I remember reading a thing by Noel Gallagher about him saying how guys in Manchester who had guitars didn’t really know what to do with them until the Stone Roses came along; the Roses focussed these lads, gave them direction, “that’s what we should be doing!” they realised. That’s how i felt when i first heard Elliott Smith. It was like being shown a sense of purpose. I immediately i knew this stuff. It felt familiar – well he wasn’t reinventing the wheel or anything, you could hear his influences. Never specific bands or artists, more the influence of certain musical eras, of production techniques, of writing styles. And i remembered being struck by his fragile voice and his lack of confidence with it, so lacking that he would use that old pop-recording technique of double-tracking the vocal to try and bolster it a bit. With Elliott though, it always sounded like he was trying to hide his voice behind his own voice. But it gave me confidence to sing, and showed me that singing isn’t about being good or bad or right or wrong, it’s actually about being yourself and being honest and if you do something heartfelt, it will resonate somewhere with someone.
Apart from his voice, his playing was extraordinary. As each album developed he would play more and more instruments, showing himself to be a hugely talented pianist, drummer and bass player. His guitar skills were obvious from the start, always using complicated chord progressions rather than the tried and tested 12 bar of rock and roll. Any guitarist wanting to improve their technique should sit down and study ‘Son Of Sam’ or ‘Everything Reminds Me Of Her’, the progressions are so accomplished and never obvious, always avoiding the cliche. His arrangements got more and more ambitious with each album, from delicate acoustic recordings on Roman Candle to using big string sections and horn players on XO. He was obviously a fan of the Beatles, recording eventually at Abbey Road, and i think his writing owed a lot to George Harrison rather than Lennon & McCartney. But it was never pastiche; to my ears, Elliott Smith got a lot closer to the spirit of what the Beatles were about.
I only saw Elliott play live once, in London June 2000 at the Royal Festival Hall. Me and my brother went and i remember how we both thought he was great but how he was so obviously uncomfortable performing. I seem to remember that his backing band were basically Quasi and they were mostly playing material from XO and Figure 8. And although he was clearly not in his comfort zone on the stage, he didn’t seem like the tortured artist people seem intent on making him out to be. I always assumed i’d see him play live again one day. He didn’t seem like he was about to embark on a journey of self-destruction. I know a songwriter who spent time with Elliott in LA, due to them having the same publisher or something, and he said that the drug scene Elliott hung around in was a quite scuzzy, dirty little world that you just wouldn’t want to glamourise.
I’m not sure how Elliott Smith died but the suicide thing doesn’t really ring true for me. When people kill themselves with knives, usually it involves slicing a vein. To actually force a knife into your own heart is quite an achievement, no matter what state of mind you’re in. Obviously i wish he hadn’t died. Mainly because i think he probably had a load more great songs to write. But also because i hate all that rock ‘n’ roll martyr bullshit that comes with his death.
I’m not going to list my favourite songs or albums, that’s all a bit puerile really. The whole catalogue is faultless; music written for all the right reasons; music as art, not product. Some songs i’ll return to forever; some songs i’m only just discovering, only making sense as i get older. I’ve heard Domino are soon to release ‘An Introduction To Elliott Smith’, a compilation for the uninitiated. This is a good thing. More people need Elliott Smith’s music in their lives.