I think there’s a turning point artist out there for everyone. An artist that will make you wonder what you ever did before you found them and will colour all future experiences once you have.
You can be growing up in any town you feel doesn’t have your back and suddenly that artist appears and you’ve got someone on your side.
The first thing I knew about Elliott Smith was what he looked like. I saw pictures in music magazines and for some reason I was always drawn to him without having a clue what his songs sounded like. In magazines full of musicians desperate for you to believe in what they were selling, he was just…there. Uncomfortable, looking for the exit. Not saying a lot. Not shouting or trying to make you buy his records. His stillness drew the eye more than any bravado ever could have.
Then I heard his music for the first time, in a setting that seems ludicrous but somehow perfect.
I was working in a cavernous sports superstore in the centre of town in the late 90s, selling Manchester United shirts and Ellesse trainers at a rate that still makes no sense. I was about to start vacuuming towards the end of the day and, as I was plugging it in, the DJ on the radio playing in the store was introducing their single of the week. ‘Waltz #2’ by Elliott Smith (from the album XO). My heart jumped and I went and hid in a corner near a speaker. The song started and I was immediately drawn in. Once I heard “She appears composed, so she is, I suppose” I was completely hooked. By the end of the song it felt like home. It felt like the place every teenager trying to work out where the fuck they belong is trying to get to.
When the song ended I looked around, snuck out to the record store downstairs and bought the CD single. I tucked it under my work-shirt, crept back in and started vacuuming like nothing had happened.
That night I played the 3 track CD single on repeat for hours. From then on, every record store I went to involved me going straight to S in the A-Z to find any record of his I could. Once those had been completed, I’d head to H to look for Heatmiser (Elliott’s band). Then it was onto the internet and eBay for any live recordings or bootlegged demos I could find.
The thing that hit me quickly was that, while it had been the lush cinematic beauty of ‘Waltz #2’ that had beckoned me in, there was an unsettling starkness to so much of his other music. Hearing songs of addiction and self-destruction like Needle In The Hay or St Ides Heaven leaves a pretty deep mark when you live in a seaside tourist town where everything feels like it’s bathed in bright colours and loud summers.
But even at its darkest there is light in Elliott’s music. The way he could sing the most uncomfortable admissions over the most beautiful and uplifting melodies is still unlike anything else.
The song of his that stands alone as my all-time favourite piece of recorded music is ‘Kings Crossing’ (from the album From A Basement On The Hill). The interweaving cracked voices and drifting instruments that open the song give no indication of what is to follow. For every moment of darkness (“It’s Christmas time and the needle’s on the tree, a skinny Santa is bringing something to me”) there’s a small flicker of hope (“don’t let me get carried away, don’t let me be carried away…”) and then the music drifts out again, leaving you to pick up the pieces. It’s one of those songs that physically affects me. It’s 4:57 of sensory and emotional overload.
Pretty much every year since Elliott’s passing I’ve tried to pay tribute in whatever way I could. The first year after he died I got onstage as a solo artist for the first time in my life and fumbled my through some of his songs. Other years, along with fellow fans and musicians we’ve organised whole nights around his music, gathering in bars, theatres and cinemas and absorbing ourselves in a shared connection to an artist we may not have known personally but who had an impact on our lives like no other.
This year we will be marking what would have been Elliott’s 50th birthday with a night of his music with ‘Roman Candles : A Tribute To Elliott Smith’ at The Betsey Trotwood in Farringdon, east London on Thursday 8th August. Tickets are £5 and all proceeds from the event will be donated to Mind. I hope to see lots of you there. XO Dexy