Portland’s Willamette Week remembers singer/songwriter Elliott Smith and his relationship to the city ten year’s after he committed suicide by stabbing himself in the heart.
In person, though, he was a goofy drunk with an absurd sense of humor, who beat jokes into the ground like a kindergartner. That’s how Portlanders—the people who knew Smith best—describe him.
Though Smith’s best-selling record, 1998’s XO, sold only 400,000 copies, he is, to many critics, the best songwriter ever to emerge from this city. His influence still resonates. A few years ago, Paste magazine ranked Smith the very best thing about Portland—above Powell’s, Mount Hood, the book Geek Love and Gus Van Sant’s entire oeuvre. Last month, Madonna filmed a performance of his song “Between the Bars.” A new biography, Torment Saint, is out this month (see review, page 46), and a second documentary film about Smith is in the works.
Before Portlandia branded our city, Elliott Smith did the same—except his Portland was about self-loathing, set among the cracked sidewalks of Alameda. He told stories about addicts getting off the bus at Southeast Powell Boulevard and 6th Avenue to cop, and chronicled the absurd ritual of the Rose Parade, with its “ridiculous marching band” playing “some half-hearted victory song.”
Today, local bands like the Decemberists sing about dirigibles, shipyards and CIA operative Valerie Plame, while Menomena mounts ironic album-release parties set to Pink Floyd laser shows at OMSI. These bands tend toward the conceptual, not the personal. And those bands emerged around 2003, the same year Smith died and Voodoo Doughnut opened. It was the end of gloomy, earnest Old Portland and the birth of whimsical New Portland, the “youth magnet city” of craft beer and chickens with names.
Smith tapped into the same existential gloom explored in the ’80s by the Wipers’ Greg Sage, who once described Portland as “Doomtown.” It wasn’t obvious back in 2003, but it’s clear now: Elliott Smith was the last man living in Doomtown.
Smith’s three albums released between 1997 and 2000, Either/Or, XO, and Figure 8, are as good as any in modern music history. The two records before that are also pretty fucking spectacular but he really hit his stride with those three records. He’ll always be one of my favorites.