I was born in Middlesbrough, an industrial town in the North of England in 1989. I didn’t grow up in Portland, Oregon so I didn’t learn of Elliott Smith through Heatmiser. Nor did I hear of him in 1994 when he released Roman Candle as I was five years old and listening to Power Rangers records (yes, that was a thing).
Honestly, the first music I remember truly being taken with was Hip Hop and Rap music. I listened to it with almost exclusivity. I loved the rawness, the lyrical complexity, the wordplay, the stories and the honesty, I still love it to this day, so if you catch me with my headphones on I may be listening to Public Enemy, 911 is a Joke,Tupac, Keep Ya Head Upor a DMX, Slippin’. I didn’t have money to be buying CDs for fun, so my money was all being spent in the tiny Hip Hop section of my local CD store.
I must confess before we proceed any further, I do not profess to be a musical genius, nor an expert and in the pursuit of complete honesty, I often don’t know what the fuck is going on inside a melody. Have you ever listened to a jam band? Widespread Panic or the Chris Robinson Brotherhood? They’re great, but I couldn’t tell you what the fuck they’re doing, it’s more a euphoria in my head. Typically, if I’m listened to music alone, it’s still the lyrics I seek out.
In 2001, I was still relatively immersed in my bubble of music. I was told if I liked lyrics and poetry, I should listen to Bob Dylan, whom I have had the honor of seeing live and absolutely adore. However, at 12 years old hearing:
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about. My love of Dylan waited patiently a few years while I was waiting for Busta Rhymes to release Genesis.
A chain of events had occurred that led me to a Blockbuster Video, renting a movie. I came across N.W.A which led me to Ice Cube, so I saw the movie Friday, which made me seek out Chris Tucker’s work, I watched his stand-up on Def Comedy Jamand sought out his other movies like Dead Presidentsand Money Talks, then I saw him in a movie called Rush Hour, after Rush HourI started watching Police Storyamong other Jackie Chan movies, which led to me coming across Shanghai Noon, leading me onto Zoolanderand in a naïve search for comedy, I was standing in that Blockbuster Video renting The Royal Tenenbaums. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, it seemed like an early millennium comedy dream but the movie was so much more, I hadn’t quite seen a movie like it before. Sure, it was funny but not in a way I was expecting. Spoiler alert! I was mesmerized by the whole movie and there’s a scene where you hear a guitar start playing in the background while Luke Wilson emerges and closes the door to the bathroom. That’s when I heard Elliott Smith singing:
Your hand on his arm
The hay stack charm around your neck
Strung out and thin
Calling some friend trying to cash some check
I thought to myself ‘what the fuck was that?’ Beautiful, tender, honest, delicate and raw as if heartache was wrapped in a blanket. I found the soundtrack to the movie and my world was open. This post is about Elliott Smith but it’s also the year I discovered The Beatles, Spike Lee, Al Pacino and Mötley Crüe but that’s for an entirely different story. I listened to Needle in the Hayon repeat but I was completely oblivious to Miss Miseryand his Oscar for Good Will Hunting, in fact I only saw the movie for the first time a few years ago.
I moved to Los Angeles in 2006, it was during the following years, I found Elliott Smith on every playlist I had. People would stand in traffic to get a photograph of the Figure Eight mural. I just liked to see it. I never got the chance to see him play live but I was told by those who did, you could hear a pin drop as he sat picking at his acoustic guitar.
There was something in the way he played that you could tell it was him playing straight away, then his voice would sing so truthfully it was impossible to mistake. Recently, I’ve had time to listen to music, I’ve been listing to some artists albums in chronological order. I started with Dylan which took some time, and worked through the wonderful John Prine. I decided to listen to Elliott Smith’s albums in order and I’ve been repeating that decision ever since. What a wonderful talent and how rare to have a body of work that deserves so much more than every ounce of attention.
While I was listening to Elliott, I decided I wanted to write a poem to pay tribute to his work, as I’ve always liked to acknowledge those who have made lasting impressions on me. I’ve managed to meet some very cool people in my life but considering I never met Elliott Smith, his music has a way of speaking which makes you feel like a friend. I suppose this poem is the only way I know, to say, ‘thank you’.
It’s a Waltz
Or a song with No Name
It’s a pain in the heart
And a pain in the brain
It’s a Needle in the Hay
And the figure eight
Not quite A Fond Farewell
More like a bitter fucking pill
Where everything falls still
From a Basement on the Hill
From Portland to New York
Music sang and your lyrics talked
The emotion walked
Into the hearts of those who saw you play
Oh Well, Ok
It’s Echo Park L.A.
Where you stayed
Before the earth fell still
From a Basement on the Hill
The Biggest Lie
Has me waiting for a train
To take me down a Memory Lane
That looks something like L.A.
Moving Coast to Coast
Only to feel Strung Out Again
I suppose it’s A Fond Farewell to a friend
I wouldn’t know how things would look if they were right
It feels like someone else’s life
And I don’t know what they like
But at least all is still
From a Basement on the Hill