When the Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, burned to the ground during a Great White show last February, a hundred heavy-metal fans died and the Providence Journal (taking its lead from the New York Times’s September-eleventh coverage) published small obituaries for each, based on interviews with the victims’ families. Well over half of these families focused on their loved one’s passion for music. They spoke with deep affection and pride about the degree of fanship these adult victims exhibited—how far they traveled to attend concerts, how much band memorabilia they owned. The mother of thirty-one-year-old Great White fan Robert Croteau told the Providence Journal that her son “died doing something he loved” and recalled how the family had used one of Great White’s albums to coax Croteau out of a four-month coma the year before. She described a bedside vigil in which the family played Great White songs to the comatose man, who finally awoke from the coma asking to hear more Great White. I realized, as I don’t think I had before the Station tragedy, that there are scenes and circles I don’t travel in where adults take pride in their rock fanship and their friends and family don’t regard it as any freakier a passion than athletics, foreign travel, or gourmet cooking.
Days after the Station disaster, I attended a comedy show in Los Angeles where a comedian described this incineration of a hundred music fans on the opposite coast as a form of “natural selection.” The audience giggled. To this comedian and this audience, the Station victims represented some weird, undesirable other. Was it a class joke? I don’t think so. I doubt the audience would have laughed at a hundred working-class people burned to death in a factory fire. Heavy-metal music revels in all the excess—the aggressive hedonism and overwrought emotions—that we’re expected to leave behind, or at least submerge, when we leave adolescence.
All of this got me thinking about my own musical fanship and the nagging sense of shame that accompanies it. My friends have trained me to treat the ferocity of my musical passions as a shameful secret. The message seems to be this: Listen to whatever you want and like whatever you want, but temper your enthusiasm to suit your advanced age (I’m thirty-four). Praise moderately and possess no evidence of devotion aside from music. That is to say, no “merch,” unless intended ironically: vintage Peaches and Herb T-shirt, cool; new Radiohead T-shirt, not cool. The trappings of my fanship appall my friends: my T-shirts (Mudhoney, X, Hole), my show posters (Kristin Hersh, the White Stripes). I have a postcard from Exene Cervenka of the band X framed in my living room, her kind response to a fan letter I wrote many years ago. This too, I’m told, should go, or at least be relocated to a more private location.
It may be wrong to make age the issue. Rock fanship earned me peer scorn as early as the seventh grade. If you were a twelve-year-old girl in a preppy Catholic school in 1982, you were supposed to listen to the Go-Go’s. You listened to them and you emulated their hair and makeup. You might resort to superlative language to characterize the beauty, zest, and pep of these very gifted women, but you did not, for obvious reasons, huddle in dark rooms whispering about how the Go-Go’s understood you and saved your life with their songs. The Go-Go’s were of no use to me in the seventh grade. I was a public school kid starting Catholic junior high.
I lived in terror of an obese nun prone to verbal humiliation and shoving. The Go-Go’s sang about boyfriend dramas at the beach and I had access to neither of those things. My life hurt and the Go-Go’s had “the beat.” I discovered Pink Floyd’s The Wall during this time and it saved my life. The Wall revealed many beautiful truths to me, notably that teachers who humiliate and shove little children do so to vent the rage they feel about their inconsequential, sexually frustrated little lives. Also these children sometimes grow up to be rock stars—I liked that part, too. I felt saved and also possessed—totally, constitutionally overwhelmed by the enormity of my affection for this music. And like religious zealots who put those fish on their cars, I too felt compelled to bear witness. I bought two Pink Floyd pins—one with just the name of the band, one with Gerald Scarfe’s grotesque rendering of the album’s “teacher” character. My Pink Floyd buttons enabled me to make that subtle transition from peripheral girl to strange loser. Eventually, I found two thick, pimply boys who were also Floyd-obsessed and we spent recesses together standing against the fence in the farthest corner of the blacktop talking about music. I threw them over, of course, when a popular girl took an interest. I remember missing them, but I never for a moment questioned which friends I wanted. In the hierarchy of junior high, my music pals were losers and these girls had the beat.
