April 24, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I’m in Salon, talking about Amanda Bynes. Go HERE.
April 24, 2013 § Leave a Comment
•What do you make of the first biography by Ben Nugent?
This may seem preposterously dumb but I never read it. There was an anxiety of influence thing going on. I had the instinct to start from scratch; I didn’t want any sort of outside distortion. But I admire him for doing it. I’m guessing he was a fan too. And it isn’t an easy subject to wade into. I’d love to talk to him, in fact. But I have no judgment of his book. Some of my students read it and thought it was pretty OK, they said. They got something out of it, they said. But I never pressed for details. I did hear he wasn’t able to interview a lot of people, and that makes it tough. Plus it came out one year after Elliott’s death so a lot of stuff still wasn’t known. There wasn’t much of a record to go on. I’m sure he ran into quite a few gaps in the fossil record–or that’s what I’d suspect.
•A lot of the work is probably interviews, right?
Yes. Exactly. I’d never done a biography before, but I knew it was going to be something else altogether. And that excited me. It was a departure. I like challenges. And I was a little fatigued with psychobiography, the approach in the Capote and Arbus books. The attempt to make psychological sense of the art. I felt like I’d said most of what I had to say in that domain, though who knows, I may return to it. People seem to enjoy it. At the same time, it is an acquired taste.
Anyway, back to interviews. They are emotionally demanding–for the people I’m talking to, of course, and for me–particularly in a life like Elliott’s, how it ended and all. I was very impressed by the devotion people have to him–their sensitivity and tact and caring. It was moving, constantly very moving. And when you interview people for, in some instances, 10-15 hours, on the phone and in person, you get to know your interviewees a little. It’s pretty natural. Then you begin to feel, or I did—and again, I think this is natural and largely a positive thing—a terrific sense of responsibility to get their take on things right. As people they live in your head as you write. It’s from their lips to your fingers. It’s a translation of sorts.
I don’t think you can write a book like this except from a vantage point of love. Empathy and understanding–those are milder forms of loving. I think of Oscar Wilde. He said, and I agree, that it’s not love that blinds, but hate. Love allows you to see.
•Speaking of that. Back to the music. What do you love about the songs?
It’s hard to put it into words because you react to art at so many different levels, most of which are inexpressible, you know? I like complexity, ambiguity, symbolism, darkness, execution, and all of that is there, no doubt, or no doubt to me, at least. It’s like good food versus fast food. One fills you up satisfyingly, the other leaves you empty. I think Elliott is this ineffable combination of Burt Bacharach, Chet Baker, John Lennon, Beckett, Kafka, and George Harrison. In one interview he talked about how you put it all into a blender and see what comes out. There’s this impossible catchiness, this melodic charm—like Bacharach. The sweet high voice, no vibrato—like Baker. You get that vibe pretty clearly in a song like, say, “Strung Out Again.” Then the coarseness and anger of Lennon. The dense checkmate existentialism of Beckett and Kafka. The loopy chord structures of Harrison.
This is someone just born to make music. Add in a mind that naturally side-steps lyrical cliche, and you’ve got quite a brew.
Part 1 HERE
Part 2 HERE
April 23, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Really nice time meeting and being filmed by Kevin Moyer and Nickolas Rossi and crew, who are busy with their own labor of love: a documentary, Heaven Adores You, of Elliott Smith and his music. Pledge support HERE. A worthy project!
April 16, 2013 § 1 Comment
•What was hardest about the book?
The writing was pretty smooth. I usually hate re-reading, all I notice are the imperfections. But not this time. I kept thinking–and I can’t tell you how unusual this is–that it was solid, good, flowing. I feel lucky, because the book was a labor of love about a person I admire as an artist and feel a lot of affection for. So I never needed to battle anything inside myself, as I did, on occasion, with other subjects. I knew where my heart was. And that gave me a feeling of security. But I guess one hard thing was the structuring. Telling the story in the right, most pleasing, most effective way. And developing a coherent sense of who this person was. Being balanced and judicious and fair to all involved.
