Talkin’ Music: Late Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith didn’t deal well with what Tennessee Williams described as “the catastrophe of success.” Here’s just one example of many: after spending nights boozing around the Lower East Side, he would routinely walk home to his apartment in Brooklyn.

OK, this might not sound that strange until you consider the fact that seldom does anyone walk borough-to-borough in New York City, especially late at night. In addition to the fear of getting Amadou Diallo-ed, nobody walks borough-to-borough because it’s damn inconvenient. There’s just no easy way to do it, so you might as well hop a cab or take the subway. And the great thing about the NYC subway is that it runs all night, unlike Boston’s T, which apparently stops running at 6:45 P.M. on weekends.

(That’s a joke. I know for a fact that the Green Line runs until at least 7:00 P.M.)

But here’s the thing about Elliott Smith: he used to walk home… through the subway tunnels.

Yuck! Just typing those words triggered my “Miley Cyrus” reflex. NYC subway tunnels are quite possibly the most disgusting holes on earth! Whenever I see the cover of “From a Basement on a Hill,” I envision what’s going through Elliott’s mind is: “why do my clothes smell like ratshit?”

Here are my Big Three post-“catastrophe of success” Elliott Smith songs:

LeBron: I Didn’t Understand from “XO.” While Waltz #2 (XO) is widely considered the best song off this album, I’ve always harbored a soft spot for this song, which is hidden at the very end of the album. I particularly enjoy the line in which Smith describes himself as a “cloud of smoke trying to occupy space.”

D Wade: Color Bars from “Figure 8.” Like Waltz #2 (XO)Son of Sam is probably the best song off “Figure 8.” But I’m drawn to Color Bars because of the useful insult: “you’re just some dude with a stilted attitude that you learned from TV.”

Otherguy: Angel in the Snow from “New Moon.” For years, I avoided listening to this posthumous release. My fear was that the album would have that annoying “Duet with Tupac” production value. But I was wrong. “New Moon” is a double-disk compilation of songs that Elliott Smith recorded but never released. Over the course of his career, Smith recorded constantly, but only a handful of songs ever made it onto his albums. (This explains why the song Either/Or doesn’t actually appear on the album “Either/Or.”) Other highlights from “New Moon” include an alternative version of Miss Misery and a live cover of Big Star’s Thirteen.

Flat-top Cole: [Hey, Mike Miller, enjoy chasing mediocrity in Memphis!] Pretty (Ugly Before)  from “From a Basement on a Hill.” After years of hard drinking, habitual drug use, and strolls through subway tunnels, “pretty” wasn’t an adjective often employed to describe Elliott Smith. Near the end of his life, he was so ugly that he got beaten up by the LAPD after being mistaken for a bum. I imagine not many things will make a musician question his career choices like 1) getting roughed up by the cops, and 2) being mistaken for a homeless guy!

Elliott Smith

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