Whether it’s Great White or Pink Floyd or Tori Amos, there’s something about the sight of a person swooning over rock music that makes some people recoil. Maybe broadcasting a love of intense music is a way of wearing one’s emotional disarray on one’s sleeve—unseemly in more elevated circles. I love the mass ritual of rock shows—swaying, nodding, yelling with the tribe—but I’ve grown self-conscious about it with age. If I doubt my ability to rock moderately, I go to the show alone.
Persecuted rage and Pink Floyd at twelve gave way to angsty melancholy and the Smiths at fifteen. Throwing Muses saw me through college and Elliott Smith was the principal musical savior of my twenties. Smith released five albums between 1994 and 2000 and died this past October from two stab wounds to his chest. Initially called a suicide and mourned by fans as such for over two months, the case remains open at this writing. The Los Angeles County Coroner declared the cause of Smith’s death “undetermined” after failing to conclude how his wounds had been inflicted. An investigation continues.
Smith’s New York Times obituary characterized him as a “luminary of independent rock,” whose lush, Beatle-esque songs about depression, betrayal, addiction, and despair briefly commanded national attention with an Oscar nomination in 1998. Gus Van Sant used his music in the film GoodWill Hunting and Smith received his Oscar nomination for a song called “Miss Misery” that, contrary to the title, is a gorgeous, melancholic love song. (He lost to Celine Dion’s Titanic anthem in a surreal Oscar broadcast. Smith wore a white suit and took a bow sandwiched between Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood.)
The Times was not alone in casting Smith as the Sylvia Plath of indie rock: an artist with a dark, troubled personal life who wrote dark, troubling songs. This is a superficial take that doesn’t do justice to the songs. Smith’s songs are anguished, sweet, desperate, funny, sad, brutal, ecstatic—sometimes all at once. Pure nihilism and pure sugar are easy. What’s difficult— and not just in music—is letting nihilism and joy sit down together and hang out. Smith’s songs were fearlessly holistic in this way: complicated and confounding, rife with internal contradictions and mood swings. Truthful. The discussion forum on Smith’s website has long been home to fierce debates on the subject matter of his songs. And there’s plenty to argue about. A song called “The Biggest Lie,” for example, incited ferocious debate. The song seems to depict a man waiting for a train contemplating jumping under it and becoming “a crushed credit card registered to Smith,” but, in its last minute, transitions into a sweeping declaration of love for a girlfriend. The song ends by confiding, “I just told the biggest lie.” But which part of the song is the lie—the suicidal urge or the promise of redemptive love? I treasured “Miss Misery” for its similarly pointed lyrical ambiguity. The chorus,“Do you miss me miss misery,” can be heard two ways (the CD does not supply lyrics). Is the singer addressing a former girlfriend as “Miss Misery” or asking her if she misses misery—presumably the state of the relationship they once shared? The first read seems biting, the second pleading. Finally, I think, Smith intended us to hear both. It’s a murkier, meaner portrayal of being in love than the Dion classic (“My Heart Will Go On”) that took home the statue, but truer, I think. Smith’s narrator opens by acknowledging that he’ll “fake it through the day with some help from Johnny Walker Red.” Drunk and openly dishonest, Smith’s narrator still manages to tell the truer tale.
And when Smith sang about addiction, as he did roughly a third of the time, he engaged the full realm of the experience; the ecstasy and the agony got equal treatment. Giving up drugs and/or alcohol means, to some degree, parting with the ecstatic, and Elliott Smith dramatized the agony of that dilemma with uncommon courage and grace. “In St. Ides Heaven,” “everything is exactly right” when you’ve got “an open container from 7-11” and lots of speed. His breathless chorus of “high on amphetamines, the moon is a lightbulb breaking” offers a glimpse of ecstatic buzz and shimmer. But his vision of where all of this beautiful feeling leads is equally crystalline, if nowhere near as pleasurable. In “Between the Bars” one barfly to another advises, “Drink up baby, stay up all night / with the things you could do, you won’t but you might / the potential you’ll be that you’ll never see / the promises you’ll only make.”
