Ten years ago today, the world was robbed of one of the greatest singer-songwriters most people have unfortunately never heard of. I was lucky enough to stumble upon him during my later musically formative years, just over seven years ago. Back then I, a naïve appreciator of music, knew his work was special. I knew, even after having only heard a couple of his songs, that he would be lofted into the pantheon of my favorite artists. I could not have been more right. His name: Steven Paul Smith, known to most as Elliott.
The first time I heard his voice, in this very video, I was blown away. His unkempt appearance betrayed his sweet, thin melodies. I was immediately drawn into what I had heard and within the week I found myself returning home from the record store with a pair of discs, XO and Either/Or. These two records pulled me in even further with his complex guitar playing, tightly harmonized overdubbed vocals, and his overall mastery of so many instruments. I was inspired.
Even now I cannot listen to Between the Bars or Rose Parade without thinking back to that perfect fall of 2006, to the fresh crispness of falling leaves, sunny chilled air, and the piles upon piles of tree limbs recently felled by a sudden snowstorm. As the school year progressed, so too did my investment in his music. A new posthumous compilation of unreleased studio cuts found its way into my possession the next spring, joining the completed discography I had already owned by then. It was a good spring, early 2007. Around that time, I had even brought myself to paint a small portrait of him; it would adorn every residence I lived in during my entire college career.
One of the real tragedies of this story, however, is that I never once noticed Elliott while he was still alive. He died when I was just beginning high school, my interest in modern music a mere fledgeling at the time and my attention heavily occupied elsewhere. My ears were pleased by the likes of Coldplay, Our Lady Peace, Goo Goo Dolls, Something Corporate, Dispatch, and numerous other artists who had one or two tracks find their way to my computer via KaZaA. My music was a varied group, with little similarity to anything one would hear in Smith’s repertoire. The only CDs I’d owned were classical, short collections of Beethoven and Mozart. From October of 2003, it would yet be another eight months before I’d purchase my first CD, A Rush of Blood to the Head. After that, it would be over a year still before I found something non-Coldplay that I felt was buy-worthy. OK Computer, if you’re wondering.
It didn’t take long for Elliott Smith’s music to rocket to the top of my charts. Though my musical attention has been diverted in the last seven long years, he remains firmly in the top ten, surpassed by several artists whose entry into my life came afterward. As I’ve grown, I’ve come to appreciate the words he had written more and more. A troubled man, the depths of his depression and struggle with substances are a distant chasm below the lowest points of my life, yet I often relate at times. Among the melancholy and minor chords lie gems of optimism. Two of my absolute favorites, Tomorrow Tomorrow and Independence Day rarely fail to lift my spirits. Though its downbeat and written on a falling chord progression, the multi-tracked climax of Oh Well, Okay always makes my hair stand up on end, sends chills down my neck. It’s from that song that an old blog of mine took its name.
XO is still easily one of the best albums I have ever heard. I declared it so a week after I’d first listened to it and I proudly stand by that assessment. Either/Or is not far behind, in my opinion, though to the one that came to me first go the nostalgic spoils.
When I was in Portland, Oregon in July I traveled to a few places mentioned in Elliott’s lyrics: specifically, Condor Avenue and Alameda Street, the namesakes for two more of my favorite songs. In just over two weeks from now, I’ll be heading on an adventure down to Los Angeles, the city where Elliott spent the end of his life. For years I’ve wanted to find the site where the cover photograph of Figure 8 was taken, the side wall of an electronics repair shop in Silver Lake. Soon, another dream of mine will be realized.
I can’t really put into words what the music of Elliott Smith has meant to me. As I wrote a long time ago, it’s just something that has to be heard to be understood. I found myself listening to nothing but Either/Or and XO during the rides to and from school, and even to relax myself to sleep at night. I discovered him just a day before the third anniversary of his death, so the fact that he is gone weighs heavily on me when I listen to his music. I feel similar emotions when I listen to others, such as Jeff Buckley; it’s tragic that a man so talented could be drawn away so suddenly from us. In a way, I regret not taking note of him earlier; I came upon his Oscar performance eight years too late, and I was completely oblivious to his death early on in my freshman year of high school.
He may have taken himself away from us, but he’s still here. That’s the thing about music. Even though his life is gone, the lovely collection of works he put out into the world live on. Rest in piece, Elliott. You’ve touched more lives than you could possibly know.