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I have a deep fascination with rock locations – those places that frame the music and bring it to life.  As a semi-Seattle native by way of Hawaii, I went to Garfield High School that has Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones as alums and lived through the glory days of the rise of grunge and could walk the streets marked forever in songs by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden.  But the mantle of rock coolness moved south of Seattle at the end of the Clinton years and the crown passed to Portland, Oregon.  It is a great place that channels the vibe of other cities at opposing ends of the I-5 corridor here on the West Coast of America —the Beat sensibility of San Francisco and the caffeine-induced Grunge introspection of Seattle. It is a city that sports a wonderful river walk and the temple to used book lovers that is Powell’s, one of the greatest independent used bookstores on the planet.   Portland used to be the lesser cousin of major cities on the West Coast, until it found its hero and martyr in Elliott Smith.

Today’s cities become personalities when they lift up an icon that both embodies what the collective urban culture is yearning for and challenges the city’s future at the same time. For many cities this is an artist who, for a brief time, embodies the unique urban history of a place while adding chapters to its history. New York has Lou Reed in the 1960s, Detroit has Iggy Pop from the early 1970s, Seattle had Kurt Cobain in the early 1990s. And Portland has Elliott Smith. While Portland has become ‘popular’ as the American hipster capitol of late due in large part to the success of IFC’s sketch comedy “Portlandia” staring SNL’s Fred Armiston and Slater-Kenney’s Carrie Brownstein and indie bands like The Decemberists, it is really with Elliott Smith that Portland found its voice.

When most people think back on Elliott Smith’s career, three words come to mind: Good Will Hunting. Gus Van Sant, a fellow Portland auteur and indie darling, featured Smith’s fractured and tortured songs in the 1997 film about a genius trapped in the life of an abused, emotionally fragile Peter Pan. The movie starred then-unknown Harvard grad Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and catapulted Elliott Smith from the Portland indie scene to a spot on the Oscars stage next to Céline Dion. In an act that seemed to endorse Frederick Nietzsche’s aphorism that “God is Dead”,  Céline Dion ended up winning the Oscar that year. In many ways, if the movie had been focusing on a musical genius rather than on a mathematical wunderkind, we would have been watching Good Elliott Smith on the screen. Elliott Smith’s music came at a time when the Pacific Northwest grunge mania was finally dying out and his brand of “miniaturized psychodrama” seemed the ideal balm for a regional music scene that felt as if it had just been erased by corporate takeover. In a retrospective article of Elliott’s career, Portland writer John Graham talks about Elliott’s connection to his sense of place as a Portland musician:

“Elliott’s early solo albums are like cheat sheets for comprehending every Rose City songwriter who ever wrestled with a four-track recorder in his or her bedroom: Fighting the guitar for that elusive transitional bridge chord. Trying to decipher lyrics scribbled onto a bar napkin at last call. Whispering into the microphone so as not to wake the housemates. It was these confessional tales, on Roman Candle, Elliott Smith and Either/Or, which made him such an adored figure around town. There was something about the solo albums—so private and yet strident at the same time—that hit some kind of Portland indie-rock G-spot. Witnessing the odd symbiosis that occurred between Elliott and his audiences during those early shows was like being privy to a cerebral orgy.”

Elliott Smith’s music is the sound and heartbeat of Portland.  To hear lyrics like “They’re waking you up to close the bar / The street’s wet, you can tell by the sound of the cars” (from the song Clementine) could describe Glasgow’s Ashton Lane at 3 a. m in rainy West Scotland, but it’s a scene that is deeply grounded in almost every rain- and beer-soaked curb that a Portlander can identify. In Condor Avenue, a song Smith wrote at age seventeen and that later became the centerpiece for 1994’s Roman Candle, he writes like James Joyce describing Dublin in Ullysses:

“She took the Oldsmobile out past Condor Avenue / The fairground’s lit / A drunk man sits by the gate she’s driving though / Got his hat tipped back bottle back in between his teeth / Looks like he’s buried in sand at the beach.”

Same goes for Needle in the Hay from Smith’s self-titled 1995 album:

“Now on the bus / Nearly touching this dirty retreat / Falling out 6th and Powell / A dead sweat in my teeth . . .”

I saw Elliott Smith in Glasgow, Scotland at a venue called the Garage. It was one of the hottest days I ever spent in Scotland, probably eighty degrees in that crowded bar. Smith had a wool cap on and my wife, seven months pregnant with our daughter Clara, was wondering how loud was too loud for our yet to be born child. It was a great show, but he looked like one of J. M. Barrie’s lost boys from Peter Pan, scanning the crowd during each song looking for the exit, or maybe the entrance to somewhere else.

