Last week Elliott Smith took his own life after battling for several years with both heroin and alcohol addiction. Although I’ve never considered him one of my favourite artists, I’ve probably returned to his third album Either/Or, a truly beautiful, haunting, brilliant record, more than any other release over the last ten years. You’d think that this alone would propel the singer into my list of all-time-greats, but it doesn’t. And why? Because I also saw him play more than half a dozen times and, quite frankly, he always sucked. This may well be the the most wildly inappropriate moment to reveal this, but I always thought he butchered his songs live, clumsily destroying all the grace and atmosphere present in the original recordings.
My favourite Elliott moment came in the most extraordinary circumstances, when I accompanied my good friend Dr. Wendy Fonarow, Instructor of Anthropology at Glendale Community College, California, and author of an acclaimed academic paper entitled “The Spatial Organization of an Indie Music Gig” (seriously), to an Elliott Smith show at The Roxy on Sunset Strip, Los Angeles. We took refuge at the rear of the venue, seated next to a table adorned by a discreet sign saying “Reserved: Stipe.” Ha, we thought, as if! But no, in came the REM frontman, arm in arm with a very young “companion,” plus Courtney Love and the singer from Live, Ed Kowalczyk. Stipe and Love proceed to misbehave throughout the set, brazenly stealing my cigarettes and flouting California’s notoriously strict anti-smoking laws, Love occasionally breaking off to bawl “Goooooooo Elliott” at the stage.
After the show it’s next door to The Rainbow for a spot of late dinner, our meal interrupted once more by Courtney Love, looking increasingly worse for wear and behaving in a decidedly erratic fashion.
I’m then dragged off to the after-show party, held at the Brass Monkey Karaoke joint, where various friends and hangers-on take it in turns to belt out a selection of middle of the road classics. Elliott Smith is eventually tempted onstage to perform Harry Chapin’s Cats In The Cradle and suddenly, he’s magnificent. He’s obviously drunk and doesn’t really know the song that well, but the wistful vulnerability so evident in his studio work comes to the fore, and it’s a quite, quite lovely moment. RIP.