Music as Rapture: Aimee Mann and Elliott Smith

Music as Rapture: Aimee Mann and Elliott Smith

 

It’s hard to write about something or someone you really love, and I really love Elliott Smith (about whom I wrote a book, Torment Saint) and Aimee Mann. But then, these are the subjects you want most to write about too, in order to express your love and to understand it. So here goes.

Mann just released a new record, “Mental Illness.” I’m not sure it’s her best, but talking about “the best” Aimee Mann is senseless. Actually, it’s just like talking about “the best” Elliott Smith. When something is never not good, there is no best. There’s only more and different. Degrees of excellent, maybe.

I’ve noticed Smith’s name coming up in Mann’s press—her interviews, reviews, etc. It’s a comparison that makes sense. Both did soundtracks, Mann for the glorious Magnolia, Smith (less comprehensively) for Good Will Hunting. At the time of his death, Smith was also recording songs for the film Thumbsucker, based on a book by my friend Walter Kirn. Both lost Oscars they should have won in a just world. Both wrote (or write) songs that get called “depressing,” for reasons neither of them accept or understand. Both tackle subjects like addiction, failed relationships, disappointment, poor choices, dashed expectations, lost souls, and lonely isolation. For long periods of time, not always but frequently, Smith was depressed, forlorn, suicidal, and in his final years, psychotic, a side effect of crack use that ramps up dopamine. Mann comes across as supremely adult–level-headed and self-composed. Yet in interviews she’s spoken of being “pretty disturbed as a kid.” She “couldn’t interact with people.” Her mother left when she was three—Aimee never knew her. Her father remarried. The home was characterized by a “lot of chaos.” Mann says, “I was really dissociated. I wasn’t present. I think I was kind of PTSD honestly. I was. . . very disconnected from people.” The interviewer asks her whom she was closest to in her family. “Nobody,” Mann replies.

But these are all surface commonalities. What about the deeper stuff, the art itself? In my book Torment Saint, I said the only person I could think of alive today whose work compared with Smith’s was Mann. I made a mix CD with alternating songs by the two, to test my theory in a sense, on the front side of which I wrote in permanent black marker “Elliott Mann” (I thought it was fractionally catchier than “Aimee Smith”). It is damn good. I could have picked the songs at random. (That says a lot).

I’ve thought long and hard about what Smith and Mann have in common artistically—it’s a bit like comparing vodka and gin—and here’s what I’ve narrowed it down to: emotional wisdom born of pain. I’m talking about lyrics. How they make suffering more understandable, more eye-opening, more beautiful. I don’t find that depressing in the least. I find it exciting, sensual, gently melancholic, inspiring. Poetry makes you see things you’ve never seen before, or feel more clearly, more originally. That’s what Mann and Smith do too, with their words. They sharpen your perceptions. They show you stuff you thought you knew but didn’t. They lead you to new ways of experiencing your own inner life.

Musically, they seem different to me. Smith is baroque, hard, acidic, with passing chords and chord progressions you don’t see coming. Mann is more supple, maybe less surprising, though not in a bad way. She wasn’t, she says, a born songwriter. In fact, she said she can’t believe what she’s become. Smith was never anything but. He started writing songs in 6th grade. I’ve heard them all; they are good. By the time he finished high school he’d produced about six album length cassettes, with his band Stranger Than Fiction, then another called Murder of Crows. There have been some cover albums lately of Elliott Smith songs. His work in other people’s mouths never sounds quite right to me, though I understand the instinct to try it out. I wish Mann would make such a record. I’m certain she never would. She probably knows better. But if anyone could pull it off, it’s her.

For good and bad reasons, we always want to lump great sad artists together, find their common vibe, their unstated aesthetic. Diane Arbus and Sylvia Plath. Kafka and Dostoevsky. The list is long. Sometimes we end up with illusory correlations, sometimes not. The proof is in the pudding. What Smith and Mann both seem to know is that we’re all fighting similar demons. The difference is only degree. They also “go dark.” Like Virgils, they take us by the hand and guide a Hell tour that sounds and looks Heavenly. “Depressing” isn’t the word for their songs. The word is rapturous.17499163_10155317141084276_1274108518539029319_n

Big Trump & Little Trump & Narcissism

Big Trump & Little Trump & Narcissism

trump_angryThere’s a lot of talk about Trump and narcissism, but it’s only a form of name-calling, and it doesn’t explain anything. Trump is a despicable, disgusting person because of what he chooses to say and do, not because of something he “has,” like a cold. Also, most people making the narcissism case don’t seem to know exactly what narcissism is.

Here’s what the science shows. Narcissism can be sub-divided into two distinct, independent types: vulnerable and grandiose. The former is harder to spot. It’s stealth, closeted narcissism. The person acts weak and fragile but secretly thinks he’s better than you. He deflects praise but deep down believes he richly deserves it. This isn’t Trump, obviously. Trump’s in the grandiose category. There’s nothing stealthy about his self-regard.

These types, while distinct, share four features. I like to think of them as the four E’s: entitlement, exploitiveness, exhibitionism, and low empathy. These four elements make up narcissism’s core. Trump thinks he can grab women’s pussies anytime he feels like it. Check, entitlement. He also thinks, despite the fact that he has no experience, no qualifications, and vanishingly little knowledge, that he deserves to be President. More entitlement. Trump hires workers then refuses to pay them. He buys pageants so he can ogle semi-nude women. Check, exploitiveness. Trump’s most at home in front of large, adoring crowds. He can’t corral his baser instincts, can’t stay on script, because the size of the crowd means more to him than the prospect of winning. Check, exhibitionism. Trump can’t apologize for his hurtful speech because he doesn’t understand the feelings of others. They don’t exist. Only his needs do. Check, low empathy.

Recently Newt Gingrich said there were two Trumps, Big Trump and Little Trump. He called the latter “frankly pathetic.” Newt is wrong (as usual). There’s no Big Trump. There’s only Little Trump. Big Trump is a carapace. Big Trump is fraudulent, defensive, a smokescreen. Big Trump is only Little Trump’s armor. Trump is Little. That’s the best and only way to think of him. There’s nothing Big about him. The real mystery of Trump’s personality is the question of what made him so Little—so fragile, so pathologically reactive, so sensitive to criticism. The first debate, a debacle for Trump, came down to one moment. For fifteen minutes or so Trump seemed fine—measured, focused, clear. Then very deliberately, and very strategically, Clinton poked Little Trump. She said his father gave him millions of dollars, without which he’d be nothing. At this Trump collapsed. The rest of the night he flailed, rambled, lied, interrupted, winced, and sniffed. Game over. Fake Big Trump crashed and burned. Injured Little Trump couldn’t make him work right.

Trump’s a narcissist. But that’s like saying he’s a carpenter. It doesn’t shed light. It’s a word for what he says and does. The better question is why he says and does what he says and does. What made him so Little? I don’t want to know enough about Trump to try answering this question. My guess is the same as Clinton’s: it boils down to daddy. Little Trump knows this all too well. Big Trump doesn’t and can’t. Big Trump knows nothing. That’s his job. He exists to know nothing.

Possibly, Trump could win by being more Little—in other words, more real, honest, sincere, human, flawed. But that’s what he’ll never be. He’s incapable. He’s not going to change. He spent his life pretending to be Big.

Elliott Smith, Desert Island Discs

Elliott Smith, Desert Island Discs

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)JJ2CoffeePeople