7 years ago this week the world lost Elliott Smith, and quite sadly, lost him at his own insistence. After being reminded of the anniversary of his death, immediately I felt that something should be written to mark the day and remember this singular man and his music. But then I paused and wondered if I could be doing the man a posthumous disservice by marking his death, a negative event, instead of waiting for his birthday (which is in August). But then I changed my mind; because I believe the reason why Elliott Smith is so significant in my mind, and assumably to others as well, was that he could create such intensely beautiful music through accessing the despondent, sorrowful, and melancholy side of his life. And while Elliott battled these emotions more so than normal, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t know those feelings.
To simultaneously access the positive and negative aspects of life in a song, an acoustic guitar lick, a simple lyric – this was the rare skill that Elliott had. And it was this uncommon attribute that has endeared him and his music to so many people. I remember once, while at audio school, we had to give presentations to our class about a influential recording or musical technique. Yet one of my classmates took the opportunity to simply stand at the front of the class and tell us all the story of Elliott while playing a couple songs, including sharing the grim details of his somewhat-controversial death, and why he was so special to him. It was clear this individual was still grieving, and in a way always would be. That was my first introduction to Elliott. After that I soon bought all his records, and in particular fell in love with “New Moon,” a double LP containing unreleased songs that Elliott had recorded himself (many just on a 4 track recorder in his basement). When life would get to be a little too much I would put his music on and lay down on the ground with my head in between the speakers – listening to Elliott’s sublime double tracking of his guitar and all the sentiment hidden within those sounds would calm me somehow. It’s unintuitive, but through his stress I could find relief and pause.
In Elliott’s song, See You Later he sings that he, “Walked through thick mud, looking for new blood, thinking I heard your name, cruel imagination, still giving me pain.” I don’t want to theorize what was going through Elliott’s mind on that fateful day, but I think this lyric is insightful. The realities of life never lived up to his imagination of what they could be, something not unique to him (especially as a musician). This, unfortunately, only seemed to become more true for him as his musical career started to gain him substantial attention. But instead of reacting to this inconsistency with anger, coldness, or indifference – it seems to have just made Elliott sad more than anything else. I can’t help but wish he would taken solace in the knowledge of the great pain countless others would feel – through the cruel imagination of what music he could have created, were he still with us. But this article, this remembrance, is not about regret and about what could have been – we cannot change what happened and shouldn’t disservice ourselves by dwelling on it – I simply want to take the time to honor the man by thanking him for showing us how beautiful, and in a way loving, sadness can be portrayed through song. Thank you Elliott, I pray you are feeling love now.