Smith’s songs seemed to always be juggling unwieldy extremes of feeling, jarring glimpses of beauty in otherwise miserable landscapes: the spurned lover whose head turns into a flaming Roman candle in “Roman Candle,” the sound of cars driving on wet pavement that wakes a man passed out in a bar in “Clementine.” And there was genuine heart (as opposed to the Celine Dion chest-thumping) and humor in Smith’s depiction of feeling misfit and out of synch—the bummed-out guy in “Rose Parade” who’s trading a cigarette for a food stamp while the parade passes, the guy waiting for the F train in “Bled White” who observes “I’m a color reporter / but this city’s been bled white.” Or my favorite: the guy in “Son of Sam” who says to (I believe) his lover,“I’m a little like you, more like Son of Sam.”
Smith’s official, fan-run website was, for the last year of his life, a chronicle of his personal trouble. Smith had spent his career skirting and minimizing the drug question in interviews, mostly—I surmised because the problem was past-tense and he wanted more for himself than the distinction of indie drug bard. But Smith’s second, self-titled CD, arguably his best, is virtually a concept album about heroin. And so the question—is he or isn’t he?—would plague him throughout his career, particularly when his personal trouble started manifesting itself publicly in the last year of his life. A skirmish with off-duty police officers at a Flaming Lips/ Beck concert a year before his death (Smith said he stepped in to help some teenagers being harassed; Beck concurs with this account; the Lips say Smith was under the influence and badly behaved) resulted in Smith’s injuring his back. Smith posted a notice on his website asking witnesses to the fight to contact his lawyer. The injury led, according to Smith, to medication for the injury and a subsequent bad reaction to that medication. Smith canceled some shows and performed others in distress, forgetting his songs and aborting them midway.
Disgruntled concertgoers began posting on Smith’s website, speculating that Smith was unable to perform because he was strung out on heroin. Longtime residents of the discussion forum defended him, but voiced concern. A friend of Smith’s joined the forum to assure fans that Smith was not taking anything illegal; he was merely nervous after a prolonged absence from performing. After Smith’s death, this “friend” revealed herself to be Smith’s younger sister.
None of this online drama alarmed me as much as the interview Smith did the summer before his death with a music magazine called Under the Radar. After a career of sidestepping and downplaying the addiction question in interviews, Smith spoke candidly and enthusiastically about his treatment for alcoholism at the Neurotransmitter Restoration Center in Beverly Hills. The treatment involved amino acids and saline administered intravenously for an average of ten days (at $1,000 a day, not FDA-approved, not covered by insurance) by a doctor unfortu- nately named Dr. Hitt. The treatment, according to Smith, restored neurotransmitters to their pre- addiction state and offered the massive advantage of eradicating withdrawal symptoms. Smith said that this treatment had worked well for him and he was doing OK, working hard on his long-awaited next album, From a Basement on a Hill. (It should be noted that Smith’s system was free of alcohol and illicit drugs at the time of his death.)
This interview worried me more than flubbed songs and fisticuffs, perhaps because the idea of restoring neurotransmitters sounds nothing short of miraculous and I have difficulty imagining this kind of medical breakthrough occurring in Beverly Hills. Also, in the course of my own complex medical history, I too have submitted to expensive IVs full of supplements that my insurance didn’t cover. They made me throw up and they didn’t work. It’s probably unfair of me to project my geographic prejudice and bad alternative-medicine experience onto Smith’s treatment, but I worried. A lot. If you believe someone’s music saved your life or, as we say over thirty, kept you company in some rather dark nights of the soul, you feel immense gratitude and good-will towards this person. You should, anyway.
On a strangely balmy Sunday a few days before Halloween, I took a bus from my home in Rhode Island to New York City to attend a memorial vigil for Elliott Smith. I felt slightly embarrassed boarding a Bonanza bus with a candle and a card in my backpack to say goodbye to a man I’d never met, but I figured it was my money and my time and I wasn’t hurting anybody, so why not. I went less out of a sense of respect or duty than out of personal distress. News reports at that time described a suicide that was brutal almost beyond comprehension. In the middle of the day, at home in Los Angeles, Smith had apparently plunged a kitchen knife into his chest. His girlfriend reported finding him alive and bleeding to death. He died later at a hospital.
