Elliott Smith died six years ago today.
I remember the exact moment when I found out. I was in college, in the computer labs upstairs in the student centre. It must have been a Wednesday, like today, because I was getting ready to go next door to the Campus Radio studio and do my show. I went onto Hotpress.com, and there I saw it. A news headline. ‘Elliott Smith reported dead’, I think it said. Dead? No way. I read it a few times just to be sure. Then googled it. There were more articles, all tentatively announcing his death. Knife wounds, some of them seemed to say. He died at home. But no one was really sure about what happened.
The details would leak out over the coming days, and the ins and outs, the suspicions and questions would be played out online, mainly on the official Elliott Smith forum Sweet Addy, of which I was a member at the time. There was some bad feeling about the specifics of his death. Some finger pointing. But that seemed to be between a small, select group of people.
What did it matter to us, those people who had never known or met Elliott? All we knew was he was gone. I remember realising that I would never, ever see him live. One of those random, selfish thoughts that means nothing and everything.
Nothing, because who was I, some girl in Ireland, to be mourning a man who didn’t know me and whom I didn’t know?
And everything because of all the memories I had, and have, of his music, which had soundtracked my life since the age of about 15.
I remember bus journeys and holidays where I clung to my walkman like it was a part of me; inside would be a homemade tape with Elliott’s songs on it, a mix tape maybe, or the soundtrack to ‘Good Will Hunting’ that a friend had copied for me. Her friend, who lived in France, had copied it for her. Play, switch sides, click, play, rewind, brrr, click, play. The quality was always terrible, but who cared? It was just his songs I wanted. His songs that soundtracked that holiday to Greece with my best friends, his songs that made school bus trips more bearable. Every time I look at my CD copy of ‘Either/Or’ I see the tattered, smudged sticker from Virgin Records. £11.99. Money I earned working on a hot chicken counter in Roches Stores at the weekends, serving greasy wedges to Corkonians. One day I found a promo copy of ‘XO’ in a second hand shop on MacCurtain St. It made my week – I loved reading the sticker on the back saying ‘property of Universal Records Canada – may be recalled at any time’. Who’d give that away? I remember too, sitting in Burger King after buying ‘Figure 8’, so excited that this was the first ‘proper’ Elliott Smith album I’d bought. An album I had waited for. And being so disappointed when I wasn’t allowed go to his gig in Dublin. He played the Red Box; I cut the black and white ad out of Hotpress and sellotaped it to the front of my school diary. I met a friend in Virgin a few weeks after; he told me how great the gig had been. It’s ok, I told myself, I’ll see him next time, he’ll tour here again. It’s alright.
In so many ways, Elliott Smith was more than ‘just’ a musician I listened to; he was ‘there’ through so many parts of my formative years and he provided me with solace and hope and joy. When I was studying for my Leaving Cert, bored of trying to learn off Business Studies facts by rote, I scribbled some of his lyrics down on a post-it and stuck it to my wall. “So leave me alone/you ought to be proud that I’m getting good marksssss”, from ‘Needle in the Hay’. His lyrics had a darker meaning than what I probably understood at the time, but no matter. I wasn’t really the rebel those lyrics, taken out of context, might have suggested. But it was a tiny act of rebellion nonetheless.
Through following Elliott’s career I learned about what is to be a music fan, what it is to collect music, to covet albums and finally get your hands on them, to save up and purchase an album you really really want, to learn about new bands through cover versions and support dates. I learned how musicians change over the years, how their writing changes and their sound changes; I learned about the difference a change in producer can make; I learned about how the influence of bands can seep through to a musician’s sound.
We all have bands or musicians who provide us with this priceless musical education – they can be old bands passed on to us by family members or friends, or new bands we’ve just discovered. Thanks to Elliott, my ears were opened up to so many different sounds and I learned so much about music thanks to his music.
A year after Elliott died, I organised a tribute night in Cork. To my shame, I never took one photo of that night. I don’t even remember if I thanked the musicians who took part properly. If I didn’t, I must thank them now, because they braved the worst weather Cork had seen in decades to perform. They made their way through a flooded city centre to pay their respects to Elliott by performing fantastic versions of his songs to an amazing 60 people who made it to the Lobby bar despite the radio warnings not to leave their homes. The flooding was more than 3 feet deep all around the city, but even though the Lobby was right by the river, it was one of the only venues that stayed open. I don’t know how they did it, but they got there, friends, strangers, even two fans who travelled down from the North for the show. People who were fans of Elliott, people who wanted to remember him in a positive way, and friends of mine who as always supported me through everything.
People all over the world have commemorated Elliott’s life since he died and I’m sure at this moment there are people listening to his music, raising a glass in his name, working out the chords to one of his songs or lighting a candle in his memory. I’m sure that for these people, remembering Elliott is not about loving him for his sad end, or mythologising him for his fate. It’s not about thinking ‘he was the greatest and there will be no one greater than him’, but acknowledging the affect, if any, he has had on their life – or just on their record collection.
If you have any memories of Elliott Smith and the affect his music has had on you, I would love to hear them. In the meantime, whether you are a fan or not, please enjoy these songs (below, plus a video of him with friends Quasi) by him.
PS. There is a film coming out about Elliott soon. Hopefully it will reach these shores in the next few months.