Misery Loves Elliott Smith

His songs about broken hearts, broken homes and the drinking life led him straight to the stage of the Oscars. Can his music save him from himself?

September 3, 1998
Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith
Wendy Redfern/Redferns

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 midafternoon, 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.

Folds Pens Smith Tribute

But, as today can attest, in New York you can always be alone in a crowd. Smith spend 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 sings. 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."

It's early evening in Manhattan, and Smith is polishing off another pint. It's a different day, a different borough, but the scene is familiar: a dark bar, twilight, the last drink before one too many. These are the things in Smith's life that' remain constant. Many' others have changed.

The strangest changes are that "Miss Misery" was nominated for an Oscar; that, on February 10th, Smith performed the whispered tale of a broken relationship in front of 1 billion people; that he took a bow standing between Trisha Yearwood and Celine Dion.

"I had fully armored myself against having to be crushed by the presence of Celine Dion,".says Smith. "But she was the nicest person I've met in a while. Afterward I'd get these indie-rock kids saying, 'I can't believe you had to hold Celine Dion's hand.' I said, 'I liked holding her hand because she's a nice person. In fact, right now you're, being much more narrow-minded and shallow than she is. You're in a very backward position here. You should rethink it.'"

Smith gives his head a bewildered shake, then takes a long drink. Of all the transformations that he has been through lately, the most obvious is the level of scrutiny he is subjected to. And it's clear he is learning on the fly.

"I don't intend what I do to be especially revealing," he says. "It's not like I just reel it out of my subconscious." He elaborates: "I don't think of what I'm doing as punk, but I really like punk. The things that I like about it are not stylistic things, they're human things. Stylistic things aren't enduring; human things are."

Smith's musical heroes are the Beatles, the Clash, Hank Williams and the Kinks. His greatest inspiration, for the breadth of his work, is Elvis Costello. On XO, for the first time in Smith's career, you can hear it all: the graceful folk he's perfected, elaborate orchestrations, an a cappella song, piano ballads, years of anger released in lilting harmony and a newfound. hopefulness couched in energized pop tunes. At times it sounds like a lost follow-up to Revolver.

"I love the Beatles – they're my favorite band – but I don't have any desire to cop the Beatles," says Smith. "The reason they're my favorite band is because they went further with melody than any other band that I've ever come across."

Smith turns to his beer to escape the conversation for a moment, then smiles apologetically, as if he is the last person who should assess his work. Only recently did Smith even realize that people perceived his songs as bleak. "I didn't think of them that way," he says. "They made me happier. But now I would agree. The second record, especially, was really dark."

That record, Elliott Smith, was an unforgiving list of dysfunctions that began with "Needle in the Hay," a stark personal account of heroin use. "At the time it was, 'Let's just dispense with the runaround and go straight at it,'" says Smith.

In Smith's life, the music was radiant; everything else seemed extremely grim. "It was," says Smith. "It's not now, but, God, at the time it was. I was not well."

Today, friends warn him about drinking too much, that alcohol is a depressant and that he doesn't need a shove in that direction. The countless references to heroin that marked the second album, however, have disappeared. "It's harder to get stuck at the bottom if you can maintain interest in something, whether it's love for a person or music or books – anything," says Smith. "I really like music, and I always have. You have to be functional to play it, and that ended up really helping me out."

Smith was fourteen when he finally left Texas, a place he describes as "very static in all respects, an oppressive situation." The destination was Portland, where he lived with his father (with whom he is close), a former preacher who served as an Air Force pilot in Vietnam and later became a psychiatrist. From there, Smith ventured to Hampshire College, an ultraliberal institution in Massachusetts, where he concentrated on political science and philosophy.

"After college I was on this big kick that there's no point occupying a spot because it would be better occupied by someone else," says Smith. "I'd narrowed it down to being a fireman. There was no way to argue that it was not useful."

Instead, Smith's friend Nell Gust berated him, reminding Smith that be had never wanted to be anything but a musician. As a ten-year-old, Smith was even a piano prodigy – performing Debussy and Rachmaninoff until his parents abruptly pulled him from his lessons a year later.

"I gave in and went with Neil and started a band," says Smith. "And I'm glad. He was right."

Even so, the noise and bluster of Heatmiser left Smith shouting to be heard. "We would play shows, and afterward he would' cordon himself off with an acoustic guitar and start practicing," says Sam Cooroes, Smith's former band mate. "That was the first time I'd ever heard him play stuff like that. He was trying to evolve away from the stuff he was playing."

In 1994, Smith released a solo album, Roman Candle, recorded on a home four-track, and gradually began play-ing solo acoustic shows. What became clear through his solo work was that Smith's artistic sensibilities:had formed long before he joined a band. For all of Smith's success in Portland, it was Texas that bubbled to the surface his music.

"I met people I liked in college, but no songs come from there," says Smith. "They come more from moving out of my mom's family than anything else."

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