say your piece
ISSUE NO.154 23 OCT. 2003
Goodbye, Elliott
Elliott Smith, 1969-2003
By Kathryn Cowles

ver since I heard, I can’t get out of my head a memory of me years ago, driving around nowhere alone in my little Subaru Justy with the windows rolled down in lieu of air conditioning, singing along to Elliott Smith’s self-titled album on the Kill Rock Stars label through my shit tape deck, turning up the broken volume control until the shit speakers buzzed and blurred. I liked to play it in the rain. I liked to play it before I went to sleep. I recorded a tape of the last four songs on Either/Or over and over again on both sides. I could drive for hours. It was revelatory. It was music that implied movement.

I moved to Portland for a bit, in part because I wanted Elliott’s music to rub off from across a shorter amount of space. Every city he lived in left an impression on his music, and I wanted to understand that. Even after he moved from Oregon, I always secretly thought I’d encounter him as I turned onto Division Street and 42nd. I still think that when I go there, like he’s playing quietly in every alleyway between the bars and cafes in the city of roses.

The last time I heard Elliott play live was at the free concert on the U campus during Redfest—apparently the last show he played. I remember being damned angry at first, before I got caught up in the performance, that some people in the free-concert crowd weren’t at all interested in the music. They didn’t understand what they were missing. They took Elliott’s shy, constricted gestures as an indication that he wasn't a passionate performer, or that he was a downer. They were wrong.

I have seen Elliott play hard with a band for bar crowds that are as rowdy as they come, then stop in the middle for an acoustic set. Kiss of death, one might say, in a bar scene. Not so. The crowd would get completely still, and even people who didn’t care about the music cared for a few minutes. When he had your attention, Elliott let his intensity out in little movements, in little notes, that accumulated into an incredibly passionate, beautiful, articulate, overwhelming whole—and the crowd would be with him and the room would spin.

Elliott Smith was a brilliant, hopeful poet in the tortured body of an indie-rock star. Rarely does one encounter such a talented, artistically honest person, musician or otherwise. I know of three, maybe four poets who just say things, who don’t couch what they feel in metaphors and exalted language because they feel like they have to, who don’t try to manipulate some fancy poetic—to master obscure language, but just say it. Elliott wrote about the cigarettes, 40s of St. Ides, food stamps, bad people and good people, cocaine, love, parades. “Last call, he was sick of it all.”

I first found out about Elliott in high school. His songs fit with my impression that something wasn’t working with the world, but that there was still hope to be had. He could move from the quiet sorrow and anger of realizing some people can’t be trusted in “Angeles” to the defiant, built-up “it's my life” of “Cupid's Trick” to the sleepwalking “2:45 AM.” But the most important song was always the perfectly innocent, willfully naive, in love, simple, honest “Say Yes”—the promise to trust even though some people can't be trusted: “I’m in love with the world through the eyes of a girl/Who’s still around the morning after—it's always been wait and see/A happy day and then you pay/And feel like shit the morning after/But now I feel changed around and instead of falling down/I’m standing up the morning after.”

There’s a “Say Yes” on every album, often at the end, just like there was a moment of pure connection at every show. There’s an Elliott who's hopeful and alive to counter the one who killed himself two days ago. He’s my favorite Elliott, the one who would say: “Cooked spin can’t come to rest/I'm damaged bad at best/She'll decide what she wants/I'll probably be the last to know/No one says until it shows and you see how it is/They want you or they don’t/say yes.”

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