Wild Mercury Sound

A book, a live CD and a rant about Elliott Smith

John Mulvey

News reaches me from my house that the Radiohead discbox has turned up, with another CD of new songs to go with the ones we already know from the "In Rainbows" download. I'll try and get my head round those in time to blog tomorrow.

But in the meantime, I've just received a hefty volume about Elliott Smith that's been put together by the photographer, Autumn De Wilde. Flicking through, it looks great, and it really hammers home something that bugs the shit out of me when people often talk or write about Smith. It's just too easy to write about him as this "troubled", "unhappy", "doomed" figure, to spend an hour with a profoundly shy man and divine from it that he was somehow not long for this world.

Of course, Smith had problems: at times, when I was never quite sure whether he was talking on or off the record, he was fairly explicit about them to me. But really, the habit of simplifying his life into one inexorable downward spiral winds me up time and time again; it reminds me, too, how glib writers can come across - and i've certainly been guilty of this - when they try and psychoanalyse their subjects.

Anyway, my point is, De Wilde's book mainly features her pictures of Elliott, and they capture things about him that those mythologisers of depression chose not to see. They're intimate, candid, and often manage to transcend the awkwardness that he sometimes felt in front of a camera. It's clear that De Wilde had a real rapport with him that she built up over the years, so that a warmth and playfulness emerges, as he goofs about in a Key Largo t-shirt on a crowded pavement, or fashions a Billy Childish-style handlebar moustache out of some gaffer tape.

I’m skimming through the text now, which seems to be conversations between De Wilde and various of Elliott’s friends, and that sense of his warmth and humanity, an idea that he actually had three dimensions, comes across. “It’s hard for people to imagine Elliott Smith running,” she writes. “Everyone saw him as such a still, quiet, sad person.” Joanna Bolme, his ex and Steve Malkmus’ great bassist, talks about Elliott being practical, cooking and driving, loving The Scorpions, Chicago. There’s stuff about him stumbling into fights out of some noble, maybe stupid desire to protect friends.

Obviously I haven’t read the entire thing in half an hour, but the book comes across as a much more plausible portrait of an artist than usual, because it focuses on little details, about what he was like a lot of the time, rather than how he was perceived through his songs. There’s an interesting quote I’ve just spotted from Sam Coomes, the Quasi frontman and a regular Elliott sideman, where he says, “Elliott was sort of actively involved in his own sort of mythmaking. . . and it was something that I kind of frowned on.”

Coomes’ inference, I guess, is that all the miserablist profiles of Smith acted as a kind of double bluff: if everyone thinks he’s sad, they won’t really know what he’s really like – the happy parts as well as the sad parts. But then I listen to the CD that comes with the book, and I’m reminded – wasn’t it always obvious that Smith was complicated in a good way, as well as a bad way?

The five tracks are from some solo live show in LA, from around 1997. He plays flesh-prickling, close-up versions of “Angeles”, “Between The Bars”, and “Clementine”, has a go at Coomes’ Quasi song, “Clouds”, then splutters and giggles his way through Hank Williams Jr’s “All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down”. Doubtless, the song’s sentiments amused him, and even I’m forced to admit that his high, thin voice is an awkward fit for trad country. But as he flubs the notes and forgets the lyrics, Smith seems vulnerable in a way that’s very different to how he’s usually portrayed, a healthy and funny way that’s much closer to how I remember him.

And then, cutely, he lines up some ammunition for those corny reviewers who are looking for intimations of mortality as a kiss-off line. “You weren’t thrown off by my fuck-up,” he says at the end of the disc, “because there’s more in store. . .”

Good ones, I bet.


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