Until today, I've never understood why people would want to celebrate a singer's date of death. I thought people getting together every year to mourn sounded a tad morbid. Now that it's been a year since Elliott Smith passed on, I don't think it's morbid to reflect and remember.
I never knew him and I never saw him in concert. I did walk by him on an incredibly hot day in Austin. Even though I was more familiar with his name and face, I had yet to get into his music. While a lot of people I know had been introduced to his music through Good Will Hunting and/or Either/Or, my full introduction to his music was with XO, his first record for DreamWorks. My friend Matt had suggested that I check out XO and without ever hearing a note, I picked it up on a rather gray winter day. It took me a couple of listens to really get into it because most of the music I was into at the time was harder, louder and faster than Elliott's folk-tinged songs. But I kept listening and got really into songs like "Waltz #2," "Baby Britain," and especially "Bled White."
From there, Figure 8 came into my life shortly after it was released and I enjoyed that record even more as a whole than XO. Still, I think it's a grand swoop of songs that never lets down. However, the fact that the last song on the record is called "Bye" never really sat well with me. At the time I thought it was just a simple little way to end the album. It was just a small hint that certain things would end.
Getting more into his back catalog, I had made friends with people that were into his music as much (and in some cases, even more) as I was and it was this great bond. Like myself, these friends were not entrenched in gloom or misery, as others think people who like slower songs with a melancholic side are. We enjoyed the happiness and sadness in the music, so how could we be all 100 percent, stereotypical sad?
Years would pass and there were rumors about a possible new album or a double album. Hearing the story about a new song that featured two drumkits being played while Elliott was on a skateboard and jumping up during the changes sounded exciting. There was the plethora of new material he was playing live and my friends and I kept wondering when we were going to hear the studio versions of these songs. We kept waiting to hear the word for the go ahead on a release date, but things kept getting pushed back over and over.
When I heard of his death, I was angry, sad and felt betrayed. I couldn't listen to his records for months. Here was a guy singing about getting through dark times yet it felt like they never left him. As someone trying to deal with being in a bubble (as in, not a college student but not an adult filled with responsibilities), it felt like I had been lied to. When the details about his death alluded to murder over suicide, I didn't care. He was gone and finger-pointing would be useless. All I could do was try and understand it and maybe get back into his music.
How I've been able to listen to his music is knowing that when he made his music, he was in better spirits than he was on this day one year ago. Getting back into his records and listening to From a Basement on the Hill, the feelings of resentment have withered away. I enjoy his records but it's a little strange to put some distance from the way I felt over the years.
Life continues and as much as others may write him off as a sad guy that came to his "inevitable" end, I will continue to be optimistic and get something meaningful from his music.