"Either / Or Still a Tribute" - a wide perspective of 'that' Elliott Smith tribute show, and what it should have been about 1

“Either / Or Still a Tribute” – a wide perspective of ‘that’ Elliott Smith tribute show, and what it should have been about

It’s an overcast day in Southwest London. Not necessarily a ‘bad’ day, just one that is grey and seems to make everything else look kind of grey too. It’s kind of what I would imagine the weather to be like in Portland, Oregon. Maybe around 1996, when Elliott Smith released his third album and received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song in ‘Good Will Hunting’. Portland is known for its grey, rainy skies and some would declare, abysmal weather. The day is just grey. Unfortunately, Elliott’s Oscar nominee track was passed up for one by Celion Dion. But Elliott Smith’s legacy will be the one that goes on.

His depression and drug abuse is well noted and he passed away in 2003, from a presumed suicide. Around the anniversary of the singer/songwriter’s death on 24th of October, tribute shows have become a popular event. Offering a chance for those who never got to see him live, a way to hear his music performed. The goal is to commemorate a legacy and celebrate the music.

I’m waiting for Melissa Clarke, the lead singer of All American Girl. She organised this particular tribute night to the late musician. And even though the gig doesn’t start until nine, she’s going meet me outside their bassist’s house at three. The show tonight at Brixton’s Windmill is raising money for the mental health charity, MIND. When she arrives with guitarist Dave Bushell, we immediately start talking about Elliott Smith and the night.

She tells me about how she was inspired by tribute nights in the in the US and wanting to put a night on here, in the UK. And how she had no idea that an Elliott Smith night would have sold out in two days, like this one did. She tells me how she was even sent one of three negatives of the photograph used for the Elliott’s first album. The Roman Candle picture was sent to her by Elliott’s ex-girlfriend. Dave raises his eyebrows and nods. I now become aware, I am with some serious Elliott Smith fans.

We go inside bassist Dan Metcalf’s house and it is well furnished with wall-to-wall beige carpets. And he asks everyone to remove their shoes once we step inside. He offers everyone tea or coffee once we sit down in the living room. A game of Resident Evil IV is paused on the TV and Ben Glister, the bearded guitarist stands and shakes my hand. Melissa moves to take a seat with her back to the windows, but stands again when she remembers to show me the negative.

I ask Ben how he first heard of Elliott Smith. “My first experience was when I was living in Canada. My friend James, had been given a mix tape of various tracks with just somebody he had been on a train with…he gave it to me and it kind of resonated.” This sort of underground network of Elliott Smith fans, is something unique from other artists. “It almost affects your mood, it makes you feel more down that you would want to feel in any given moment. You have to embrace that side of your personality, to listen to him sometimes.” That’s the other unique thing about Elliott Smith fans. The music is so sad at times, and it is so personal. But it still resonates with so many people. I don’t know if it is because it is so sad, but people who like his music, typically, really like his music.

Melissa comes back with the negatives. “I’m going to put it in a frame or something. I mean, you just have to. Right?” She mentions how they are going to raffle one away and her eyes become wider when she says this. I say, the only thing that comes to mind, “I think, there are few people in this world that could really appreciate owning this.”

Elliott’s death has slowly come with a rise in interest in his music as well. Initially garnering a somewhat devout following in the underground circuit in the mid 1990s to early 2000s. The Internet has also arguably brought his music to wider audiences. It has allowed fans to connect with each other more than ever. Building a fan base with songs featured in films like Thumbsucker and Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. He still manages and continues to amass fans. People still find his music and are moved by his careful melodies and songwriting. He wasn’t an artist who dwindled in obscurity though; he engaged a relatively large audience in his lifetime People still want to see the songs be performed live; ergo, all of the tribute nights.

Later, at the venue, I’m talking to Jaq Gallier who is also playing a set. She tells me a story about a time she met Elliott in 1995 in San Jose. He made sure she received his attention, after some other people pushed her out of the way. And she bought him a beer. I imagine that tribute nights, generally, are a way to cope with a loss. They’re a way to re-remember somebody’s presence. Listening to the music can be a pretty solitary thing but to share that with an audience or a crowd could be a rewarding experience. In theory, everyone is brought together with his or her loneliness. “It does affect people in good ways.” Jaq says of Smith’s songs. “It’s deep music, and you know he is hurting about something…[he’s] pure in some ways, with his pain.”

