There Is a Light That Never Goes Out
A Fond Farewell to Elliott Smith

October 2004

I’m writing this on the last night of my life.

This is the fourth last night of my life in as many years. I seem to put one to bed once every 12 months, at least, these days. This time it wasn’t entirely my choice, but as I look around my empty ex-apartment, I’m filled with a familiar sense of adventure and dread. I don’t live here anymore. It’s an oft-repeated refrain in my perpetually nomadic existence, one I hope I don’t have to trot out again for a good long time.

As lives go, this one was spectacularly unsuccessful. I worked two lousy jobs, one physically demanding and one mentally deadening. I met almost no one. I entered into one of my most amusing and sad failures, romantically speaking – I had to look outside the country for that one, as if domestic heartbreak weren’t good enough. “None of that American heartbreak for me, I’ll take the imported kind.” Maryland has left me alone, broke and unemployed again, and although I’m getting used to it, the feeling is never uplifting.

So I’m sitting here in my one remaining chair, examining what will be my spare little living space for about 24 more hours, and I’m listening to Elliott Smith’s final album, From a Basement on the Hill. Although “listening” is not quite the right term – I’m wallowing in it, allowing it to surround me and drown me. “Let’s Get Lost” is just now finishing up, the sweet and melancholy tones of Smith’s delicate acoustic guitar are just now fading.

And I’m trying to connect my various lives, and finding that the only things that do it are old friends, and great music.

November 1997

I’m sitting in a movie theater in Portland, Maine. I’m with Sara Yates – who was Sara Hebert then, before she married her perfect match, Bill Yates – and Martha Cameron, the professor who for all intents and purposes dragged me kicking and screaming through the last two years of college. I’m just entering my second year at Face Magazine, and I’m still enjoying it. Sara, Martha and I made movie treks as often as possible, and I’m on one of them now. We’re watching a little film written by two guys from my home state of Massachusetts. It’s called Good Will Hunting.

And all of a sudden, this beautiful song starts playing. As engaged as I have been thus far with the witty banter, the dead-on Boston accents and the tale of a misfit genius in love and therapy, this song marks the first moment in the film that causes me to emotionally open up. It’s beautiful, a web of tones surrounding a fragile little melody that sounds impossibly sad, yet strangely hopeful. I vow to find out who this singer is.

I later discover, after the three of us have rehashed most of the film’s dialogue over pizza, that the song is called “Angeles,” and is one of six pieces on the soundtrack album by a guy I’d never heard. His name is Elliott Smith.

October 2004

I imagine that I am not alone in this. I imagine that many fans of sensitive, superbly crafted music sat spellbound in their respective theaters as “Angeles” played, and later felt the same tingles at “Miss Misery.” I admit to missing the boat on this one – Smith had three solo records and a career with the band Heatmiser before Good Will Hunting put him on the map. I’m just grateful that I got to hear his work at all.

“A Fond Farewell” has just started, its gorgeous clean guitar lines leading into a classic Smith harmonized verse. Every song so far is deep and wide, and this one is no exception – “This is not my life, it’s just a fond farewell to a friend,” he sings, delicately as always. And I nearly tear up. It’s just so good to hear this voice again.

October 2003

I’ve just finished writing the most emotionally draining column I have ever watched flow out of me.

Elliott Smith’s lifeless body was found earlier this week. Police have ruled it a suicide, though there are still some doubts about that. I can barely move, not just because one of the best songwriters to have been born in the last 40 years is gone, taking all his future music with him. No, I’m strangely immobile because I’ve been so incredibly angry for the last two days, and it’s all just exploded out onto the page, and I have nothing left. I’m spent.

Smith’s death has affected me more than I was expecting. It taps into my own tendency for self-destruction, my own desire for something to hope for, to look forward to. If such a wonderful spirit with such a prodigious talent and such a clear line to whatever force inspires great art can find nothing to live for, what hope do I have? So I’m angry, because it beats being defeated.