The rest of the story regarding Elliott Smith following that Oscar-night performance next to Céline Dion is tragically basic: gets major contract with DreamWorks, releases a couple of great albums on a major label (XOFigure Eight), moves his base to LA, and eventually stabs himself (or is murdered… this case is still unresolved for many folks) twice in the heart and dies. I am sure there were psychotic issues surrounding the depression he faced, but I continue to wonder; maybe, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, if those stabs to the chest were the clicking of metaphysical ruby slippers, and maybe those whispered lo-fi lyrics were really Smith’s way of saying, “there’s no place like home.” We won’t know. But when I do listen to Elliott Smith now, I think about going home, because that seems to be where Elliott wanted to go all along.

As I have written in Your Neighbor’s Hymnal: What pop music teaches us about faith, hope and love, for many a sonic mystic listening to Elliott Smith and other artists whose music evokes a deep sense of longing for a place to be known and loved, the question for the Church isn’t necessarily how to create place to bring them to – often times there is a longing for a place that the Church will never be entirely nor was meant to be. Sometimes this longing embodied in the music of Elliot Smith and other artists like him is for a place that the Church needs to go to rather than draw people away from and discover all that it has for us, a place that is not perfect but a place they many people through songs like Smith’s desire – a place that takes struggle and pain seriously, a place that doesn’t offer pithy answers but does offer authentic relationships.  A place where no one has the upper hand and everyone can feel valuable and not merely a project.

The faith of Elliott Smith was in a belief that a real place like Portland could be the place where real lives can and should grow and thrive. Too often the Church has desired to build a world apart from the places dreamed of and longed for in songs like Smith’s and therefore hold nothing for the sonic mystics who enter the halls of homogeneity that are many modern church buildings.  As opposed to drawing people into our worlds, perhaps it is time for Christians to journey to the places where sonic mystics like Smith and others are not only dreaming of, but are struggling to make sense of even as you read this sentence.

As Smith longed for home and the world of success pulled him away from it, he lost himself.  As I watch the Oscars this week and think about the glamour and glitz of the event, I will always remember Elliott Smith standing on that stage back in 1998, a man-child dressed up in a white suit, totally out of place, gripping his guitar for dear life and closing his eyes to sing a simple song about a person almost beyond hope in some Portland apartment with a bottle of Johnny Walker by his side.  There is a lostness in his success at that moment, becoming the star but losing Portland – like stripping Superman of the yellow Sun from which his power emanates.  This is a similar look on many faces sitting in pews this Lenten season as well.  They have no idea how they got to this church sanctuary, and the strangeness of it all only reminds them that they are not home nor would anyone they see seated here understand what home means in a deep way.  As much as Elliott Smith shouldn’t be at the Oscars in a white suit, so should many who are seeking hope not have to become something they are not or leave the places they call home just to experience the presence of God.  I think this is the story that Elliot Smith wants to teach the church – that those who sit in pews on a Sunday morning might actually be dreaming of another place and heaven might be Portland to them.   But the risk for the church isn’t to draw them into our world, but perhaps to journey to their “somewhere” that the song from West Side Story evokes: a place that they would love to go, not alone, but with someone who is open-hearted enough to find meaning and hope  under their neighbor’s roof and at their neighbor’s table.

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  1. I love this post! LOVE. I am OBSESSED with time and place, the whole idea of space- and the moving of the cultural myth within the actual moment itself. I had the opportunity to work with Smith during his career, on two different tours. The most unassuming man with a voice which haunts me to this day. Great post! We should hire a camper van, and do a road trip to these sort of places!

    Comment by jotter — February 25, 2012 @ 7:49 am

  2. I agree – Elliot Smith really was an amazing talent cut short way too soon. Such a haunting legacy to be sure. I am up for the camper van idea!

    Comment by jkeuss — February 25, 2012 @ 8:43 am

  3. count me in! I’ll host the group in Motown!

    Comment by Dave Nantais — February 25, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

  4. Love it Dave…

    Comment by jkeuss — February 25, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

  5. Really enjoyed the imagery and insight. Well written.

    Comment by Jackson — May 29, 2015 @ 4:50 pm

  6. It is astonishing to me that Elliott Smith is not recognized as one of the best artists of this century. I have yet to come upon an artist who can even be somewhat compared to Smith. I am a young teen still in middle school and I am shocked at the ignorance my peers have when it comes to music. Some of my friends have never even heard of bands like Nirvana, Green Day, or the Clash, let alone someone like Elliott Smith. Our generation is losing touch with good music. I do not understand how we go from Elliott Smith to One Direction.
    I thought your article was very well thought out. I am more sad now that I will never be able to see Elliott Smith play. I really think he realized some things that nobody else did. We lost something big when he died.

    Comment by Unknown — November 29, 2016 @ 8:59 pm

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