Me and You, a Dog Named Boo
and Thermodynamics Too
Last night I went to this Elliot Smith tribute show at a local bar. I wanted to check the place out since my band will be playing there later this month. It was a weird evening. All the people in attendance, and there were quite a few, were of course really into Elliot Smith. I have never been a fan, although there are a couple of songs that I like, so it was strange being surrounded by people speaking so reverently about someone whose appeal I never really understood; a little like being at the funeral or wake of someone you never knew.
I don't believe in speaking ill of the dead, but his songs struck me as being loaded with a self-pity that was almost masturbatory; a type of narcissism based around a vision of oneself as hopelessly misunderstood, sad, tragic and doomed. He never seemed to connect his personal sorrow with anything larger, anything outside of himself. In fact I seem to remember one song, ´everybody cares, everybody understands', as an outright denial of the idea that his sorrow could be comprehended, much less shared by others. Which brings us back to the sort of inverted egotism at the root of his viewpoint: no one understands me and I'm damn proud of it.
There are many more tragic things that come to mind than the boy/girl relationships gone wrong that his songs dealt with almost exclusively. I dunno, maybe that's why he made such a big impact on many young people. Self-pity is easy and can certainly be a comfort and even a pleasure, especially when young enough to still view sadness or depression as somehow romantic. But it's dangerous to make a virtue out of your sorrow, to wallow in your weakness, or to wear your misfortune as a badge of honour. And the sorrow of human relationships ended or gone awry is just a microcosm of something larger, some greater fundamental flaw in whoever set up this game, at the base of which is that bugaboo entropy. Everything falls apart.
I have to admit being strangely impressed by the manner in which Elliot Smith killed himself. I don't mean any disrespect and I'm not making light of it or saying its cool. But I do think that some people want to die and though it's a selfish act, it is a person's right to take their own life. And his suicide in some ways showed he had the courage of his convictions as expressed in song; life is miserable and not worth living.
I got in to an argument with a friend in regards to this idea, his argument being that people who commit suicide are backed into a corner, confused and hopeless... not to mention whatever mental problems that exist that drove them to that point. And to a certain extent I agree, but the people/situations to which he was referring are the people that usually botch their attempts, the people who attempt suicide unsuccessfully. The impulsive/cry for help attempts are usually the botched ones. Most successful suicides involve a significant amount of forethought and planning as well as steady and deliberate execution, a good deal of resolve and follow through. I'm not applauding it or saying its heroic, not by a long shot, but it's bullshit to say that it's simply cowardly or just confusion or mental illness. Some people have made up their minds quite clearly that there is no point in continuing to live and it is their right to end their lives. Of course it's selfish and incredibly insensitive towards those that care about them and I do feel for his family, friends and even his fans, but from what I know of his music it seems in a way the logical conclusion of his viewpoint.
It strikes me now looking back on it as strange that no one at the tribute expressed anything even approaching anger at Elliot Smith for taking his own life, a life that they obviously cared for greatly, even if he didn't. Maybe the anger will come later. It's one of the stages of grieving, after all, and that's clearly what most of those in attendance were doing. I can only offer the hope that that which remains now that Elliot Smith's human form is no more may find what it could not in this life, or maybe that that which remains by its very nature renders such concerns and distinctions irrelevant.
© 2003William Crain