Not many modern artists have sketched man’s inhumanity, loneliness and discontent with such strong, clear lines. Elliott Smith’s music is a rare combination of trembling tenderness and cutting insight, delivered without the sentimentality and emotional tiptoeing that often get in the way of real honesty.
The Dallas-Fort Worth Airport is a miserable place. Massive and full of glum-looking travelers moving between widely separated gates, it is both huge and strangely stifling, every inch packed with merchants selling BBQ, golf clothes, haircuts and portable DVD players. The only smile I received during my wait for a connecting flight to San Francisco was from the sweet Texan gal who served me a remarkably comforting breakfast after a dawn flight out of Tulsa. What good it did me faded quickly as my jet home got delayed an hour, then two, and finally a miserable three.
Despite being surrounded by people, I felt quite alone in the world; the kind of headspace where one feels like an absentee landlord in their own body. I found myself staring in disbelief at the human flotsam around me – errant children and their couldn’t-give-a-damn parents, suntanned coeds having entirely inappropriate cell phone conversations next to total strangers, the airline counter staff with murder in their eyes, the incessantly griping senior couples. Far away from where I wanted to be and rapidly losing my faith in humanity, I reached for my iPod and somewhat unconsciously pulled up an Elliott Smith mix I made not long after his death in 2003.
Headphones on, eyes closed, I nestled into Elliott’s world, which is really my world and yours, too. Not many modern artists have sketched man’s inhumanity, loneliness and discontent with such strong, clear lines. Smith’s music is a rare combination of trembling tenderness and cutting insight, delivered without the sentimentality and emotional tiptoeing that often get in the way of real honesty. His rough, plaintive, wounded-lovely voice, usually swathed in gentle reverb, is the spear tip of his songs, which almost unfailingly get inside you with a startling swiftness.
Elliott’s world is not one I visit often anymore, perhaps because my life is less sad or painful now, or perhaps because it’s painful to be reminded there’s never going to be another new note from him. His world is filled with ghosts and it burdens us with a dark understanding of the way we really are with one another. It is a cold mirror that shows us our own feelings of failure and want and just how much it hurts to have dreams deferred or simply crushed outright. There’s also some bleak humor and downright beautiful passages about the small things that sustain us and feed hope enough to rise another morning.
It is not easy-to-digest music, and as Coming Up Roses, Waltz #2, Pitseleh and Between The Bars rushed into my ears I felt a catch in my chest, my heart leaping towards wherever Smith finds himself now, if that’s anywhere at all. I simply felt the need to reach out to him, even if only posthumously. One legacy of Smith’s music is a drive to extend ourselves towards one another so that no one feels so alone and misunderstood that it stops making sense to stick around at all.
As the last strains of Rose Parade faded into silence at the end of the mix, I let flow the tears I’d been keeping at bay, which kinda freaked out the people sitting next to me at the gate and brought me back into the present moment with an unhappy slap. The perversity of Elliott Smith is how he made sensitive souls run roughshod by life feel less alone, but seemingly couldn’t share that understanding and compassionate connection with himself.
In an airport in Texas I found myself missing him as much as I did when I first wrote about his passing, but also feeling a good deal less alone. Dear, dear Elliott, you are deeply missed, and I assure you by many more than just me.