The vigil was hastily organized by a fan in Long Island and posted on Smith’s fan websites. I made the trip alone, in one day, and it occurred to me briefly that it could be my secret; no one needed to know. But I had plans for that evening that required canceling. I was supposed to have dinner with two of the aforementioned friends who love music and wince at “merch.” I figured it was a safe bet that if wearing a rock singer’s T-shirt made them wince, spending eight hours on a bus to attend a rock singer’s vigil would pretty well blacken my name. I picked up the phone to call in sick and then found that I couldn’t. It felt dirty and disloyal. Elliott Smith chronicled what it feels like to be the sad, out-of-step guy better than any musician who ever walked the planet. It seemed a little ironic and a lot slimy to spend years using Smith’s songs to soothe myself and then lie about going to his vigil because I didn’t want to look sad and out-of-step. It’s a myth that we outgrow our desire to be cool; the measures and values may change or they may not, but we never stop tailoring our behavior to make the people we esteem esteem us. I broke my plans honestly. The friends were understanding in a distant sort of way and we did not speak of it again.
The web notice designated five o’clock as the start of the vigil, but invited people to stop by throughout the day and leave items at the site: Central Lawn in Tompkins Square Park. Approaching the park at a quarter to five, I saw a large crowd gathered around a stage. On the stage, some sort of thrash-metal band was belting out an aggressive set. Enormous speakers blasted the concert across the park. My first thought was that this seemed an odd way to honor Elliott Smith, but I wasn’t ready to dismiss it. Maybe the band members were fans; maybe the song was a tribute. I looked at the people around me and saw enough chains and piercings and green hair to suspect that this might not be the vigil. The band dedicated a song to the city of New York and then I felt certain.
I asked a policeman to point me towards Central Lawn and he did. There was no one there. A few minutes before five, two pretty young women approached Central Lawn carrying tulips. I broke the news that, as of now, we were the vigil. We discussed the possibility that the vigil had been moved or canceled and decided to wait. The metal band thrashed on and we stood together, clutching our respective offerings, not speak- ing. I volunteered to check Smith’s website from an Internet café across the street on the chance there had been a change of venue. I checked; there wasn’t. When I returned, a young couple had brought our total to five.The couple carried a small bouquet of roses and several vigil candles decorated with messages to and photos of Smith. We waited. We did not speak. The silence made me feel anxious and miserable and I found myself initiating the most inconsequential and obvious of small talk:
“Isn’t the band awful?” “I really hope we’re in the right place.” They murmured agreement and
averted their eyes. I felt ridiculous and suddenly, urgently lonely. We could not speak of it! We could travel and assemble for it, buy and make tokens to commemorate it, but we could not speak of it.
The organizer, a bubbly (thank God!) college student named Kristen,arrived a little after five and designated a tree for people to leave the things they’d brought. Watching us arrange the items under the tree,she exclaimed, “Oh, this is wonderful! I mean, it’s terrible. But it’s wonderful you’re all here.” A thin, black-clad, and bespectacled young man arrived with two concert photos of Smith he’d blown up to poster-size and taped them to the tree. The crowd grew steadily over the next hour; it seemed close to a hundred at its peak,a little before six.The display under the tree grew, too, encircling the trunk like a Christmas-tree skirt. There were flowers, candles, letters, photos, incense, artwork. The whole thing flamed and glowed and smelled like roses. We sat around it like a campfire and stared at it. We took turns getting up to tend to it when the wind blew the candles out. The young man whose girlfriend had brought the decorated vigil candles sat cross-legged and sobbed into his lap.
I keep referring to these people as “young” because the vast majority of attendees at the vigil were under thirty; the early-twenties crowd seemed to dominate. And this initially surprised me. Smith and I were the same age. He hadn’t released an album in nearly four years and his popularity had peaked in the late nineties. How did he have so many college-age fans? It dawned on me then that Smith was to these people what the Smiths had been to me: the artist who helped them survive high school.
The Smiths (no relation to Elliott) trafficked in melodrama during the late eighties.Their landscape was a gray, economically depressed Manchester, England, and their songs, about loneliness, stagnation, despair, and bad weather, offered a vision that was thrillingly romantic. These songs believed that finding love could save your life, even if your life looked very, very bad. The Smiths’ emotional universe was not nearly as complex as Elliott Smith’s; there was agony and ecstasy, but not very much in between. But in both cases, hideous despair was continually interrupted and averted by glimpses of beauty. The romantic stakes were epically high.The lead singer, Morrissey, cried out to be loved like he would literally expire and die if he didn’t get it soon. Who can forget him wailing,“I am human and I need to be loved” in “How Soon is Now?” or,“Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head” in “I Know It’s Over?”