Actually, one of the hardest parts is now—waiting for the book to appear. The months of sitting and brooding.
•Do you feel like you’ve gotten to the “real” Elliott Smith? I ask that even though I think I know what you are going to say.
Well, I believe in facts. I love facts. But truth, or Truth? I agree with my friend Kathryn Harrison—truth is direction, not destination. It’s what you point to. That may be the most you can hope for. Here’s what I say in my book on Truman Capote: “Life is blurry; personality, too. We begin and end in mystery. The eyeball cannot see itself.” What you can show is a sort of lovely shadow. Early in the Elliott book I say about the same thing: “There are too many Elliott Smiths to count.” There are too many anybodys to count, self a bulging multiplicity. But if I were to pinpoint a REALER Elliott Smith, I’d nominate the years in high school with the band Stranger Than Fiction, and the early 90s in Portland with Heatmiser and the making of the first few records. Denny Swofford, the Cavity Search label owner—a terrific guy and a real supporter throughout—told me it was Portland more or less, that incredibly fecund scene, that made Elliott who he was. I pretty much agree with that sentiment.
•So what do we have to look forward to? What’s new in it?
Oh. Well. A huge amount about Texas, the very first recorded songs with his friends Steve Pickering, Kevin Denbow, and Mark Merritt, and his girlfriend Kim, all of whom I talked with in detail. I don’t believe a lot is known about those very first songs—”Ocean” was one, and “Outward Bound” (a waltz) and “Inspector Detector,” an instrumental. There are something like 3-5 versions of each. For a lot of them Kim sings, not Elliott. I lay all that out in the book. I think it’s pretty new. That chapter was super enjoyable to write. Then the high school years in the band Stranger Than Fiction. I’ve listened to several of those cassettes. Very ornate ambitious songs with countless changes and sections and variations, almost symphonic. Incredible for a high schooler. At least three of those tunes were remade later, with new lyrics. Also a lot about Heatmiser, that whole bizarrely inventive musical milieu in Portland back in the early 90s, with bands like Hazel, Pond, Crackerbash, etc, all playing Satyricon, La Luna, the X-Ray, in mixed bills. A lot about Roman Candle, how it came to be, the Cavity Search label founded by Denny Swofford and Chris Cooper.
There’s just so much. It’s hard to summarize. I’d need to read you the whole book. Here’s one thing. My sense is that a lot of writing about Elliott focuses on his last few years, his death, LA, the drug use, etc. It’s very lopsided. It overprivileges a time that was not representative of who he was. At all. It’s like—say you are writing about Michael Jordan. And say all you talked about was his career in baseball. That’s what I mean about kooky lopsidedness.
I talk about the LA years, of course, but I spend way more time on the early 90s. More than half the book concerns Texas and Portland, before the move to New York, and then to LA. I hope, in the end, there’s a sense of balance restored. The book is not death or depression-obsessed. If anything, it’s music obsessed. That is where the focus should be, I believe. Elliott was not some downer sad sack junky, endlessly fucked up. But that’s what you’d think if you read what’s out there.
Read Part 1 of the interview HERE.
April 11, 2013 § Leave a Comment
A shot of Elliott in the Taylor Street house in Portland, where “Roman Candle” was recorded, with the Le Domino, the guitar (essentially, a sort of toy guitar) he used on most of the songs. The “Heli-Jet” cap also made it on an album cover. (Photo courtesy of JJ Gonson Photography. Do not distribute or reproduce in any way without prior permission. All rights reserved).
April 10, 2013 § 2 Comments
•So, you’ve done books on Capote and Arbus (TINY TERROR, Oxford University Press and AN EMERGENCY IN SLOW MOTION, Bloomsbury), and you’ve published articles on everyone from Kafka to Oscar Wilde to James Agee to Ludwig Wittgenstein. Why Elliott Smith now?
