I just wrote a piece for the British Psychological Society’s “Psychologist” magazine, partly on psychobiography, partly on Bowie. For those who are interested, I think it’s a really good primer on at least one way to effectively go about writing a psychobiography. Here is the LINK.
I was looking through a bunch of Elliott Smith’s stuff back in the Torment Saint days—guitars, amps, books, clothes—and I came across a handwritten list of his “10 favorite songs.” Stupidly, I didn’t copy it out. More stupidly, I didn’t take a picture of it. The only song I am certain to have been on the list is “Walk on By,” the Bacharach tune. (I think I recall an Iggy Pop song too, but I can’t be sure). Anyway, in the process of interviewing people for the book, a LOT of songs were mentioned as important to him in one way or another. He covered them, he loved them, they made him cry, he recorded them, or he just plain admired them. Here is a partial list. Some I’ll just mention. Others I’ll say a word or two about. In a certain sense this is a non-Elliott Smith song Torment Saint soundtrack.
- ”Walk On By,” Dionne Warwick
- ”Rock and Roll Suicide,” Bowie. He recorded this for a Bowie compilation—“Crash Course for the Ravers”–put out by Undercover Records. For reasons possibly having to do with timing, it didn’t get included. I’ve never heard it. I don’t know if anyone has it.
- ”Against All Odds,” Phil Collins. The cheesiest song he could think of that also made him the most sad, according to Dorien Garry.
- ”Running Scared,” Roy Orbison. He used to put this on the jukebox, then leave, because he could not bear to listen to it.
- ”Blue,” Joni Mitchell.
- ”The Most Beautiful Girl,” Charlie Rich. A karaoke favorite for Elliott.
- ”Close to You,” Carpenters. From Torment Saint: “He was compassionate and supportive as JJ extricated herself from a prior ruined relationship that left her reeling. He’d sing to her, or they’d play guitar together and harmonize, sitting on a mattress on the floor, the one piece of furniture a lamp with a beautiful gold dome—Peter, Paul, and Mary songs, Carpenters covers like “Close to You” (Elliott also liked the Burt Bacharach tune “Walk on By,” which he called the saddest song ever written), the infinitely mournful “500 Miles” (“If you miss the train I’m on/You will know that I am gone”). They cuddled a lot, Elliott picked her flowers. He called JJ “Pitseleh”—her father’s nickname for her, and the title of a later solo Elliott song about Gonson—and she called him “little bird,” her way of reminding him to fly.”
- ”No Reply,” The Beatles. From Torment Saint: “Sullivan sensed “it was a relief for Elliott to be away from the U.S.” He’d always felt “really, really stressed out” when family or friends were in attendance, so playing for relative strangers was an easier experience, less fraught with emotion. On the tour bus they kept a battery-operated keyboard everyone messed around on, and after shows Elliott enjoyed cranking up The Stooges’ Raw Power record. As was his habit, he’d play it over and over. Another tune he was “obsessed with” at the time was Lennon’s jaunty “No Reply,” about a girl who lies. Its A-minor, A-major shifts inspired a new song Elliott was then calling “Somebody’s Baby.” He tried it out for Sullivan, asking “You think I say baby too many times?”
- ”Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Elton John. He loved the song. Also, from Torment Saint: “Songs came together strangely at times, products of bizarre circumstance, not that it really mattered much. A song was a song. It worked or it didn’t, regardless of how it materialized. “Waltz #1” is a case in point. Apparently Elliott constructed its moody, eerie piano, overlaid with sleepy, sighing vocal harmonies, after listening for eighteen hours straight, high on mushrooms, to the song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”
- ”Ordinary World,” Duran Duran. He told James Ewing he heard something in this song he wanted to study, then played it over and over for about seven hours straight.
- ”Broon’s Bane,” Rush. From Torment Saint: “We were heavy-duty Rush freaks,” Denbow says. “We slept and breathed Rush from sunup to sundown.” Elliott got his hands on a Rush music book, and according to Denbow, he was “very meticulous” about analyzing the music—he was “into it into it.” “Broon’s Bane,” from the album Exit Stage Left, was a song with extra-special fascinations. As a means of challenging himself musically, something he did often, Elliott worked to learn the song’s intro, sounding it out by ear. “He had that drive,” Merritt says. “He was by far the best musician of all of us. He wanted to see where it would take him.”
- ”Carry on Wayward Son,” Kansas. Played drums on it at Steve Pickering’s 16th Birthday Party. (I’ve got the actual audio here on this webpage if you scroll down).
- ”Closer to the Heart,” Rush. Recorded in Texas in middle school.
- ”Cry Baby Cry,” Beatles.
- ”Same Auld Lang Syne,” Dan Fogelberg. Played this for his middle school friend Pickle, on piano. “He just knocked it out of the park,” Pickle said. “I was stunned an flabbergasted.”
- ”Blood and Chocolate,” Elvis Costello.
- ”Walk Away Renee,” The Left Banke. Covered this live at Largo.
- ”Long Long Long,” Beatles. I’m pretty sure, if I remember correctly, that this was the last song he played live.
- ”Concrete Jungle,” Bob Marley. One of his last covers. I’ve got it. It’s heartbreaking.
- ”Say it Ain’t So,” Weezer. This was his favorite Weezer song, he said.
- ”A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation,” Marty Robbins. The inspiration for the “Miss Misery” video. (PHOTO by the spectacular JJ Gonson)
On art, artists, Elliott Smith, Diane Arbus, psychobiography, and my new book The Enchanted Abyss. Check it out > LINK
About a month ago I was in Stockbridge MA to receive the Erik Erikson Prize–a tremendous honor for me, especially since Erikson was the person who, maybe more than anyone else, got me interested in psychobiography (along, of course, with Alan Elms). Anyway, I gave a 30 minute talk on the field that I think is an excellent current summary of my thoughts. It’s also a decent overview of one way of doing psychobiography first proposed in 2005 by Dan McAdams. Link is HERE.
Just wrote this for Salon.com. A sort of psychological take on why fans cannot accept a (male) star’s suicide, and why they inevitably blame the female in the star’s life. Link HERE
I’m into about chapter three of my new book, expected to appear some time around Summer 2017. It’s on the link between suffering and art, and among other things it disputes the notion that making art is somehow intrinsically or automatically therapeutic (for the artist). Lots of case studies included–everyone from Francesca Woodman to John Lennon to Truman Capote to John Coltrane to Frida Kahlo. Please “like” the book’s page HERE. THANKS!