I wondered, looking around Elliott Smith’s New York vigil, about the statute of limitations on fanship. Where were all the people I’d been crammed into sold-out Elliott Smith shows with in 1998? Had they outgrown caring or public expressions of caring or both? And what, precisely, is being outgrown when one distances oneself from one’s Morrissey or one’s Elliott Smith? Perhaps we reject the music that scored our youth because it reminds us of a time and a state of mind that embarrasses us, a time when we really did feel, like Morrissey, that unhappiness—rejection in love, a friend’s betrayal—could literally kill us. This is arguably both the best and the worst thing about growing up: barring extreme constitutional alterations like trauma and illness and drugs, you lose these extreme highs and lows. Rejection in love still hurts but it doesn’t hurt like a Morrissey song.
Morrissey anticipated all this.He foresaw as early as 1987 that his fans would deny him and he chastised us in advance for it. In a song called “Rubber Ring,” he anticipated his fans growing up and leaving his songs behind, embarrassed by the music that scored their miserable youths.
A sad fact widely known
The most impassioned song
To a lonely soul
Is so easily outgrown
But don’t forget the songs
That made you cry
And the songs that saved your life
Yes, you’re older now
And you’re a clever swine
But they were the only ones who
ever stood by you
Morrissey had no illusions that he’d win any of these fans back, once they’d traded sensitive youth for clever adult swinehood. And in a moment that is vintage Morrissey at his operatic best, he imagined himself haunting a grown-up fan who has spurned him, pleading to be remembered:
I’m here with the cause
I’m holding the torch
In the corner of your room
Can you hear me?
And when you’re dancing and
And finally living
Hear my voice in your head
And think of me kindly
I’m not saying that you have to break out your Smiths records if you feel you’ve outgrown them or they make you cringe, but I do think that if you, like me and thousands upon thousands of people worldwide over the last two decades, used a Smiths record to sonically soothe your teenage soul, you ought not badmouth them at parties or take Morrissey’s name in vain to describe bad writing, as in, “At a certain point all of her stories get very maudlin, very sort of self- pitying and, you know, Morrissey.” Hold sacred your dark-hour songs and your dark-hour friends, even if you can no longer stomach hanging out with them.
Our vigil was fraught with technical problems. For starters, it felt just plain weird to be mourning next to a loud metal concert. There were also a surprising number of vicious dogfights in close proximity. At one point, a drug dealer strolled among the silent mourners announcing methamphetamines for sale. The rain predicted had not arrived, but the ferocity of the noise—angry rock, angry dogs, oblivious dealer—rendered both communication and private reflection almost impossible. Mercifully, the band finished a little after six, at which point it became apparent that many, many people had brought Elliott Smith’s CDs to play and nobody had anything to play them on. Kristen sent her boyfriend out of the park in search of speakers. He returned with two fist-sized speakers and an attempt was made to play Smith’s music through a walkman. It sounded tinny and tiny and wretched. All of this made me smile for the first time in days. It seemed just so fitting that Elliott Smith fans could assemble a gorgeous physical memorial in a matter of minutes and have nothing to play a CD on. Seriously. Martha Stewart could not have done better than these fans. Flowers and candles and cards and letters were aligned unbelievably artfully. Inexplicably, someone had brought fruits and small gourds which, we all know, spruce up any autumnal display.
The other problem with assembling Elliott Smith fans (evidenced by my awkward pre-vigil huddle) is that they’re mostly sort of Smith-esque: soft, shy, and awkward. In other words they will all sit and stare at the memorial feeling awful and weeping, and—even armed with the knowledge that they are in a sympathetic group— they will be way, way too shy to comfort one another. I began feeling slightly panicked about this. I had come thinking we would talk to one another. This idea now seemed horribly ridiculous. Smith’s entire oeuvre is about feeling uncomfortable and failing to connect. What the hell had I been thinking? No Elliott Smith fan was going to slap me on the back and give me a hearty hug. They’re not strong enough, for one thing; Smith’s fans are, in general, not very big. I thought of the Oscars, of the way Celine Dion had grabbed Smith’s hand in fierce nominee camaraderie. I imagined how different a Celine Dion vigil would be, all the aggressive, ingenuous affection, and it seemed sort of appealing.
