Brow Beat

The Painful Life History Hiding in Elliott Smith’s Masterpiece

A photo taken at Elliott Smith’s last show in New York City, in January of 2003. He died later that year, on Oct. 21, at the age of 34.

Alexis Scherl/Wikipedia

Elliott Smith died 10 years ago today. Earlier this month, Bloomsbury published Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith, by William Todd Schultz. The piece below is adapted from the book and printed here with permission.

Waltz #2 (XO),” the third song on XO (1998), is Elliott Smith’s certain masterpiece. It’s got a roadhouse, Wild West, player-piano feel to it. And the tune, with its staccato ¾ beat, takes Smith back to Cedar Hill, the suburbs of Texas with his mother, Bunny, and stepfather, Charlie. There’s love in “Waltz #2 (XO),” but a deeper impulse is anger, aimed squarely at Charlie. Brilliantly laid out in metaphorical cloakings, the song’s a secret life history, summarizing Elliott’s feelings about the Cedar Hill atmosphere and the intricacies of his relationship with mother and stepfather. He was always exceptionally worried about the possible hurtfulness of his lyrics. The thought that they might cause harm pained him. So a habit was established according to which he’d begin songs directly, explicitly autobiographically, then revise away from fact toward vagueness and abstraction. Choice specifics grounded the song, but meanings trailed off into obscurity. Emotionally, it was an elision of the personal—there but camouflaged—a self-erasure. He was in the songs, they were him, it was his personal past reconsidered, the sum total of who he was, but they were more too, a mix of voices, first, second, and third person, all getting a word in, all with something crucial to say. “XO,” as Smith told an interviewer in 1998, means “hugs and kisses,” the sort of thing people throw in at the end of letters. A more arcane, connotative meaning was “fuck off.” “But that’s a really rare meaning I didn’t know about,” Elliott explains, apparently sincerely.

“Waltz #2 (XO)” kicks off with a hard, blunt beat, followed by vaguely ominous-sounding, A-minor guitar chords. Piano enters—that saloon vibe Elliott always enjoyed, even from Cedar Hill days. The setting is a karaoke bar. Bunny sings the Everly Brothers tune “Cathy’s Clown” (“He’s not a man at all … Dontcha think it’s kinda sad/ that you’re treating me so bad/ or don’t you even care?”), a possible allusion to Charlie, whom Elliott had seemed to link with clowns in other songs too. He can’t read her expression. She just stares off into space. What Elliott notices—the Charlie subcurrent—she does not. But his feelings for her are obviously positive. He vows, “I’m never going to know you now/ but I’m going to love you anyhow.” (An earlier song, “Dirt,” foreshadows the China doll reference: “You’re a China doll/ You don’t feel nothing at all … You can’t get over him/ Because you know what’s in there.”)

Then the next singer’s name is announced. To Elliott it’s remote, but somehow familiar. He’s doing fine now, he says, the forgotten name some sort of painful stimulus; he’s glad it fails to register. The implication is that the second singer is Charlie, and his message—the song he covers—is “You’re No Good,” made popular by Linda Ronstadt. Elliott characterizes “You’re No Good” as an act of revenge for the message of the first tune. It’s also the reaction Elliott often got from his stepfather—a habitually fault-finding perfectionist.

The third verse revisits the “You’re No Good” theme. Elliott asks “Mr. Man” to leave him alone: “In the place where I make no mistakes/ In the place where I have what it takes.” If living with Charlie could sometimes be toxic, and atmosphere of never-ending close scrutiny and summary judgments resulting in feelings of worthlessness, then the mistake-free place Elliott imagines is one emptied of Charlies, a place he can just be who he is without fear and anger. Live, Elliott sometimes heightened the song’s contrast between Bunny and Charlie. Instead of “XO Mom,” which he sings in the recorded version, he said, plainly, “I love you, mom.” It’s the kind of bald declaration Elliott was not usually inclined to make, preferring instead to keep the autobiography a lot more scrambled. On one hand, he seems to be telling Bunny he does not blame her for Charlie, and what he did; on the other, he allows himself a small amount of disappointment, finding her emotionless (in the first verse), neglectful, as if he wanted more feeling from her, as if he wanted her to stand up for him more than she did (a fact confirmed to me by several of Elliott’s very close friends).

