Updated: Mar 19
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.
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.
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 inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame in 2015.
The band was made up of Smith and Gust, who both played guitar and sang, Tony Lash, who played drums and also played music with Smith in high school, and Brandt Peterson, who played the bass (later replaced by Sam Coomes). Their music consisted of similar themes as Smith’s solo career: alienation, depression, angst, and frustration with society. With Gust being openly gay, the band was often labeled as “queercore” or “homocore,” according to Smith’s biography.
In 1993, Heatmiser released their first album, Dead Air, with record label Frontier Records, which featured songs like “Cannibal” and “Candyland.” With a distinct heavy rock sound, it aligned more with the grunge music coming from the upper Pacific Northwest, such as Nirvana, which had obtained a massive following around the country by this time.
Heavily distorted guitar riffs, paired with prominent drum fills and punchy vocals, made Heatmiser’s music a perfect fit for the Portland music scene, which was riding the waves started by hometown-hero punk and alternative groups like The Wipers and The Replacements throughout the 1980’s.
Heatmiser regularly performed at venues like the X-ray Cafe, and La Luna; venues which would prove to be a staple for the PNW grunge/alternative rock scene of the 90’s.
Though their music touched on similar themes as Smith’s music, their musical approach differed quite significantly, juxtaposed between Gust’s angsty sound and Smith’s softer tastes.
Their music is also noticeably heavier than any of Smith’s solo albums. Smith is quoted as not being fond of their heavy sound, saying, “I was being a total actor, acting out a role I didn’t even like. I couldn’t come out and show where I was coming from. I was always disguised in this loud rock band.”
In an interview with David Greenwald of The Oregonian, Peterson, Heatmiser’s founding bassist, said:
“Every individual in the band had identities that were bound up with some sense of injuries, of not fitting in or whatever… I didn’t really understand myself really well, I drank pretty heavily. And Elliott was increasingly unhappy with the rock thing. And I think that I became emblematic of everything that was bad about that for him.”
By the time they released their single “Yellow No. 5” in 1994, and full-length album Cops and Speeder that same year, the group had found a larger audience. Smith had also already recorded his first solo album, Roman Candle, with Cavity Search Records. The band began to make a shift in sound over the next few years and, with songs like “Half Right" off of Heatmiser’s album, Mic City Sons (1996), Smith’s softer style began to show.
Smith recorded his unnamed album, usually just called “Elliott Smith,” with record label Kill Rock Stars, and it was the beginning of the end for Heatmiser. Smith had lost his job at a bakery, which gave him time to record more and more.
Gust, from the same Oregonian article, said, “That was like the state giving a grant, because for a year, he didn’t work. All he did was record at his girlfriend’s house. His process just went boom! It was amazing to watch. It was also intimidating because I was working, we had the band and there (were) things to deal with with the band, but he just drifted into his own thing.”
By the end of 1996, the band dissolved.
Smith would go on to record three more albums: Either/Or in 1997, which had hits like “Between the Bars” and “2:45 AM,” XO, which he recorded in 1998, and Figure 8 in 2000.
Hits like “Miss Misery” off of XO, which he recorded with DreamWorks Records for the movie Good Will Hunting (directed by Oregon filmmaker Gus Van Sant), would help propel Smith from the Portland indie scene and into the mainstream eye. The song even received a nomination for an Oscar for Best Original Song and Smith performed it live during the 70th Academy Awards.
Wearing a white suit, he stood alone onstage, guitar in hand, and played “Miss Misery” -- not only for the celebrities gathered in The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, but for an estimated 90 million people who watched the broadcast around the world.
His song would lose the night to Will Jennings and James Horner’s massive hit from Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On,” performed by Celine Dion, but Smith’s nomination and performance would forever enshrine his name for audiences much further flung than Portland, Oregon.