Mercifully, a young man appeared carrying a guitar and volunteered to Kristen, who was sitting on the lawn next to me, that he knew a lot of Smith’s songs and would love to play for the group. She deferred to a man named Casey, who ran one of Smith’s fan websites. I leaned in at this point and said I thought live music was a good idea; it might help people to communicate. The man got the OK from Casey and announced his intention to play. He identified himself as Hightower (his middle name; his last name was, coincidentally, Smith) and addressed the group with a generous, upbeat energy. He said that he loved Smith’s songs and he’d love to play a few if anyone wanted to listen, but if not, that was cool, too. Of course, no one—including me—said anything audible, but there were enough affirmative nods to encourage him and he sat down on the ground and began to play. He played the songs extremely well. His voice was strong and genuine. But there was no mistaking him for Smith and this, I think, was crucial to his success that day. His performance felt like tribute rather than imitation. Here was a robustly handsome young man, eager and energetic enough to transform a memorial vigil into a sing-along. In many ways,he radiated the very attributes Elliott Smith lacked and this made it OK to stop staring at the tree and go sing with him.
About thirty of us formed a circle with Hightower (think campfire sing-along minus the campfire) and at first only he sang. Some people mouthed the words along withhim, silently. The singing started when Hightower began taking requests. He knew most of Smith’s songs, but not all. Some requests he turned down outright, apologizing that he just didn’t know the song well enough. Many more songs he knew, but hadn’t played in a while, so he played them with a good-natured disclaimer that he might mess up. And so the singing began as bailing him out when he hit a rough patch. He’d forget a verse, we’d sing just enough to get him back on track.
Let me interject here: I don’t sing. At all. But I sang at the Elliott Smith vigil.Twilight came, the bulk of the mourners departed with the sun, and the circle shrunk to maybe twenty. I’d stifled a few giggles which had left me with that warm-bellied, cheek-aching good feeling that melts one’s reserve. I couldn’t help myself. I love these songs.
Once we began singing, we turned a corner. I should really only speak for myself. Gathering around the tree allowed me to feel as bad as I needed to feel in the safety of a sympathetic group, to sit with the idea that someone whose music had given me happiness had done hideous violence to himself.This was time to mourn, pay tribute, say good-bye. All of which hurts.A lot. It seemed to me totally, beautifully fitting to do then the same thing we’d always done when= we hurt: seek comfort in the songs.
There’s an Elliott Smith song called “Say Yes” that people, even people indifferent to the rest of his work, just fall madly in love with. It opens with the line, “I’m in love with the world through the eyes of a girl who’s still around the morning after,” and ends with Smith asking the girl to ignore all the bad history and bad odds and just “say yes.” It’s sweet, simple, and hopeful against reason and if it doesn’t make you happy you should check your pulse. It’s that song. I learned at the vigil that every Elliott Smith fan who has ever tried to play guitar has learned it. So three or four times when Hightower paused between songs, some young man cautiously asked if he could play a song and Hightower, being Hightower, enthusiastically handed off the guitar and said many encouraging things to each of these very shy, nervous men who—like me— felt so overwhelmed on that day that they threw inhibition to the wind and bared their paltry musical abilities. Each of these young men played “Say Yes.” Each played it poorly, haltingly, imperfectly, so we all just sang a bit louder and helped them through.
We sang until the group dwindled to fifteen or so. High-tower left and soon we were ten. It was after nine o’clock.We stood around the tree—me, Casey, Kristen and her boyfriend, the young couple with the vigil candles (Melissa and Alex), two girls named Elizabeth, a girl named Helen, and a boy named Lippe. We admired the still-blazing memorial display and debated what to do with it.Take it? Leave it? Blow it out? Let it burn? There was discussion of collecting the personal notes and artwork and giving them to Smith’s family. I said I thought these memorials were understood to be temporary, perishable. I didn’t see any disrespect in leaving it, except maybe to the guy who had to clean it up. Alex said, “But if we leave it, junkies will take it!” utterly without irony. Lippe said, “We’ll see it for sale tomorrow on Avenue A.” I said, “Or eBay.” The value of all things Elliott skyrocketed within hours of his death. His website was abuzz with pointless outrage and I had already received an email solicitation for a “RIP Elliott”T-shirt. What can you say? We live in JonBenet America. Dying violently and winning an Oscar boost your market value at roughly the same rate.