On balance, it’s hard to arrive at any certain position about what, exactly, happened with Charlie. What presents itself is the usual clotted, messy biographical chaos of competing vectors. Judging from the letters he wrote, Charlie regretted his parenting. It was too strict, too unforgiving. He acknowledged that, and he tried apologizing. The sense, however, shared by Elliott’s childhood friend Mark Merritt, for one, and by later friends to whom Elliott had confided, supplying varying degrees of detail, is that he had lived through several damaging scenes, events that went beyond insults and other personal attacks. Some friends, after all, can’t talk about Charlie without becoming visibly emotional. They had heard too much; they had seen the effects of Elliott’s time in Texas, through Elliott’s eyes, at least. At the same time, Elliott’s memories of mistreatment tended to enlarge themselves, his disclosures growing more and more extreme, more unguarded. Even he expressed doubt on occasion: Was he recalling accurately? Was he reconstructing more than remembering veridically? Depression has a way of pushing memories around, like a blindfolded person gets steered when struggling to pin the tail on the donkey. It is impossible to say. Maybe Elliott had it right; maybe he was, in some form and to some degree, abused. Or it may be that he elaborated on a past in order to make it more effectively explanatory. It had to be bad, he figured unconsciously, because that’s what the present was, and that’s what the future promised to be.

The songs treat Charlie as an irritant, like an obscure, dissonant sound one intermittently hears and tries tracking to its origin. He always seems to be there, in name or in effigy. Poet Sylvia Plath had her “bee sequence,” a set of poems devoted to the subject of her long-dead father Otto (a bee expert), her own restive poltergeist. Elliott has his Charlie sequence, equally urgent, equally drenched in pain and loss. Charlie is not by any means the lyrics’ preeminent theme, he’s not ubiquitous. But he also refuses to sit still. And Elliott’s attitude vacillates; he’s not sure how to dispatch the Charlie haunter, or how, exactly, Bunny figures in the equation. As noted in one song—yet another waltz—he brings him a flower, declares the war over; he’s got enough trouble, he figures, just trying to stay alive in the present. (As he told one probing interviewer, he didn’t see much point in putting his thoughts about Texas out in print because “the person” has apologized.) Elliott wants to move on, to forget—something he talked about often—to put it all behind him. Yet Charlie modulates into nameless, spreading menace, always trying to get Elliott alone, the cause of “sick confusion headaches.” Elliott’s a “bastard,” a “little boy in blue” in the song “Plainclothes Man.” “Someone’s going to get to you,” he says, “and fuck up everything you do.” Even his feelings for Bunny start qualifying themselves. People tell him he’ll rediscover his love for her, “But I don’t know/ I don’t think so … ”

Another of Elliott’s least disguised songs, one that never made it on to an album, probably with good reason, is titled, with apparently intentional obscurity, “Some Song.” Here both Charlie and Dallas are named outright, Charlie a one-note symphony—of denigration, one guesses—who beats Elliott up over and over, turning him into a freak who pines for a violent girl, someone who’s unafraid, who might exact a surrogate revenge. Elliott pictures himself heading to Dallas with murder on his mind, TV having taught him how to kill. Notorious murderer John Wayne Gacy even comes to mind—the so-called “Killer Clown” targeting young boys. It’s a striking reference. If Charlie is “Cathy’s Clown,” then a clown killer seems especially poetic. (Gacy was beaten by his father, who repeatedly verbally assaulted him.) The song includes no murder, but it ends with the realization “I’ll never be fine.”

Adapted from Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith. Reprinted with permission.