saw him later that night with local friends who were buying him round after round of drinks, and this is possibly the first time I can consciously remember thinking that his chosen musical persona and real-time experience were flying too close together for comfort; when I started thinking that a guy who wrote lines such as “I’m a junkyard full of false starts” or “I’m damaged bad at best” might not be built to survive the rigors of an industry that knowingly puts its workforce directly in the path of multiple oncoming trains.

A friend e-mailed me this week with the news, referencing the piece I wrote about Elliott in the last issue of MAGNET as her wake-up call about Elliott’s struggle to quell his demons. She called it “the truth no one else was writing,” but I was much less sanguine about the story; I fretted all week about how candid I’d been about Elliott’s struggle with drugs, his fragile mental state and generally regretted that I’d ever written it to begin with. It’s the kind of story that no one wants to be right about, for there is no reward in being an accurate forecaster of ill. Most of all, over the 10 years that have elapsed since I first saw Elliott at a tiny local club called Umbra Penumbra, I’ve been privately willing him (as I suspect many were, friends and fans alike) to pull out of his self-imposed death spiral and swim like hell for shore. That he didn’t make it is both heartbreaking and in some ways inevitable.

Elliott once sang of the search for meaning as trying “to go to where it led, but it didn’t lead to anything,” and ultimately this line captures where the rest of us are left now: with a bag full of clues that don’t particularly add up to anything. He had a new (reportedly, double-length) album—From A Basement On The Hill—that was nearly mixed and ready to go. He had granted a recent interview indicating a newfound willingness to tackle his addiction problems head-on (indeed, he said he had completed a somewhat radical form of rehab in order to try to rid his blood of the toxins associated with alcoholism). He was in a relationship. His career, after a nearly two-year timeout due to drug abuse, was tilting once again in a positive direction. But none of this was enough to ward off the self-destructive urges that plagued him.

I wish … I wish … I wish.

I wish to hell Elliott was still here. I wish I could tell him how much his music meant to me, to others I had shared it with. I wish that he had picked up the phone and called someone, anyone, before he did what he did. I wish he could’ve seen the kid tonight who haltingly sang “Happiness” through tears. I’m pissed as hell there’s nothing any of us can do about it now. I’m angry. I’m heartbroken. I’m struck dumb whenever I hear “Tomorrow Tomorrow.” I don’t know how the fuck to feel or what to do with the monsoon of emotions I’m processing.

Elliott was a sweet, vulnerable soul who possessed gifts that are seldom seen and even more rarely realized. I am at a loss to even begin to describe the importance of Elliott’s music and how it made me feel to hear it.

And now, he’s gone.

I rue the cruel fact that no more Elliott Smith music will ever be created. As Johnny Rotten once spat, I feel like I’ve been cheated. But—like everyone else who drew comfort or ease or some kind of relief from hearing Elliott touch on the same sort of emotional entanglements they were feeling during a low moment—I need to move on somehow.

So I guess this is goodbye, Elliott. I better be quiet now.

—Corey duBrowa