I briefly consider putting my just-completed emotional outpouring aside and writing a proper memorial, but decide, for better or worse, to share the moment and how it has affected me. I just hope that it comes across that I will miss him and his songs long after my anger has faded.

October 2004

And I guess it’s fully faded, because “King’s Crossing” just ended, and I miss Smith more than ever. The song is a swirling force of atmosphere, perhaps the best-sounding thing here despite its simplicity. Smith has somehow, on his final record, found a way to bridge the gap between his lo-fi indie recordings and his later major label outings. Basement is a self-produced effort, mostly completed at the time of Smith’s death, and though some say the man himself would have wanted it rawer and more ragged, to these ears it strikes just the right balance.

“King’s Crossing” wafts in on harmonized voices, crests on sweet pianos and finally crashes in with electric guitars and organs. It seems to be about expectations and label politics, but when he sings the line “I took my insides out,” it’s more than a little eerie. Basement is so far full of references to farewells and drugs, but it’s never crushingly sad, lyrically speaking. Thus far, it’s another really good Elliott Smith album, full of songs that are naturally simpler due to the self-production. Who knows if it would have even resembled the album he would have finished if he had lived, but it fits nicely between Either/Or and XO in his canon.

December 1998

I’ve just finished typing out the Top 10 List for the year, and I’ve named Elliott Smith’s incredible major-label debut, XO, as the best of ’98. It’s a feast for the ears, a treasure for melody addicts, a perfect collection of tricky and beautiful songs.

I’m in my third year at Face Magazine, and life is good. I’ve taken on many of the editorial responsibilities, gained the trust of the mag’s hard-bitten owner Bennie Green, and put together what I believe is a great first year of a column I’ve devised called Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. I’m known about town, I’ve made some great friends, and I feel at home. XO fits my mood perfectly – while some of it is downbeat, like my whole personality, the very sound of the album is bright and alive, full of possibility. I imagine aloud, over apple cider that night, that I will probably award Smith the top spot several more times in the coming years. His talent is that impressive, and my career as a music journalist is that assured.

Perhaps in a telltale sign, Bennie disagrees with me about XO. “It’s depressing, and the guy can’t sing,” he says.

October 2004

I’m in a record store in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. I’m here for the sole purpose of picking up Elliott Smith’s final album. Almost one year to the day after his death, which police have not yet definitively ruled a suicide, his family and friends have assembled his last recordings into a 15-song document of his final years. Smith had been working on Basement for nearly two years at the time of his death, and he intended the finished result to swing back and forth from full-band pop to spare acoustics and back again. The released record certainly does that, according to advance reviews, and any other intentions Smith may have had for it we can only guess.

I know exactly what I want when I walk in, but I start pretending to browse when I overhear the register jockey’s phone conversation. He’s breaking up with his girlfriend, and she seems to be letting him have it. He starts asking why, and choking back tears, and I feel odd just standing there staring at the Death Cab for Cutie CDs and listening in, but I’m also fascinated. His conversation seems to carry all the dashed expectations and self-questioning that I’ve gone through in the past few months, and it’s comforting to know other people can feel the same pain.

I know it gets better, and I want to tell him so, but I don’t know this guy, and have no idea what I would say. I’m also buying an album by a guy who believed, at the end, that it just doesn’t get better, and I know I will be looking to it for gems of hope amidst the turmoil, because if Smith could find them, then anyone can.

November 2000

I’m leaving my life for the first time. I’ve already quit Face in the wake of a frustrating year, butting heads with the new owner repeatedly and watching helplessly as the independent music rag I loved was turned into something I just couldn’t feel anymore. So I left.

And now I’m about to leave my second job, which had rapidly become my first after my exit from the magazine. I can’t say enough good things about Bull Moose Music, both as a store and as a haven for intelligent and creative people. To this day, I haven’t met a concentration of people with those two qualities like I met there. At the moment, I’m sitting in a dorm room with two of them, Kate Schier and Mike Moore (I know what you’re thinking – different Mike Moore), and we’re talking about Elliott Smith.

