News Column

Elliott Smith: his life in 12 videos

October 21, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 21--For those who've been touched by the life and music of Elliott Smith, today is a difficult day: the 10th anniversary of his death at age 34. Whether a suicide or left inconclusive, as the Los Angeles coroner reported, it ended the career of a singer-songwriter whose catalog remains among the richest and most emotionally affecting of his era. Smith's performances were extensively documented by concert bootleggers, but in recent years, YouTube has become a notable archive of his interviews and live shows as well. In remembrance, we combed hours of video to gather a visual timeline of his too-brief career.

1996: "I wanted to be in Kiss and the Beatles, that's why I started playing guitar," Smith says in this sit-down with the rest of Heatmiser, the Portland rock band he co-fronted with Neil Gust. The band called it quits after three albums, just as Smith's solo career was taking off.

September 16, 1996: There's not much video of Smith's early days as a solo act, but here's one: a 30-minute performance soundtracked by a chatty audience. The set list spans his lo-fi first three albums, plus rarity "No Confidence Man," b-side "Some Song" and Big Star's classic "Thirteen," a song that became his signature cover.

1997: Smith's pre-fame days in Portland were captured in the short film "Lucky 3," a semi-documentary directed by Jem Cohen that followed the singer-songwriter around town over a few days in October 1996.

1997(?): Smith was soon catapulted into the world of celebrity, though for a musician known for sad songs, he kept his sense of humor. He laughs often in a "Good Will Hunting"-era interview with '90s comedy deity Janeane Garofalo, who ribs the songwriter about his posture and ever-present beanie. "I knew him from there," a shy-seeming Smith says of meeting the film's director, Gus Van Sant, in Portland. Six of Smith's songs were used on the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning movie, including a new one, "Miss Misery," which hinted at the more expansive studio direction he was about to take on 1998's "XO."

March 23, 1998: Smith may have been a local hero in the Pacific Northwest, but the Academy Awards stage introduced him to the world and helped propel the release of "XO," his debut on then-major DreamWorks Records. The beauty of his "Miss Misery" performance -- and his unlikely white suit -- remains the most surreal and best-known moment of his career, even if Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" took home the Best Original Song award.

May 3, 1998: Garofalo gone, Smith was less comfortable on MTV with soon-to-be "Total Request Live" host Carson Daly, fidgeting as Daly holds up an issue of Spin and tries to figure out if Smith is or isn't a folk artist. "[With] pop, a song can mean nothing or lots of things," Smith tries to explain. "But you're more pop, right?" Carson says with genuine curiousity. "Uh, yeah. You know," Smith says.

July 17, 1999: At the Yo Yo a Go Go Festival in Olympia, Wash., Smith stayed solo acoustic, playing material old and new -- including the to-be-released "Son of Sam" and "Easy Way Out," from 2000's "Figure 8."

2000: Here's one from deep in the archives: after producer and musician Jon Brion's dabbling with a VH1 show reflective of his freeform residency in Los Angeles' Largo fizzled, director Paul Thomas Anderson fronted the money to film a more intimate, Largo-y version. Anderson dug up the tapes last year and uploaded this 45-minute video, which centers on a remarkable performance with Smith. The two were frequent collaborators: Brion plays on Smith's "XO" and "Figure 8," and Smith was a regular at Largo during his early days in Los Angeles. Smith's joy in the session is palpable, and given Largo's longtime ban on taping, it's the best live recording we have of the pair playing together.

2000: Smith's tour for "Figure 8" was electric for once, played with a full band and offering a partial return to the rock edge of his Heatmiser days. Here's a full-length performance from Seattle's Bumbershoot festival.

2000: "I don't have a very methodical approach," Smith says of songwriting in this "Figure 8"-era interview. "I don't really think about it in terms of language. I think about it more like shapes... I'm really into chord changes. That was the thing I liked when I was a kid." Mostly, he recommends being yourself: "If you see someone playing music that they really like, it's really compelling, regardless of what style it is, I think."

January 31, 2003: Before his October death, Smith began the year with a return to the stage, played a pair of packed dates at Los Angeles' 1,200-capacity Henry Fonda Theater with drummer Robin Peringer. He played much of the material that would appear in noisier, full-band form on the posthumous "From a Basement on the Hill," and the performances are powerful despite his visible struggles to grapple with an unruly audience and complete his complex songs. (I was in the balcony for the Feb. 1 show. He took my breath away.) The video starts a bit erratically before settling down.

2007: Let's give Smith's grandparents the final word.

Have favorites of your own? Share them in the comments.

More Smith:

Elliott Smith's brilliant, tragic life is captured in a new biography

Unreleased Elliott Smith 'Christian Brothers' version surfaces

-- David Greenwald

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(c)2013 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

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