Best Worst Year: Episode 43 (Or, Either, Or)

Ten years ago this week, we lost Elliott Smith. Like any good cult of rocky mythology, the shadow he casts grows taller and darker the farther he gets away from us. Somewhere in that lost identity, we come to create a narrative which makes sense to us–privately, but commercially, the Damoclean peril dangling above has much more to do with the potential for back catalog plundering than it does with trying to figure out what his end means to us. We are survived by what we create, life goes on in the the wake of an artist’s work. Ultimately, whatever intimate language we struggle to pass along from our DNA into the bedrock of our art lies dormant to the audience–maybe it’s mined out of the work but how it’s extracted and what it means to someone else are beyond our intent and scope. There’s a part of us that knows, just in the act of connection, we have the potential to not only share an experience but be an aspect of someone’s experience–immortality by proxy. I’m not writing with living forever in mind but I know when I read James Wright something of him darkens my doorway. I know him and I don’t know him. His world shares a space in my apartment, even ever-so-slightly, and what his work tells me about myself and that life I share and don’t share with anyone is as potentially important and influential as anyone I might meet in my day to day life.

Because of the shared personal space, we hold on to our artistic anchors that much more tightly, and when they leave us, we grieve for the end of new experiences. I remember playing The Ramones for an ex-girlfriend’s child for the first time and just watched her world expand beneath her feet–a whole field of sunflowers came into bloom with that smile. I think record geeks are junkies that way, we spend the rest of our lives chasing that electrified feeling–where needle hits nerve and we are tossed into a larger more vibrant world of sound. Those poets–the ones who are written into the architecture of our heart and spine–travel with us, grow, and thrive with every moguling wave of the turntable; well loved with tattered sleeves and showing ringwear.

I was working at Circuit City selling major appliances, the day XO came out. I remember the amount of hype swirling about the release–hot on the heels of Good Will Hunting. There were a handful of college radio armchair arbitrators of cool who had already begun to signal the backlash–Elliott’s not on Kill Rock Stars anymore, Dreamworks was a sellout, X, Y, Z… and they all became a nullified dullness as soon as I heard “Sweet Adeline.” The opening guitar chords felt like I was descending into a cellar full of Novembers with Smith’s singular 40 Watt voice the only light guiding me through the cobwebs and darkness–and when the drums kick in and the chorus gets Big Star big, sunlight floods the rust and autumn colors with warmth and honesty. It was overwhelming and took my knees out from under me. I faked a stomach ache and left work early and cut class so I could just breathe. It was a season of loss and truth and commiseration and confusion waltzing in an empty bar. I wanted to act on all my best worst impulses–I wanted to ask out the impossible girls of my post-teenage angst just so I could burn that much brighter with the intensity of rejection. I was a copper kettle being brought to boil–red glow rising up my neck. I was twenty-three and feeling that mainline connection to inarticulate emotion caught between being too old to know better and too young to give these pains and pangs a name.

I found out years later from an overly obsessed fan that “Waltz #2” is supposedly about Elliott Smith’s relationship with his parents.. I was working at a record store trying to figure out if I was high school teacher material (spoiler alert: I wasn’t) and trying to talk about this album with someone who had come into the store looking for the Jesus and Mary Chain. When she turned on me about my cursory knowledge of Elliott Smith, she laid into me in the way a Dickens scholar would light up somebody who had only seen Scrooged. But that’s what happens when we connect on such a primal level–when something speaks to us so strongly, we run the risk of it speaking for us. It’s a fine and tender danger–the desire to self-identify. In some ways, XO was great for me as it made me want to write and heal and connect through writing. Conversely, there’s a nerve it struck which was so raw it forced me to interact with parts of me I had no language for and conversely pushed against what I thought it was to live artistically rather than be artistic. Of course, being pressed to identify and answer and rectify and understand is all a part of growth and development, it’s also what leads folks to assume someone else’s pain as their own identity.

How we choose to listen and what we opt to do with that experience is ours alone. We cannot assume anyone else’s intent. Ten years later and the speculation on Elliott Smith’s death or the myth surrounding his end or the out and out hero worship hasn’t brought him back. We are not sin-eaters. When we stare at the mirror black PVC spinning on a turntable, we only see ourselves in the music.

Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in various journals including The North American ReviewPANK Magazine, and Drunken Boat. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University.  He lives in Springfield, IL. Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.

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