A while back I came up with the concept of the prototypical scene, an idea arising out of an Honors class called “Autobiography, Fiction, and Self-Invention.” What kept striking me, as we read over the lives & work of Plath, Kafka, Kerouac, Kathryn Harrison, and others, was how, in every case, one event, episode, experience (or “scene”) popped out as incredibly self-defining. The scene captured, in simplified, condensed form, most of the core parameters of the person’s life story. (You can read a lot more about this notion in Chapter Three of the Handbook of Psychobiography I edited back in 2005).
Now, as I continue to work on my book about the songwriter Elliott Smith, I’m starting to believe a person can also have a prototypical song–that is, one tune that says more about them than any other. Initially, for Smith, I figured “Waltz #2” to be his most self-defining, by far. At Lincoln High School in Portland, the downtown public school Smith attended, there’s a gold plaque with his likeness and the words, “I’m never going to know you now, but I’m going to love you anyhow,” from “Waltz #2,” of course.
But Smith’s work is so powerful that you wind up falling in love with whichever song you happen to be listening to at any given time. I think, now, that “King’s Crossing” is his most prototypical. There’s the eerie, haunting beginning, a Philip Glass-like recurring piano line that could be a song of its own. Then the first line–“The King’s Crossing is the main attraction”–that seems to come out of nowhere. (In some live versions of the song, Smith uses a different opening line, “The big problem is the main attraction“). Anyway, it is an incredibly dense, complex, lyrically convoluted, hallucinatory number that does appear to sum up a lot of the themes of Smith’s life. I can’t stop listening to it. But then, I can’t stop listening to any Elliott Smith song. He was a songwriting genius. (One other note about the song. It went through numerous drafts. Just one of many significant alterations is this: writing “meant to take sickness away” rather than “don’t let me be carried away.” In some ways a more hopeful, less ominous sentiment…).