Majestic & Melodic Melancholy: Elliott Smith

Updated: Mar 19


Photo from the Elliott Smith Gallery Facebook

Gone But Not Forgotten: Part 1

By Alaina Martin


Some artists are taken from our world too soon, just as they were becoming recognized for their groundbreaking creativity. Others pass on in relative obscurity, without people realizing the influence they had on art scenes both big and small.


Curbside Press is introducing a new series of pieces, Gone But Not Forgotten, focusing on the artists we will never get a chance to sit down with, but whose work deserves the spotlight all the same. We could think of no one better to base our inaugural feature on:


 

Elliott Smith (1969-2003)


Elliott Smith was an American singer-songwriter who was known for his distinct, velvet-soft vocals and melodic, alternative indie music. He captured the heart and soul of Oregon's 90's music scene and is considered a hallmark in the indie genre -- inspiring countless artists with his heart-wrenching, lyric-driven music that delves into subjects like depression, isolation, and addiction.


His acclaimed music has been featured in films like Good Will Hunting (1998), American Beauty (1999), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and was even featured in an episode of Adult Swim’s hit animated show Rick and Morty.


Early Life


Born August 6, 1969 in Omaha, Nebraska, Steven Paul Smith began his winding path that would eventually land him in Portland, Oregon, where he would become a powerhouse in a scene that had yet to truly blossom.


He spent much of his youth in Texas, where he lived with his mother Bunny after she divorced his father within a year after he was born. They lived in the Duncanville area, located near Dallas.


Smith’s biography, “The Time It Took a Cigarette to Burn: Scenes from the Life and Art of Elliott Smith,” written by S. R. Shutt, contains interviews with the musician before his death. In it, he was asked about what his first memory was and said, “Playing on a gravel embankment next to a highway in Dallas. I found a turtle, picked him up and he peed on my hand.”


Another first memory, he recalled, was “breaking the TV by repeatedly flicking the volume and turning the set on and off. I was three. It was the first piece of electronic equipment I was ever allowed to operate. The first day I was, I broke it.”


Religion was a large part of Smith’s growing years, in an often all-consuming sense. When his mother remarried, she wed a man who was a member of a sect of Mormonism called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.


Smith himself would largely shed this rigid philosophy later in his life, as he is quoted in his biography as saying, "I was brought up in a religious household. I don't go to church. I don't necessarily buy into any officially structured version of spirituality. But I have my own version of it ... I don't really know what happens when you die. I don't like the idea of being buried. I would prefer to walk out into the desert and be eaten by birds ..."


Music had always been a large part of his life, too. He began learning the piano at 9 years old, then switched to learning clarinet when those lessons stopped being paid for. From a young age, he also had a fondness for bass, wishing to be a bass player when he got older.


A young Elliott Smith at the age of 11 (photo found on Pinterest)

Through the years, he would he would visit his father Gary in Portland. At the age of 12, while visiting, he received his first acoustic guitar as a present -- a father-son moment that would clearly influence Smith’s life and art.


As he grew older, music became an escape from his conflicted life in the suburbs of Texas. Smith said in interviews later in life that his stepfather was physically and sexually abusive.


The J Files wrote about his childhood, saying, “Smith endured what biographers euphemistically call a ‘difficult’ childhood, largely because of the abuse he often spoke of having received from his stepfather, Charlie Welch. Smith’s parents divorced soon after his birth, and his mother Bunny married Welch when Smith was four years old.”


The article continues, “According to Smith, Welch beat him regularly. In his final years, Smith also talked of having been sexually abused. For his part, Welch denies the accusations of sexual abuse, although he admitted in a letter to ‘having been too hard’ on his stepson.”


Mentioned in his biography, the lyrics from “Some Song,” which he wrote for the band Heatmiser, expressed how he felt:


Charlie beat you up week after week

And when you grow up you’re going to be a freak

Want a violent girl who’s not scared of anything

Help me kill my time

Cos I’ll never be fine

Help me kill my time

You went down to look at old Dallas town

Where you must be sick just to hang around

Seen it on TV how to kill your man

Then like Gacy’s scene a canvas in your hand


Drinking and drugs became another way to distract him from the hardships he endured in his home life. According to his biography, he first tried alcohol at the age of ten, and tried smoking marijuana behind a local church at around fourteen:


“A friend’s Dad grew his own pot which he kept in a greasy, old margarine container. It was shiny. We didn’t know how much to smoke, so we just kept on until we couldn’t any more… It didn’t really work for me, but my friend was running around shouting ‘This is great!’ About an hour later, he looked at me and said ‘what if it never goes away?’ He was freaked out. The second time, it worked, music sounded amazing.”


Shutt, the author, adds his own thoughts into the biography here, “His recollection of those years often emphasize the violence and fragmentation that pervaded life in those particular burbs.”


At fourteen, halfway through his freshman year, Smith had endured enough of his life with his mother and stepfather, at which time he moved to Portland to live with his father. The move would be the beginning of a new chapter in his life and would lead to his music career.


 

"Playing things too safe is the most popular way to fail"


 

He began recording music around the time he moved to his father’s house. Using a four-track recorder, he would experiment with his music, honing his sound, and using his instinct to find what worked for him.


He attended Lincoln High School, where he and his friends started a band named Stranger Than Fiction, which had the essence of what Smith’s music would develop into.



His biography explains, “It was around this time (1985-86) that Elliott composed what is, so far as we know, the earliest song that found its way into his mature repertory. Condor Avenue, written when he was 16 or 17, eventually took its place on his first album Roman Candle.


It was in his high school years that he began being called Elliott, which he ultimately decided to go by. He is quoted in his biography saying:


“I didn’t like that my first name started with the same letter as my last name. That really irritated me. And also, like, there’s no good versions of it, ya know like there’s, Steven … Steven is like sort of too … hard to say, and kind of like, bookish, Steve is like … jockish, sorta. Big handsome Steve, big shirtless Steve, ya know, like football playin’ blond haired Steve. Ya know?”


Maturing, In Music & Life


After high school, while attending college at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, Smith met Neil Gust, and together they would form the band Heatmiser in October of 1991. The success of the band would eventually lead to them being