9 Jan 2006
It is no secret that I am a big Elliott Smith fan. Frankly, I find it hard to believe whenever someone tells me they are not that into him. Each to their own, but for me it was love at first listen and to this day, and forever more I imagine, it still is a love I have for the man’s music.
Even though it was his third album Either/Or which I first heard and from where my love initially grew, it still felt like I had discovered him early in his career because it was before the hype pretty much (at least in Australia), and before the Academy Awards etc. Young Alice bought the album and we’d listen to it over and over and over. We bought his self titled album from before, and some Heatmiser too. It was the songwriting, the hushed tones and the beautiful melodies. It was his look, his punk rock attitude and the mystery surrounding the man. From there, it was on. I remember punishing Frank at Waterfront every week asking him to order in Roman Candle, Elliott’s first album. It was hard as it was through a small American indie label. Calls were made. Requests were granted and I remember at the time feeling responsible for Sydneysiders being able to buy that album. It was an important first piece of the puzzle.
I remember in 1998 when Alice called in an excited spin, telling me to turn onto the Academy Awards. There he was, My Little Elliott (as I would affectionately call him). He was in a white suit, with a guitar almost as big as him playing Miss Misery in his shy but determined way. He shared the stage with Celine Dion, and then had the honesty to tell all of the indie rock fraternity (when they’d ask) that hey, she was actually pretty nice and he wasn’t going to diss her.
And then the tour was announced. Two shows at the Annandale. Keep in mind back then not every single act were touring Australia, as they do these days His own band and the main support band would be (the excellent in their own right) Quasi. At the time, I was kicking around playing my first ever solo shows. I wasn’t that busy in all honesty but I remember wanting to play on that bill so so much it hurt. Turned out some mutual pals in Youth Group and Golden Rough played (Jason Walker played in both bands the lucky bugger!). It didn’t matter. We were just psyched to see Elliott. And he didn’t disappoint. Both shows sold out, mainly due to the fact that as he was in the country literally, the main alternative station started to play Waltz No.2. So there were some newbies there mixed in with the hardcore but yeah, the irony was that as he left and in the weeks following he actually broke in Australia. He wouldn’t tour again, despite the rumours and actual bookings of several tours. He was a classy act too. He did different sets over the two nights. The first night I melted when he played Ballad Of Big Nothing and some solo songs in I Didn’t Understand and Say Yes. The second night I lost it when they opened with Christian Brothers. And Quasi were great too. Definitely made some fans here. I remember after he finished, as he walked offstage he shyly shook someone’s hand who had reached out to shake his.
Years came and went. He released things. He didn’t release things. Negative and positive rumours spread round the world to those who cared about him. And that’s the thing, to those who loved his music, they kept an optimistic feeling towards the man and his future. Because as much as people want to say he made miserable music, the fact is there is also a lot of hope in his songs too. Determined hope. You would kind of shrug off drug and death rumours regarding him because you just wanted the man to be happy. He gave us wonderful songs and in return, you wanted him to be ok. Sadly, in October 2003, he wasn’t ok.
My pal Bruno called me on that early afternoon when the news broke, and said he had received a weird email saying that Elliott had committed suicide. I told him it was probably another hoax but something kind of rang true that day. I made some calls to some people in the know and they hadn’t heard, when really they should have as they had contacts with people who knew him etc etc. My computer was busted; I rang my brother who checked some news headlines and there was nothing. He then asked me what his website address was, so he punched in www.sweetadeline.net and there it was. Confirmation of the tragic news. I was so shocked and sad, but it was just so surreal as well.
In 2003/4 I went through the worst time in my life, and I remember on that very day before I had heard anything at all about Elliott, I had shall we say, some very selfish things going on in my head. And you would think news like that would exacerbate those feelings but it actually numbed them for a while. I just thought of him. I forgot about me.
I dedicated my second album Stories You Wouldn’t Believe to Elliott Smith. It seemed like the most obvious thing to do. I think though, I was naive about it. I didn’t realise doing such a thing would mean that reviewers, interviewers and the like would always draw on the fact that I did dedicate it to him. I mean he was a musical influence yes, but the truth is I had already written a heap of songs (some good, some not good) before I had heard Elliott, and in that sense, was on my way to getting what I hope is my own sound now. In that way, I don’t list him as an influence as such. I loved what he did and if anything, I felt a musical connection rather than finding someone I could go and rip off. Sure, I had the same hair as him for a while which was a coincidence, we were both a lil shy and at the time I was playing very quiet music.
One review almost made me cry, stating:
“The record is dedicated to the late, great Elliott Smith. Surely there can be no better compliment than to say the great tunesmith would have found something to like in Stories You Wouldn’t Believe, something in the melodies, the sincerity and the sympathy for the underdog found here”.
As much as it was a public statement from me saying thank you for the music, it was also I guess me saying to anyone who had my album in their collection that maybe, just maybe if they didn’t have any Elliott albums they would pretty much love what he did.
When people ask was he an influence on me, I am much more inclined to sprout on about how much I admired the man’s morals and ethics when it came to the music business. He signed with a major not to be famous, but to be able to record in real studios to match his fondness for the Beatles. To get the sound in his head, onto tape. He was a multi-instrumentalist. A producer. A co-songwriter. Things I could, or in some cases would want to, relate to. He would go back to indie labels and record vinyl only singles. Yet he would also play the Academy Awards. He worked several average jobs to fund his early recordings and musical equipment. He laboured and was proud of it.
I played a tribute night in Sydney at the Hopetoun Hotel one year after his death in 2004. I was flattered that I was the headliner of sorts. It was such a special night. Not every act had their songs down but it didn’t matter; every act was there as a fan celebrating his music. It wasn’t one of those dodgy tribute nights where people hear songs for a first time and then learn them so as to say they can play a show. It wasn’t a money spinner.
For whatever reason, I went down really well with everyone. I played my own kind of version of Angeles, Between the Bars, Christian Brothers, I Figured You Out (a song he wrote for Mary Lou Lord) and The Biggest Lie. There was so much meaning in that short set for me. The Biggest Lie was the first song I ever played in public as a solo act. Maybe I had a wild look in my eye, who knows?! But like I said before, it wasn’t the easiest of times for me yet there I was, onstage singing Elliott’s songs and just feeling every word. I remember Graeme and Millie-O were my dates, and they gave me this cool lil ES badge which I wore. And right after I played, a pretty dame hugged me and I had some whisky and we talked about Elliott. As much as I love the quote above about me, him and my album I can’t really respond to that. But if he could have seen me chatting to a lass, drinking some liquor I get the feeling he would have been proud of me.
Sam March 2006
p.s. Here is something from a blog I wrote on www.myspace.com/samshinazzi:
Friday, October 21, 2005
Remembering lil Elliott
Its two years today since we lost Elliott Smith. I think about him lots, but I guess on an anniversary its an even stronger memory and emotion. My hope is that people don’t forget the amazing talent he was, and they don’t turn him into what they turned Kurt Cobain into after he died. I also really hope that wherever Elliott is, he is wearing a cool beanie and strumming an acoustic guitar whilst flashing that brilliant smile that so many always looked past.
Rest in peace ES.