Katie and I are big fans, even though Figure 8, released in August, only finds its way to number six on my Top 10 List for the year. Mike has never heard a Smith album. And I’m amazed at how many superlatives Katie and I can come up with – we praise his voice, his playing, his arrangements, his neverending well of stunning melodies, and even his unkempt hair at one point. I’m left with a sense of awe – how this one guy’s music can connect people, can inspire the same adoration.

And afterwards, when I’m all packed up, I find myself strangely contented. I’m ready for the journey, ready to meet more like-minded people. I’m ready to go, ready for the next life.

October 2004

The album has started to come unglued.

In its second half, the seams start showing, and I can really hear the places where this unfinished record may have needed finishing. The delivery on “The Last Hour” is a little weak, the repeating synth line on “Twilight” is likely a place holder, and “Shooting Star” devolves into noise a bit too early into its six-minute running time. “Memory Lane” and “Little One” sound like demos, in a way that the other acoustic tracks did not.

It’s a sad reminder of what I’m actually listening to – remnants of an uncompleted life, cobbled together by loved ones to the best of their abilities. This is not an Elliott Smith album, in the way that his last three have been. It’s quite simply not finished. Like its author, it’s been cut down early, full of unrealized potential. In a way, the second half is sadder than the first, because these songs will never fully exist. They’re full of crumbling possibility, of the sad pall of death.

October 2003

It’s been two days since my Elliott Smith column hit the internet, and I’m staring at an inbox full of messages. I’ve been scared to read them, but this afternoon I make myself sit down and start to open a few. And I’m stunned – they’re almost all beautiful, literate, terrific letters from people who understood and responded to my emotional rant with gentle kindness. I met people just looking for catharsis, and for reasons to hope. I expected anger returned in kind, and I got the wonderful side of human nature.

And I need it now. My life is as bad as it has ever been – I work 12 hours a day at a terrible job, one that was quite literally all I could find. I am the poster child for dashed expectations. As embarrassed as I was by my downturns at my high school reunion last year, it’s only gotten exponentially worse. I can’t put it any more succinctly than this – I need a new life. This one has run its course.

But the mail keeps coming, and beautiful, warm-hearted people keep writing me, even though I don’t feel I deserve it. And I can’t possibly thank them enough.

October 2004

And some of them still write me, all the time, and I still haven’t found a way to thank them enough. I need a rebirth, now more than ever, and hopefully this move will give me one. Hope is really what it’s all about.

I’ve started From a Basement on the Hill over, and it sounds like a rebirth. The second half concludes gracefully with Smith’s old single, “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free,” which feels like a coda, a bonus track after a devolving set of demos in the last third. But “Coast to Coast,” the surging opener, is a complete song, a wonderful slice of Smith’s ample skills. “Pretty (Ugly Before)” is a joy, and “A Fond Farewell” remains the record’s high point.

And, of course, “A Fond Farewell” is a fitting soundtrack for the last night of my life. “This is not my life,” Smith sings, and as I take a few longing looks around this place I’ve grudgingly called home for months, I feel the same way. This is not my life. It’s all about believing that there’s something better. And about picking yourself up and going to find it.

The second half of Basement has just started again, the lovely tones of “Twilight” floating out of my speakers. I’m vaguely considering shutting it off before the unfinished tracks start playing, to save myself from feeling lost and wasted again, but I think I’ll let it run. It’s a shame that Smith’s last album is so incomplete, that it falls apart so dramatically, but the point here will be to listen for potential, not lament its half-constructed nature. These songs could be great, like everything else in Smith’s catalog. The framework is there.

And if, by the time it ends, I still haven’t shaken my sadness, then I can always press play again, and bask in the rebirth. I can always start over.

Yeah. I can always start over.

See you in line Tuesday morning.