I hear someone say that Badly Drawn Boy hasn’t arrived yet and people are already starting to fill the Windmill. Somebody else is projecting Strange Parallel, the documentary short film starring Elliott, behind the stage. I look around and start talking to Dexy K from Sweetheart Contract about his set. Before he tells me what he’s going to play, he asks me what my favorite Elliott Smith songs are. I can tell he’s testing me, to see how much of an Elliott Smith fan I truly am. After a moment hesitation, I say, “Umm…’Biggest Lie’ is definitely a favorite.” Dexy nods his head and I keep going. “’Thirteen’, ‘Angles’, but I think that my all time favorite is ‘Kings Crossing’.” He claps his hand together and smiles. I know I must have said the right thing. We talk about the song’s haunting quality and how they are some of the most devastating lyrics in all of music. “It’s my favorite song of all time, that anybody every recorded.” He also tells me about how he met Alex Chilton from Big Star (the original writer of ‘Thirteen’) at a festival. He had a chance encounter with him because Dexy was wearing a Big Star shirt. After a few minutes of talking about a mutual love of Big Star and The Replacements, we get back to talking about Elliott. “[He’s] just one of those artists that makes you feel…it’s just getting through music.”


Elliott Smith music is the kind you listen to when nobody picks up your call. So, to share that experience with other people can be a personal thing. Melissa gives me a wave from across the bar and the house lights begin to dim. Jaq Gallier steps on stage and she’s about to sing her first song with her band. The night is about to begin, and I only vaguely realize what kind of experience this is. I think that it’s something personal, but it still brings everyone together. Not like a funeral, but still somewhat somber. Jaq covers Elliott’s ‘Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands’ and everybody cheers. I can’t help but get the feeling; everybody kind of wishes they could have said that to Elliott.

All American Girl walk on stage and deliver heartfelt renditions of ‘Miss Misery’ and ‘Strung Out Again’. Despite technical difficulties, they  perform a song from their forthcoming album. Melissa encourages a seated semi-circle to form near and around the stage. It makes everyone seem closer together and it makes everything seem more intimate. Dexy K goes on stage next with an acoustic guitar. He plays: ‘Thirteen’, ‘Angeles’, ‘Biggest Lie’, ‘Say Yes’, ‘Waltz #2’ and ‘King’s Crossing’. The last of which is one of the most tender and evoking songs I’ve ever seen live. Everybody erupts into applause and cheers. I look around and see how this little-ish pub in Brixton has filled for a memory.


Badly Drawn Boy AKA Damien Gough takes the stage a little late. And he starts telling a story about how he met Beck, over light fingerpicking of his guitar. He mentions how he won the Mercury prize too. And people laugh a little when his story trails off and he makes some ambiguous statements about death. At one point, last night’s drug use comes up. And he mentions again how he won the Mercury prize, and how nice of a guy Elliott was. A Voice from the crowd yells, “Get on with it!”


Damien stops playing and everybody turns to see where the Voice was coming from. “Elliott would be ashamed of you!” the Voice says louder. Damien calls out for the Voice to come here and say that. Crowd members pushed the Voice to the front as Damien starts singing a bitter version of, “The Shining”; every now and again puncturing the verses with, “Cunt!” He wishes for the Voice’s owner to die soon, and some people start leave from the back. The presumed heckler goes and other people leave too. Others mumble and look at the ground, or sip their drinks. Damien says something about not being paid for this charity gig either under his breath.

Another person from the crowd yells up, “We love you mate!” I think about how I have no real idea what is going on. This night is about Elliott and I feel a bit uneasy that I’m here right now. I move back out through the packed crowd and get near the front door. “Are you heading off now?” Dan from AAG says. I nod my head and say I should probably catch the next train. We turn when everything goes silent for a moment. Tom Rothrock, the producer of Elliott’s Either/Or, Figure 8, and XO steps on stage. He shares some considerate words about Elliott. After all, it is his night.

I leave and head off down the street.

Part of me thinks that I have stuck stick around to see what will happen next. Another part of me thinks about what happened ten years ago. About how a very sensitive man took his life. He might have believed it was the only way out. Ten years later, 6,000 miles away, people gather to remember the music and life of Elliott Smith. They’re paying tribute to his talent and legacy. There’s no right or wrong way to remember somebody’s passing. It all affects us differently, and we all remember in out own ways.

Even if things are just kind of ‘grey’. It is all just our own “Fond Farewell” to a friend.

By Austin Macfadden
All photos India Bird


God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.