The Most “Elliott Smith” of Elliott Smith’s Songs (A Hopeless Exercise)

The Most “Elliott Smith” of Elliott Smith’s Songs (A Hopeless Exercise)

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…).

If you know Smith’s work, tell me which song you consider most emblematic.  I know, it is a tough call.  

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20 thoughts on “The Most “Elliott Smith” of Elliott Smith’s Songs (A Hopeless Exercise)

    1. Psychobiography and Elliott Smith make a fascinating combination! He was a brilliant confessional lyricist, but had what many literate singer-songwriters (often apparently frustrated poets) lack, namely a killer melodic pop sensibility in the tradition of The Beatles. The song “Some Song”, which appears on his B-sides in various versions,seems to describe his troubled life and addictions best, with its refrain, “Help me kill my time/Because I’ll never be fine”.

      1. Perfectly said. There is an interview in which he talks abt adoring Blood on the Tracks, Highway 61, and songs like Strawberry Fields, but then adds that songwriters with “pretensions to poetry” leave him cold. It’s an interesting remark. I feel like his lyrics are obviously poetical; he doesn’t (at least not in the interview mentioned). He says they can’t stand alone apart from the melodies in which they are embedded. But back to your point: so true, he blended accomplished writing with a killer melodic pop sensibility (as you say so well). Very few do that today. Or ever.

    1. Yes, as a (struggling) singer-songwriter myself I have an aversion to wordsmiths who don’t have much musicality to go with their sentiments; Elliott Smith definitely did(as well as a very distinctive and dexterous finger-picking guitar style). His lyrics actually seem to get more paired down over the course of the albums(“Pitsellah” being particularly stark). I once read him describe his works as something along the lines of “wierd pop songs”, which sums up their left-field but accessible quality. I must say I find your blog and your field of interest fascinating; creativity and the psychology and motivations behind it. But I am also often struck by how much even genius is reliant on circumstance to find recognition; I wonder whether a shy retiring figure such as Elliott Smith would have come to wider notice without the Gus Van Sandt connection.

      1. I’m sure Good Will Hunting didn’t hurt. At the same time, I do believe he was a genius, tho I always apply that word with reluctance. Maybe he was just too good not to make it, in some way and to some degree? Anyway, that’s what I like to think…. I don’t know if I agree that his lyrics got simpler over time. Think abt King’s Crossing, for instance, which is incredibly complex and almost Dylanesque. Or even Strung Out Again. I think he got denser, stranger, more surreal, more imagistic over time….

      2. You are quite right; listening to “From A Basement…” again the lyrics there are very dense and full of synbolism; I suppose I was thinking more of the “XO”/”Figure 8” period with its simple hooklines, e.g. “Waltz #2” and “Baby Britain”. I love his understated fey, fragile vocal style which totally fits his persona and the mood of the songs. He is also in the tradition of the multi-instrumentalist auteur a la early solo McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Prince. I agree that once something of the quality of Elliott Smith’s work is out in the ether it should catch on through its own intrinsic brilliance. In Britain where I am it really happened in 1998 when “Waltz #2” picked up radio play and the previous albums were all reissued.

        1. Exactly. The multi-instrumentalist auteur. On that point, I was talking to one of his band mates the other day about the Basement album. I asked him if he sat in at all. He said no. He said Elliott wanted just one name on it–his own. I thought that was interesting. My feeling is that it indicates the album’s importance to him musically, lyrically, psychologically, etc… It was a definite turning point, I believe, a discontinuity vis-a-vis the earlier work. That is something I want to write about a lot in the book….

          William Todd Schultz, PhD Professor Dept of Psychology Pacific University Forest Grove, OR 97116 503-352-1544 https://williamtoddschultz.wordpress.com/

  1. I guess the most plainly autobiographical songs will feature most here. Elliott Smith often denied that he was writing about himself, but some songs just don’t feel that they could be about anything other than him. The best example is ‘Let’s get lost’ (I think I read an interview where he said that he identified with Chet Baker, so I guess the title may be a reference to that) – lyrics like ‘burning every bridge that I crossed, to find some beautiful place to get lost’ reflect what some of his closest friends said about their relationship with Elliott. Maybe it is just a song that I am playing a lot at the moment, but I also think ‘True Love’ is very definitive – mixing romantic and drug references to describe his relationship with heroin ‘I bought mine off the street, true love man just can’t be beat, i felt so complete, married to heaven, angels above, and each night i look up at a bright honey moon’. A lot of this imagery recurs in many of his other songs too.

      1. the end of the Heatmiser days and the beginning of the solo days were the same time really…the song is from the final Heatmiser release “Mic City Sons” which sounds more like the solo Elliott to come on Either/Or than anything Heatmiser had done previously…due largely to the departure of Brandt, the most hardcore punk figure in the band, and addition of Sam Coomes whose backing vocals are more emblematic of ES solo material

        “Half Right” was also first released on this album and could be another contestant for this title. I find it about the saddest of all acoustic guitar riffs and I don’t generally view his work as sad overall, melancholy but not sad if that makes any sense.

          1. you got the Mattie reference of course…it was a bit more “loaded” than I thought…no play on Frome/Fromme or disrespect to your family intended, wow, I didn’t know about that until recently! I’m in a rural part of MA and we were having that kind of winter, also it close to was Edith’s b-day… 2/24, etc.

            I didn’t know ES but am obsessed w/ his lyrics…I’m sure the whole story is in there if we can figure it out. One that’s bugged me for a while I think I finally got last night…”hay stack charm” is “Haystack’s charm” …do you know who “Haystack” was or what he wore around his neck? I’m betting Charlie was a big fan…

            I have a whole theory on the meaning of “Needle in the Hay” if you’re interested…

            1. Can you tell me the reason you think he may have been referring to someone’s nickname, “Haystack?” I do not want to dismiss your claim, but I would like to find a definitive citation, or explore other theories. I stumbled on this post searching for a verifiable source of information on the meaning of “Haystack charm.” I wonder if Smith, a lifelong resident of Portland, Oregon, was referencing the world renowned iconic monolith, Haystack Rock, about 80 miles west of Portland by the quaint coastal town of Cannon Beach. Although I have no source to verify my guess, there is one key point that adds some sense to this theory. A global tourist attraction and geographically renowned rock formation, the emblematic image of Haystack Rock often appears in apparel, jewelry and graphic design, mainly related to the tourism industry, but also in landscape photography and nature related graphic design. For probably 100 years, artisans and factories have forged silver and pewter charms in the shape of the offshore rock formation that symbolizes our state’s serene landscape and inspires so many travelers to come appreciate our natural beauty. I wonder if Smith wrote the song about a friend wearing such a charm on a necklace.

                1. Haystack charm is a haystack charm. It’s a little pendant type thing that has two lovers getting busy under some hay- kind of a farmer’s daughter romance type scenario.
                  In this context, his lover was something that could be injected, and he was stealing away to be alone with it and/or overdose intentionally.

  2. A haystack charm is exactly that- a haystack charm. Typically it signifies two lovers, with possible origins to Joseph and Mary- but really, it’s just a romantic couple banging away in someone’s barn, out of reach. Think “Farmer’s daughter romance.” I don’t think there’s too much of a deeper meaning, maybe symbolic of stealing away with someone you love, but that someone happens to be a “something” in this song.

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