Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 794 from September 3, 1998. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.
Elliott Smith lives at the collision of three different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, but the noise of the traffic and the blare of the salsa, rock and rap that battle For airspace on the street are being kept at bay. It's midafter noon, and Smith is tucked inside his favorite neighborhood bar, the kind of dark place where every patron sits alone and says little, the kind of place where Smith spends most of his days.
It's been a year and a half since Smith left Portland, Oregon, where his work with the band Heatmiser and his haunted solo albums had made him a star on the local music scene. In the spring of 1997, Heatmiser disbanded and Smith left for New York. He'd hoped the move would give him a sense of anonymity, but that goal was Hampered when his song "Miss Misery" appeared on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack and was nominated for an Oscar, Soon he will have to contend with the attention brought by his new album, XO, which is his major-label debut and a lush departure from his usually spare offerings.
But, as today can attest, in New York you can always be alone in a crowd. Smith spends most of his days in coffee shops and bars, reading (he just finished Tolstoy's Resurrection) and composing songs in his head. "I write almost exclusively in public places," says Smith, 29. "I just think of stuff, chord changes and words. I know the bartenders, and they don't think it's weird if I ask to borrow a pen."
Smith smiles. He is shy, but his manner is sweet, not distant. Because his solo albums have been quiet singer-songwriter fare, there is a presumption that Smith's life is an open book. That is not the case. Smith's songs have always been less confession than collage — beautifully rendered glimpses of ugly realities, pieced together with little more than voice and guitar.
So when you ask Smith to tell his story, he hesitates. When he finally begins, he speaks as softly as he signs. As in his songs, Smith is intelligent, direct, unsparing. But while his voice on record gives even his darkest lyrics a quiet strength, in conversation his tone betrays a sense of uncertainty, When grim details are spoken, not sung, there is nothing to cushion their impact.
"Most of the people I knew, their parents were divorced," says Smith of his childhood spent outside Dallas. "Or else their dad beat them with a pool cue. There was a guy in the neighborhood who shot my cat for getting into the garbage. He beat up on his kid, and then he shot my cat."
Smith's own parents divorced when he was a year old. His mother remarried when he was four, and his new home life was not happy. "There were family problems," says Smith succinctly. "It wasn't a good situation."
Outside the house, Smith spent most of his time getting into fights. As he talks about them, he touches his nose instinctively. "It's probably been broken more than once," says Smith, "I have a bunch of scars. But I don't get into fights anymore." He shifts in his seat — his jeans too baggy, small T-shirt drooping off him — and it's impossible not to notice that Smith is more frail than anyone you'd expect to see in a bar fight.
"But sometimes it's the little guy who'll kick your ass," says Smith, "Because he's been picked on to the point where he knows what to do." He pauses. "It's probably pretty easy to put together why somebody who grew up in Texas getting in fights a lot would not want to get up on the stage and start belting out songs at the top of their lungs. I've had enough of people yelling."
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