We stood chatting for another half hour or so but not about Elliott Smith.We introduced ourselves and spoke of the day—what was great, not so great, and just plain weird. I learned that the meth dealer had not been the only oblivious entrepreneur working the crowd.The CMJ Music Festival was in town and sample CDs with affixed business cards had been found on the lawn after the crowd dispersed. I showed them a CD I’d received from a man at the vigil who saw me put a card down and asked if he could read what I wrote. I told him he could. It was my sappy “what I would have said if…” message, but I guess it struck him. He pulled a burned CD out of his jacket and handed it to me. The CD contained an Elliott Smith concert from 1998. Casey said he had that show on CD; it had circulated among fans who considered it an uncommonly great show. We chatted some more. It started to rain, lightly. Kristen fretted over catching the last train home to Long Island and volunteered that she hadn’t told her parents about the vigil; they thought she was at the mall. I asked if her parents would have objected to the vigil and she said no, it wasn’t that. She didn’t know what it was, exactly. She just didn’t feel like telling them.
I walked away, finally, perilously close to missing my own last bus home. I stretched out in the rear of the bus and listened to the concert CD on the late-night ride back to Rhode Island. The songs were, indeed, Smith in his finest performance hour and I felt happy hearing them. His banter with the crowd between songs was harder to hear. Smith was funny and I’d almost forgotten that. To a fan yelling desperately for Smith to play his song “Last Call,” Smith says flatly, “‘Last Call’ has too many words. And not enough breaths. You know what I mean?” Later he launches into a monologue about how the whole encore ritual is really sort of dumb and wouldn’t it be easier to just ask the performer to stay and save him all the running back and forth which made Smith feel “like a freak.”This, I think, is a lot of why we loved him. Smith could ask his fans to accommodate his discomfort—his fatigue, his nerves, his medical turmoil—and they would. We did. Happily. We felt tired and nervous a lot of the time, too.
The day after the vigil, a link to a blog by comedian Margaret Cho was posted in the Smith discussion forum. Cho had written a blog entry called “RIP Elliott Smith,” which took the form of a letter to Smith. She wrote in a voice that was the antithesis of her raunchy, brazen performance persona and shocked me way more than her frank sex talk ever had. She recalled seeing Smith out in public on many occasions, sitting in L.A. bars or tramping around the East Village where he once lived, and she expressed regret over never approaching him to tell him how much his music meant to her. She wrote, “There was a bunch of times I could have said it… but I got scared that you wouldn’t like me.” Scared? Margaret Cho? Taken whole, though, the letter is vintage Margaret Cho: totally courageous in its willingness to say stuff sophisticated grown-ups aren’t really supposed to say.“What happened?” she asks plainly.“I just feel sorry and bad that we couldn’t do anything to help.That all the people who loved you really didn’t make much of a difference.”That’s the secret rabid fans keep about their dark-hour music, of course; we wish it could be a two-way street when the artists who soothed us get into trouble. We love them! We’re hungry to repay the favor a thousandfold! What can we do? Elliott Smith’s violent death reminds us, yet again, that there’s nothing we can do. And that feels awful. And if feeling impotent feels bad, feeling responsible feels worse. Margaret Cho is infinitely gutsier than I; she’ll say what I can’t bear to even think. “Maybe your unhappiness was what we loved about you,” she writes,“so that our love was a constant reminder of how much unhappiness you had. I understand. We were selfish then.” The truth, of course, is that fan love neither saved nor doomed Elliott Smith, or any other musician. Rabid fanship will always be mostly a one-way transaction that way, like prayer. I should probably end on this note—a deft social observer hinting at personal investment via a religious metaphor. But I can’t. I have to stand with the fans this time. XO Elliott. I’m gonna love you anyhow. ✯