I often think if I had a time machine and I could use it for me (although my first instinct is to use it for somebody else specifically – but that’s another story), I would go back in time to the later 90s-early 2000s as I am now, and see Elliott Smith in concert.
When I was in my second year of Creative Writing in undergrad, I wrote a story called “Elliott Smith” which was an entirely symbolic breakup story devoted to the deep fandom and appreciation I had developed then for the late Smith, who had changed my life when I was in my early twenties.
I used to discover music in what Ryan Adams would call “the twilight of my youth”, by googling things like “a list of the saddest songs” and in all honesty, that was how I came upon Elliott Smith. I was transfixed. Here was this figure, this person who was no longer alive but who felt as real and current and relatable to me as any of the other artists I knew. Here was someone who was able to function in life on a good day, but could express the most shattered things, the deepest confessions, with clear-eyed empathy, with poetry, with references to things like Shiva and Punch & Judy shows and the Son of Sam and Icarus that I knew, could understand, and could merge with as if these words were about me, or just for me. A good artist makes music for others; a great artist makes music for themselves and manages to reach into the hearts and souls of others and dredge up their fears, desires, thoughts, lives, and hopes for the future. I remember one time, I was walking home in the dark in the very early springtime and I heard Elliott Smith’s “Twilight” for the first time, and it felt like the world stopped spinning for just those four minutes and 30 seconds. Everything vanished into scraps and pieces except for this song, that conjured up an image for me of a young girl laying down in a park fountain covered in a layer of pollen. And that was where the story came from, a story for which I was awarded $2500 which is maybe what I’m most proud of to date, amidst so many other accomplishments.
What it’s like for me is to be trapped all the time and never feel like I can fully be myself with almost anyone for so many reasons – which is again, another story. What Elliott Smith has done to help me with that is to make me feel less alone, and validate my feelings of self-hatred, vulnerability and contempt for other people who have wronged or hurt me in the past. A song like “Memory Lane” reminded me then of my experiences with bullying and now, makes me think and feel about the damage of vicious gossip and lies. What Elliott Smith has done for me is insurmountable; he has taught me about writing, life, depression, self-destruction and the heartbreak that is wasted potential, bygone times, beauty that is so unrealized by the masses that it’s almost shameful that a song like the aforementioned “Twilight”, “Happiness”, “Somebody That I Used To Know” or “I Didn’t Understand” aren’t staples in the lives of every generation Xer in the same way that Nirvana’s tunes have leaked their way into the subconscious of the young, music-savvy (or sometims not-so-savvy) masses. While this is a crying shame however, seeing Nirvana t-shirts for sale for $12.99 at Wal Mart is not necessarily a corporate nightmare I would want for the man who broke everyone’s heart in a mesmerizing, nerve-wracking, awkward and out-of-place performance like this one, which showed a counter-culture underground hero being forced out into the cruel judgment of the spotlight, and losing (as if anyone thought there would be another outcome when Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” was also on the Oscar bill that year).
There are all too many saviors in music – anyone from the Backstreet Boys to some busker on the street that no one has ever heard of (yet?) can be a savior for someone in need. Aren’t musicians really just guardian angels that come along during times we need them the most? And isn’t their music merely their sermons, words of wisdom, guidance along the way to get someone in need to where they need to go? Music has saved my life far too many times to count, and I don’t even care how cliche that sounds because it’s the truth and always has been, ever since my mom played music in the car before I was old enough to even comprehend what song lyrics meant. Elliott Smith might be one of the artists who has most been that savior for me. When there was nobody else there, Elliott was my best friend and the person who led me into the light, whatever that light looked like.