The summer of 2003, like the summer of 2002, was brutally hot in Europe. That year, I was blessed to be working a job that not only did not require me to work in the heat of the day, but also was air-conditioned. My hours were such that not only did I have Saturdays and Sundays completely free, but by the time I came in for work on Monday, most of the people running “normal hours” were on their way home, so if I squinted really hard, it seemed almost like a 3-day weekend every week. It was glorious.
I don’t remember a lot about the summer, but I do remember that the fall was absolutely glorious, the weather was amazing, the sun’s rays painted the world with a golden brush, and my view to the Alps got more colorful by the day. I had gotten into the habit of listening to AFN radio – American Forces Network – a lot. There were three things that stuck out in my mind from AFN that fall – a tribute commemorating the 30th anniversary of Jim Croce’s death, staying up ridiculously late to hear the Chicago Cubs not make it into the World Series, and news that Elliott Smith had died, apparently of suicide.
I didn’t know a whole lot about Elliott Smith, but I did know who he was, and I was acquainted with his music through the soundtrack of Good Will Hunting. It’s interesting to me how Good Will Hunting was really a big deal when it came out and how it seems to be almost forgotten now. I’m sure some of that came about stemming from the whole drama between Matt Damon and Minnie Driver that put off a whole lot of people, but during the time that there was a lot of “buzz” about the movie, Elliott Smith was even nominated for an Oscar for his song “Miss Misery“, which features prominently in the film.
Over the next couple of weeks, in these days before Youtube, I listened to my Good Will Hunting soundtrack many, many times. Elliott Smith isn’t exactly a rockstar, and he’s not even what you would call a singer. He sings, but unlike most, he sings to the top range of his voice, which, in a voice like his that isn’t terribly strong, a sense of being vulnerable, or of being ready to fall apart. A lot of Elliott Smith’s original music is like that, he sings as one who struggles with the modern things, not trying to feed a family of six children on a miner’s salary, but more of trying to hold on against the darkness of today’s zeitgeist. At the same time, he’s able to create beauty in large part because of the experience of the pain.
I think the Beatles were masters of using that juxtaposition of generally upbeat music with lyrics that were a lot more depressing. It’s impossible not to hear the Beatles’ influence on Eliott Smith, apart from all the covers he did of Beatles’ songs – from the types of chord changes to the voice double-tracking to his look – but while the Beatles tended to still be positive on the full message, Smith’s direction was much more questionable, and his songs were more explicit about drinking and drugs and hopelessness.
During that time in 2003, the train track closest to where I lived was under repair, and for a couple of weeks there, there was a bus that was being run to take care of the passengers that had to go that way. There was no road that ran roughly parallel to the line, and so the route that the bus had to make to get to all the little stations here in the foothills of the Alps in southern Bavaria was very circuitous. (A long and winding road! Ha!) I rode in the bus, my little portable CD player with me, in awe of the scenery around, the mountains in the distance, the hills, the farms, the roadside shrines, and the gentle warmth of the sun illuminating the green and orange and red as if it were stained glass. The juxtaposition of that beauty with the knowledge that the man singing into my ears had taken his life just a few days before was hard to process.
Over at Pleximama, she recently wrote a post entitled “Say Yes”, which has nothing to do with Elliott Smith, even though that’s the name of one of his best-known songs. The post is worth a read, but talks about how we should “say yes” to God where we are because He loves us as we are. Crazily enough, “Say Yes” by Elliott Smith has a little of that same theme; by his standards, a “happy” song, about the hope that comes with a girl who he’s surprised may love him despite being “damaged bad at best”. The common thread here is that when one can accept being loved as one is, the change in perspective that a person has is nothing less than life-altering, and with God, that love is eternal.
It’s heartbreakingly sad that there are so many people who do succumb to the darkness, as Smith apparently did. I felt that sadness riding the bus that day, and as much as there are things that I really do like about Smith’s music, even his Beatles’ covers are sometimes hard for me to listen to because he does seem to color him with the sadness he carried.
Nineteen years have now passed since Smith’s death on the 21st of October, 2003. He was 34 then. I’m close to a decade past that age, and neither time nor age have made any of it any less sad. I think of his songs that I know from time to time, but on some level, they’re connected now to listening to AFN at odd hours and riding on that replacement bus through the fall colors all those years ago.