Tuesday, January 12, 2010

720. Elliott Smith: A Tribute

So, I've been thinking a lot recently about art. Well, to be honest, I think about art all the time. It seems to be the one consistent thing in my life that I can use to channel my energy positively. I've been thinking about folk-rocker, Elliott Smith, who died over five years ago.

I was once in a dark place -- darker than I ever knew existed. There, I shamefully hid my passions and stowed away within my own self-destruction. Beyond not getting a DUI or AIDs, I didn't really accomplish anything at all for those three years of my life. I certainly didn't make anything beautiful.

Elliott Smith on the other hand, was a man who experienced challenges and personal drama that went way beyond my scruples and follies, yet still reached down to make some of the best and most powerful songs ever crafted. That is, before he committed suicide by stabbing himself in the heart.

I'm kind of embarrassed to admit, years after I first listened to his posthumous album, "From a Basement on a Hill," I still really don't know all too much about the man. I've never decided that I needed to. I discovered his music through a review in Maxim Magazine while I served in Iraq; I resolved to purchase his album when I returned. I did purchase it then, and that timing was perfect: my great three year depression started upon my return home. I've listened to that album now at least 500 times. It has impacted me to this day so much, the title of this blog takes inspiration from his lyrics off that CD.

It's hard for anyone to really say what it is about someone they love that makes them love them; it's hard to make it really tangible and describe it for others. Ben Folds tried to do this with his tribute song to Elliott and summed up pretty well the way all of us Smith fans feel:

"Elliott, man you played a fine guitar / and some dirty basketball / The songs you wrote, got me through a lot / I just wanted to tell you that / but it's too late."

After his death, dozens of myspace.com tribute pages went up in his honor. You would only have to read a dozen or so comments to know this was a man you wanted to hear. On your typical band page people say, "oh, I really like your one song," or "the drummer is cute." On the Elliott's page people said, "Elliott, your music changed my life," or "I still think about you every day, and I've never known you."

Elliott suffered from rampant depression, severe alcoholism, and heavy drug usage. Despite this, I can't think of any other artist of any medium who still loved so much; who still had such an amazing heart; who still cared about the world and others. Can you imagine just being so wrecked by poor mental health and addiction but still writing songs about how much you are frustrated with people who mistreat the lower classes of the world? On the final track of "From a Basement on a Hill," "A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free," Elliott sings:

"You disappoint me / you people raking in on the world / God knows, why my country don't give a fuck."

That to me is an unparalleled beauty and emotion that I think makes Elliott's work just a little bit better than even the best of what I've heard or seen or felt.

I miss you too, man. I hope I can do something with art that is nearly as amazing as what you did.

"Because your candle burns too bright; I almost forgot it was twilight."

- Elliott Smith, From a Basement on a Hill

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