Well, I was immediately very deeply moved by the music, first of all. It’s so inexpressibly beautiful, and like I say in the book, more than most anything else you come across–more fully realized, more complex, more accomplished. He was so musically gifted, impossibly gifted, from a very young age. In the book I fell into the habit of calling him a genius so often that my editor said I ought to scale that back a bit (I did, reluctantly!). But it’s what I believe. He was a genius songwriter. Sometimes, when you listen to songs, you think, “Oh, that lyric doesn’t work,” or “oh, that chord structure is a bit cliched,” or “oh, that bridge is boring”. . . You never think that about Elliott songs. Again, they have this ineffable flawlessness that comes out of deep artistry honed over many many years, and a very specific sense of what he was after in a song. It’s a little like the Beatles. Everything is good.
By the way, I don’t see any discontinuity between, say, Elliott and Arbus and Capote and the others. I don’t see a gap. Someone said to me, someone I interviewed: “Elliott?!? Wow. I mean”–they said–”he’s not exactly up to Arbus’s or Capote’s level, right?” That’s a thought I never had. It never crossed my mind. I feel as if his artistry was just as stunning. If he’s not as well known–and of course he’s not–that’s happenstance. In fact, I hope people buy my book, then by about the second or third page, drop it like a hot potato and go out and purchase every Elliott record they can find. If someone asked me, What is your goal with the book?, my immediate answer would be–To make people listen to Elliott Smith songs.
•What about as a person? Elliott as a person?
It sounds goofy but I loved him right away, much more than anyone else I’ve ever written about. I could see how smart he was, how humble, how compassionate, how funny and clever at times. Also vulnerable and shy. He’s the sort of person you root for and want to champion, both as an artist and an individual. There were different points of personal identification too that deepened my sense of affinity. I also, by the way, really loved almost all the people I spoke to in the course of researching the book, his friends. I kept thinking, if one can judge a person by his friends, Elliott must have been pretty spectacular. People like the incredible JJ Gonson, Pete Krebs, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Denny Swofford, Jennifer Chiba, Dorien Garry, his pal from Texas Steve Pickering–all creative, smart, thoughtful, caring people who were endlessly interesting to talk to.
•But, I mean, he was tormented too, right? Like your title suggests? What about that side?
Well, we all suffer. It’s the first noble truth, right? Suffering, unsatisfactoriness. He suffered, and he wrote about it a lot and made the suffering beautiful, like great artists do. I like the title Torment Saint. It’s sharp, direct, blunt. And it captures duality, something he was interested in–Either/Or, etc, the sacred and profane, as Nelson Gary put it to me. It’s kind of Kierkegaardian. In fact, Torment Saint makes me think right away of Kierkegaard, a philosopher Elliott read and admired. I thought for a time of calling the book The Reflected Sound of Everything. Also Come on Night, or Sad Song Symphony, or Last Call, or Locked and Shining, or Staring Down the Sun. A lot of thought went into it. Titles are extremely important. In the end Torment Saint never quite got elbowed off its pedestal, though we looked at literally dozens of possibilities.
•You seem drawn to sad artists, like Arbus. True?
I guess. I try not to dissect it. It is what it is. I don’t want to try being drawn to something. You go where you go and my subjects usually come unbidden, like this one did. It just sort of arrived.
My daughter. She and my son go to Lincoln High School in Portland, where Elliott went. She was listening to him–she played Waltz #2 for me–and it was SHAZAM. I still feel like, along with King’s Crossing and Last Call, it is his masterpiece. At the time I had just finished writing–simultaneously–the Capote and Arbus books, and I was looking forward to doing nothing for a while. A whole lot of hardcore nothing! But no such luck. My life quickly became Elliott Smith 24/7. I kept thinking he was sort of like my best friend. I spent all my time with him. I dreamed about him. Always good dreams, by the way.
•Want to share one?
Not really. They were encouraging. He was always nice to me in them. In fact, I had another one just last night. He was helping me wash dishes.