Friday, October 21, 2011

Day 106: Donatello Remembers Elliott Smith

Today is sort of a weird day for me, and I apologize right of the bat if I bring down your Friday with a somewhat serious post. Eight years ago today singer/songwriter Elliott Smith died.

Music is extremely important to me. I like to believe I have a pretty wide range of musical tastes and listening to music goes beyond just having something to sing along to that I can maybe identify with. I love to privately dissect songs looking for reason or meaning in the chord structure and lyrics. I try to imagine what made an artist choose that word instead of this one, or make the jump to a C instead of a G. I only mention this to try to convey fully what I mean when I say that Elliott Smith is my all-time favorite musician. It's hard to say exactly what it is that makes me respond so strongly to his music, but some combination of his lyrics, voice and instrumentation speaks to me in a way that no other artist has.

I first remember hearing his music while watching The Royal Tenenbaums. In the scene with Richie shaving I noticed a very haunting and minimalistic acoustic guitar/vocals song playing over the scene. I believe I was talking to my wife (then girlfriend) online at the time and I knew I had to find out what that song was. I quickly discovered it was called "Needle in the Hay" by Elliott Smith. This was back in the early days of Napster or maybe I was using Audio Galaxy, who knows, but I downloaded that song and a few more for good measure. I was hooked. I listened to them on repeat for days on end.

Which brings me to my picture for today. I drew Donatello (me) sitting in front of the wall mural famously used for the cover of Elliott Smith's album Figure 8. This mural still exists in LA. It was turned into an unofficial memorial when he died with fans writing messages on it and leaving candles, flowers and notes. Someone tagged it and it had to be painted over, but it was restored earlier this year. This wall is one of the places I would love to visit someday.

I've been a fan for many years now, but I never had the opportunity to see him perform live which is something I'll always regret. I have a few Elliott Smith-related anecdotes but I don't want to ramble for too long on this post so I'll just tell one.

Tomorrow marks exactly one year since my wife and I flew to Portland, OR for our friends' wedding. I was excited because even though I've never been there as far as I remember I suspect I would enjoy living in the Pacific Northwest. The climate seems just about my speed and I like the scenery. It was our first time visiting Portland and we were pretty excited. One of our favorite authors, Chuck Palahnuik, is from there and wrote an extremely awesome travel guide to the city (which we stupidly didn't make much use of). It was also once the hometown of Elliott Smith. Portland is where he was living when he started making a name for himself with his band Heatmiser. It's also where he was living when he recorded his first solo album, Roman Candle. I didn't really have any Elliott Smith related landmarks to seek out, I just wanted to kind of experience the place that he saw everyday and inspired him.

Unsurprisingly it was cold and rainy, but we had a great time walking around the city looking at some of the touristy sites and we spent a lot of time in Powell's Books which is the biggest bookstore I've ever seen. It was located just a couple of blocks from our hotel and it's easy to see how people literally get lost in there. As we walked around looking at books and trying to think of gifts or souvenirs we might buy for other people my wife suddenly disappeared. I walked around for a while looking for her, but the place is so huge it's hard to find anyone, especially if they don't want to be found.

I eventually found her in the children's section where she immediately shooed me away. She was clearly buying me a present but I wasn't sure what book she would be getting me from the children's section. After she bought it and we left the store she gave me the bag and told me to open it; inside was a copy of The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. We had been talking about that book because I mentioned that Elliott Smith had a tattoo of Ferdinand on his upper arm, but she had never heard the story. I told her I wanted to get it because it reminds me of Elliott Smith and it's a good children's book that I thought she would like. It really was a great gift to get before we left Portland. Now it sits on my little Elliott Smith shelf in our living room among a few other biographies and books of photos.

I've met other Elliott Smith fans over the years and they are often excited to meet someone else who finds his music so inspiring and special. I'm always a little surprised at how popular he was. I shouldn't be, after all he was nominated for an Oscar for his song "Miss Misery" on the Good Will Hunting Soundtrack, but I guess it's because I discovered his music on my own. Nobody handed me a mix tape or burned me an album and said, "Listen to this, you'll love it." Maybe that's why I still feel a bit of a possessiveness about his music, even though I know he had so many other fans. No one will love and remember his songs quite the way I do.


As usual I'll leave you with a couple of songs. It's hard to choose a favorite among so many great songs, but these are two that I love for their simplicity and they always make me happy when I hear them.

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