It was nearly impossible to avoid developing deep feelings for Elliott Smith as a teenager in Oregon in the late 90s. There wasn’t the machinery in place to rocket underground artists to quick ubiquity, then. Even on the local level, it was all much slower and less organized. But by about the fifteenth time you were recommended Either/Or in whispered tones, as if someone was offering you a deep family secret, it was clear that something was happening. I’m honestly not sure what the modern Internet age would have done to and with someone like Smith, so wide open and talented and doomed. In the face of callous YouTube commenters, constant Twitter gossip about if he looked clean or healthy at any given show, you could imagine it all going worse even sooner than it did. But it was no shock, then or now, that such pretty and personal music should be so meaningful to so many.
Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of Smith’s suicide, a sad occasion marked by many online tributes and, in the real world, a loaded charity show at Glasslands in Williamsburg, organized by The Bomber Jacket. It was memorable, to put it softly.
video posted by Kathleen French.
The night was structured so that each of the dozen plus artists on the bill would play two or three songs, a limitation that kept things moving rather quickly. There was a clear respect in the room for Smith’s work, with a packed Glasslands quieting to a hush at the start of even the softest acoustic version. The finest snippet of the evening came from Luke Temple, singer for New York’s Here We Go Magic. He played with a reverent simplicity that was probably the best representation of the original recordings that anyone managed. Temple followed a note-perfect version of the harrowing heroin ballad “Needle in the Hay” with Big Star’s “Thirteen”, a song Smith often covered himself. Side by side, you noted the similarity in sound, the same sort of finger-strummed classic pop melody. But “Needle” was unflinching in its sadness and ugly honesty where “Thirteen” was dreamily nostalgic and rose-tinted. Smith’s best quality as a songwriter was probably his ability to do both things at once, to be so universal and inviting while he was facing down such bleak feelings.
video posted by Kathleen French.
After solid performances from a seated, spellbinding Marissa Nadler and Why?’s Yoni Wolf on solo piano, indie famous/indie infamous Brooklyn couple of the moment, Sky Ferreira and Cole Smith from DIIV, took the stage to perform a trio of Elliott’s songs. They were songs that Cole said he “listened to as a little kid in 2001.” I had a flash of visceral recoil from that line, but I suppose the pair’s youth makes a good illustration of what Smith has become for a generation following his—another lost artist, like Cobain or Curtis, whose sincerity can’t be questioned in retrospect given the way they went out. Really, it might be dangerous to keep lionizing these tragic, self-destructive figures as the pinnacle of credibility. But the appeal is very simple to grasp. You can’t say they didn’t mean what they said.
My opinion on Ferreira’s and Smith’s own work is fairly irrelevant here. (For the record: I like her stuff more than his, but don’t care for either’s image much at all.) They performed the material well, especially an intense and angry version of From a Basement on the Hill track “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free”, where Ferreira’s breathy vocals rose to a strong wail once or twice. They really did seem to mean it, too.
The night’s headliner was Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, performing solo, then a with a small band. Marshall was a perfect choice, and a definite coup for organizers. During the same time period she basically was the female version of Smith, a troubled singer of unusual fragility who was able to broadcast her unease through really accomplished songwriting. They toured together, held each other in high esteem. He was the better performer at the time, not noted for the meltdowns that marked Marshall’s early live career, but she turned out to be the survivor.
As a fitting tribute to the charities Outside In (which benefits homeless youth in Portland) and Free Arts for Abused Children (which offers arts programs for victims of abuse), Marshall started with “Names” from her 2003 record He War. She struggled at first to remember the chords, but even in pieces, that song is tough to turn away from. In a lighter digression, she passed out knit caps to the audience like the one she wore as a tribute to Smith’s meek signature look.
“Between the Bars” came next. It was the moment where you remembered what a runaway freight train of emotion Marshall’s voice can be. Honestly, she seemed slightly off throughout, disheveled in a way that sort of unfortunately recalled her breakable early career presence more than the last half decade spent as a reliable festival main-stager. In the moment, given the subject matter and the occasion, I can’t say that it didn’t add a certain sort of resonance. Her singing here was truly, inarguably beautiful.
It all sort of broke down further from there. “Angeles” turned into an extended band member jam halfway through. “Pretty (Ugly Before)” ended the night, with vocal help from Ferreira, who Marshall amusingly summoned as “the damsel.” The two shared a mic for half of the song, before Marshall shuffled around, handing hers off to audience members, dodging the limelight.
She came back at its conclusion to rouse the whole room into a continued a cappella outro of its chorus. “I felt so ugly before, I didn’t know what to do…” sang everyone. It’s a feeling so dark and raw and relatable that singing it all together was the only way to make it feel alright.