I was a guest on the wonderful “My Favourite Elliott Smith Song” podcast. Link HERE. Can anyone really have ONE favorite Elliott Smith song? It’s tough.
It was the summer of 1980 and I was vividly alone in our house on Mt. Tabor, my parents down in the Bay Area visiting my terrorist sister in prison. I did a lot of lurking. Anything was possible. Not a lot happened. A friend punched a hole in the wall. I met a bow-legged model for “Lawman” jeans. I opened drawers and scrounged in closets. And I played, loudly, over and over, Tom Petty’s “Damn the Torpedoes.” We had this Zenith console stereo sitting under the living room window. It was six feet by two feet, with built-in speakers you pivoted open. At times the needle was so shot it slid across the vinyl noiselessly. Not that summer though. That summer sound came out and filled me. I’m not sure I knew what “damn the torpedoes” meant but it sounded good, it sounded like “fuck it.” And there was the look on Petty’s face. It said “You’re gonna get it.” It was cocky, smirky, badass above a lurid red. The first chord of “Refugee” after the little stuttering drum was a total unleashing. It set you free. It knocked you sideways. It was the sound I wanted to live by. I bought most of the next records after that, and I played Petty songs in my college band “Stalk of Flesh.” One thing about Petty—he never disappointed you. You got what you wanted. There were misses, but the misses were outliers. My friend Connor said to me the other day, “No one tells you Petty is their absolute favorite, but no one tells you they don’t like Tom Petty either.” That seems right. He wasn’t my favorite, but I loved him all the same. Like nothing else—not poetry, not film, not fiction, not painting—music alters your day to day life. You’ve got a soundtrack in your head and it’s composed of whatever you’ve been putting on recently. It goes with you to the store. It’s there when you fold clothes or wash dishes. Tom Petty made me a lot braver that summer. He put a snarl in me. Wherever I went, whatever I did, the soundtrack was “Damn the Torpedoes.”
This talk is from a few years ago, at the wonderful, historic Austen-Riggs psychiatric hospital in Stockbridge, Mass. I think it’s the best overview of how I conceive of psychobiography. For those interested in the topic, or in my work, or in how I go about trying to make sense of a person, go HERE.
I was a guest on the Derek McGinty show talking about fame and the famous. Go HERE for a listen.
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.
Here’s a long interview I did on art, artists, psychobiography, suffering, and trauma and creativity. Link is HERE
Here is a little video clip I did a while back, talking about psychobiography and what it actually is. HERE.