On the Influence of Elliott Smith

elliott smith by autumn de wilde at the memorial wall in los angeles figure 8 cover shoot

I’m a junkyard full of false starts
And I don’t need your permission
To bury my love
Under this bare light bulb

Today marks the sixth anniversary of the death of arguably the best singer songwriter since Bob Dylan – Elliott Smith.  As I named this blog after one of his unreleased songs, it may be obvious that his work is incredibly important to me. His death has affected my life in such a personal way that I’d rather not share it on the blogosphere, but I am doing my annual listening to the albums – Roman Candle always saved for last – and reflecting on the past six years of my life, and I can’t help but feel the need to write about him.


October 2003 : I had just moved away from my small hometown to Toronto for school, I was living in a dorm with a new roommate, and everything around me was new and scary and more isolating than I could have possibly imagined it would be. I was happy to finally be in the city, but overwhelmed with how my life was instantly unrecognizable.

One night my sister called me to catch up on life, and she mentioned that Elliott Smith had died. She told me this because she remembered March 1998, when my naive 12 year old self had watched the Oscars with no doubt that Elliott would win Best Original Song for “Miss Misery” against Celine Dion’s monster Titanic song. Of course he didn’t win, and I was confused and disappointed, but I got over it.


Being a 12 year old girl, the majority of my interests were not the kind that I feel any pride in today. My brief obsession with Elliott via his Good Will Hunting contributions fell to the wayside for most of my high school years, where I traded Backstreet Boys, Blink 182 and Spice Girls for The Beatles, Radiohead and Jim Morrison. So when my sister called that night casually mentioning his “suicide,” I was affected, but mostly because being reminded of him brought me back to that terrible year where a 12 year old girl might need more than just catchy boy band pop songs, and seek out refuge and understanding in music as adult as his was.

After she called I decided to pay my respects by finally listening to his music again, making myself a mix of about 25 songs which I would take with me on my bus rides back home during the school year, and which I ended up listening to obsessively. What followed was a need to buy every album and find every unreleased track and read everything about him.


The lyrics were full of concepts and layers that I don’t think I could have possibly understood during my original 12 year old girl interest in him, but coming back to it as an adult, I understood and related strongly to every metaphor he laid out. This time, I wouldn’t forget about him when the Oscar buzz faded and my friend returned from Texas. This time, his music wasn’t a placeholder for my loneliness or a song to hold my hand till things got better again. This time, the music would enter my ears and become a perspective from which to view the world with for the rest of my life.

Elliott Smith’s catalog is the audible version of rose colored glasses – although the shades are more black, blue and red than anything flowery.

These days I don’t listen to him often, and as the years pass by it becomes less and less, but that is just a how it goes. The romantic phase – where you are digesting every album in a way that makes people who don’t collect albums or memorize lyrics or search for tabs a little scared and annoyed – is long over now. I was stuck on Elliott for all of 2004-05 to the dismay of my roommates, but eventually I had absorbed it all.

That is the problem with being a musical “death tourist,” eventually you’ve heard it all, there is no where else to go, no new albums to be released. If you are passionate about music at all, you will want to hear something else, and one artist will be put aside for another and another, like partners who no longer make us feel butterflies in our stomach just from thinking about them.


So six years later almost everything has changed, and I may not listen to Elliott Smith every day or even every month, but somehow his presence is always there. His lyrics will always be memorized in the back of my head, singing my thoughts more eloquently than I can sometimes think them. Anytime something emotionally intense happens, Elliott has already put it to song. I can just queue up the track, exist in that shade of the world for those few minutes, and feel better knowing these experiences are just universal truths.

How he died, and that he died, is entirely irrelevant. I have heard people speak of him as that guy who stabbed himself in the heart, or that guy who sang those sadsack songs, or as the God of Indie Rock. All these statements lose the truth about his music. This is the kind music that lasts for generations, not because his death made people start paying attention (which, of course it did – that is the problem with being a musician), but because his music is another perspective with which we can understand humanity, and what it means to live and love and fuck and hate and breathe and rebel and forgive.