Easy Way Out

Elliott Smith, and stories about music, and false connections.

The musician and recording artist Elliott Smith died yesterday. My neighbor called me from work, taking it hard.

I liked Smith's music, and bought his albums, five or six of them. In the last 5 years I went through those albums with pleasure: in the arrangement, in the bitterness of the lyrics. From people who've worked with Smith, I heard a lot of second- and third-hand stories about how he wouldn't show up for concerts, how he was so in the grip of depression that he couldn't be trusted to do most things on his own.

Curious to see what people were making of his death, and wanting to know how he killed himself (he stabbed himself in the chest), I looked through an online message board. There were goodbyes, and then many wrote: “I'm so glad I got to see him perform live, in 1998,” or something similar.

Not long ago I read a story about Jeff Mangum, another independent musician, the force behind Neutral Milk Hotel, who dropped away from music, maybe to sculpt, or to do nothing. The author of the story framed the story about the relevance of Mangum's music to the journalist's own pain over a brother's suicide.

[Mangum said,] “Since it's my life and my story, I think I should have a little say as to when it's told. I haven't been given that right.”

He's wrong, of course. It's not just his story....It's mine, too. I count it as [the journalist's deceased brother] Todd's postscript to me -- not a line to something so circumscribed and history-plagued as religion, just a few generous strands of the transcendental to grasp.

The writer of the article can't keep the lines clear, can't see himself as discrete from the music. The idea of Jeff Mangum has has bled over into his sense of self, permeated his days. But the album is something different from the man: the story of the album is about the tens of thousands of people who have heard it, not about Jeff Mangum. The storylines diverged long ago and they should never be asked to come together again.

But that is not what the writer wants. Lacking “something so circumscribed and history-plagued as religion,” the writer begins to stalk Mangum instead. And the script is religious, right out of the Bible: he's looking for a direct relationship with his higher power. Mangum has left signs everywhere asking pilgrims to turn back and leave him to his meditation, but that's the one thing the fan won't hear. Part of it is the medium: pop music is Catholic, with PR agents and the press as saints, the intercessionary agents you must appease to gain access to your American, or British, idol. It's general admission, and God is remote, unreachable, like Michael Jackson. But Indie rock is about more than lower budgets and smaller clubs; it's a kind of fundamentalism, a direct line to the spirit of the artist, whether Sebadoh or Cat Power, someone just like you and I but braver, our true self, who understands. So you get saved at the record store.

And like any convert you'd like to meet your savior. You did all that praying and baptism, rode around at night listening to the CD over and over, you bought the tickets and came for the revival, and Jesus came down and said: “no, I want to be a sculptor.”

Elliott Smith put it even more plainly: “no,” he said, “I want to be dead.” To stab yourself in the chest is not a cry for help, but a cure for what ails you. You don't do it for your fans. You do it because you have absolutely nothing that you care about enough to continue caring about it. From talking to a suicide who died but, to her regret, was resuscitated, I would guess that what he wanted was relief, which drugs, sex, violence, and music had failed to provide. Just as the drunkenness of Dylan Thomas was celebrated, his sickness seen as integral to his art, and thus covered over, now the ticket stubs can be pressed into albums with wistful thoughts. The pain of Smith was our pleasure, and his suicide gives it symmetry. To us, not to him.

No story can reconnect the artist to what the artist created. But we believe one can and write biographies accordingly. Thus, the title of the Elliott Smith biography will be “Figure 8,” or “Miss Misery's Groom,” and it will detail drug abuse, terrible acts, violences, punctuated by in-studio redemption. Everything about Smith, including anecdotes from his friends, indicated that he lived hard and left a trail of pain and shit along with his songs. So his life will become a tale full of cautions and insight about the tragedy of genius, and become the beatification of a rock saint.

The irony of this faith in narrative is at its most obvious regarding writers: John O'Hara was a loathsome pig, and it seems to chafe his readers, his biographers, that the narrative integrity of his prose had no mirror in his spirit. But an artist creates a world in which to live, and writes as an idealized version of self, and then hopes to occupy that vision, whether Butterfield 8, or Mein Kampf, or Paul's Letters to the Corinthians. Readers are the side-effects of that desire, symptoms, either welcome or unwelcome. Ezra Pound left his anti-semitism out of his poetry, as if he knew that to pass it on would be to pass on a sickness, protecting posterity from his own vileness.

For the audience, is it that our heroes are monstrish with their skin peeled away, their flaws shown, and their work is thus tainted, our pleasure diminished? Or maybe worse, that they are great in spite of their normalcy, in spite of their mundane, selfish, uglinesses, and when we witness their weakness we, also weak, are put on the hook ourselves, and must acknowledge that these flawed, wife-beating drunks, these lunatic head-in-the-oven suicides, these otherwise useless men and women, were capable of greatness, of dipping their hands into history and altering the flow, while we mill about our cubicles and curse our boredom? That they weren't so different after all?

Grieving does nothing for the dead. We grieve for ourselves, for what we can no longer have. Elliott Smith got exactly what he wanted, and we can give and take nothing else from the man. Because it provided a sense of approval and connection, Smith's old concerts can now be remembered as sacred events. But what a failure of the imagination: all moments are equally rare, whether someone is playing a guitar or not, whether Smith is alive or dead. Those on the message boards who are grateful they saw him perform live are fully vested in the lie that somehow the story, the man, and the experience of the music are all bound together, that the aggregate pleasure of thousands can be summed up into one living soul, one ex-addict with a beating heart, and now his entirely solitary act—seppuku without the second—can be seen as some kind of communion, a concluding act to his oeuvre of bitter depression. A pair of round cracked eyeglasses on an album cover, and a ticket stub from 1998. A bit of cloth dipped in his blood, a fragment of the true cross. It's all about
the easy way out
for you,
I suppose.

.  .  .  .  .  

Easy Way Out

(Elliott Smith)

you'll take advantage til you think you're being used
cos' without an enemy your anger gets confused
i got stuck on the side you know i never chose
but it's all about taking the easy way out for you i suppose
there's no escape for you except in someone else
although you've already disappeared within yourself
the invisible man who's always changing clothes
it's all about taking the easy way out for you i suppose
while i watch you making mistakes
i wish you luck, i really do
with the problem, with the puzzle
whatever's left of you
i heard you found another audience to bore
a creative thinker who imagined you were more
a new body for you to push around and pose
it's all about taking the easy way out for you i suppose
it's all about taking the easy way out for you i suppose




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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