It's strange... I've been thinking about this day for a while now. I knew it was ten years coming up and then when the actual day came I had so much else going on that I didn't take the time to remember that it's the 21st and what that means. Ten years since the night an old girlfriend I hadn't spoken to in quite some time called me -- waking me up, actually -- and told me Elliott Smith died.
I remember it took me a few seconds to grasp what I had been told. Yes, I was just waking up and my head was still clearing from the fog of sleep, but even if I had been wide awake I'm not sure those words would have made sense to me. I don't remember anything else about the phone conversation besides that shock of figuring it out.
I turned on KEXP, which was already in Elliott Smith marathon mode. I remember talking to Shane online, who was sending me links of all the sites mentioning it. None of the "real news" sites had reported it yet. Maybe this is all some crazy mix up or hoax.
Of course it wasn't, and eventually it was on all the big music and news sites. Although the news broke too late into the night to make the next morning's newspapers, there was a write up on Elliott in the Seattle Times the day after, which I cut out and still have.
I had the next day off so I put on my old Elliott Smith t-shirt that I hadn't worn since that same old girlfriend had adopted it (and reluctantly gave it back) and drove around Seattle and hit up every single record store, thinking maybe I could find the last 7" he put out that I hadn't yet picked up. I didn't find any Elliott Smith stuff I didn't already have but I spent about $150 on music that day. It started raining later in the day and I remember just walking around my city, holding bags of CDs and vinyl, soaking and thinking.
It might sound crazy to say about someone I didn't know but I've never been more shocked by death in my life. Sure I've felt more saddened, but never more shocked. I've never suddenly lost a close friend or relative. I've lost two aunts to cancer, three grandparents to, well, getting old, I guess... but thankfully never had that moment of getting a phone call in the middle of the night and learning someone I love was suddenly gone.
That will probably change one day, but for now, this is the closest I've come to that.
It was talking online on forums in the days and weeks after that when someone mentioned thinking about getting an XO tattoo. I had never gotten a tattoo and didn't know that I ever would, but I saved in the back of my mind as a "cool idea." When I met Lauren years later, who has many tattoos, I mentioned it to her as the only tattoo I had ever considered getting. She encouraged me to go for it, but I wasn't sure I wanted to do it. It wasn't the permanence that worried me, it was more just... fear of the unknown, I guess.
Eventually I tentatively agreed to it, and as encouragement, she got it done herself. Now not only would have a tribute to Elliott on my arm but it would also be something I shared with her, which made it even more special. I was still pretty scared to go through with it, but weeks later I did. That was over five years ago, and even though I do eventually want to get some others, to this day it's still the only tattoo I have. I get asked about it occassionally, but only twice have I met someone who knew what it was about right away. I kind of like that.
I love being able to look down and see a reminder of how much Elliott's music meant to me, and how much Lauren means to me. It's also a memorial to a troubled life tragically cut short, and a reminder to keep my own head on straight.
As brilliant and moving as his lyrics are, it's the way his voice has such delicate qualities yet is still so powerful that makes his music so captivating. His earlier work, a lot of which is just him and a guitar, sounds like he's in the same room with you singing quietly, almost to himself, but you can still hear every word, every syllable, every inflection. His later work has more instruments and elaborate arrangements, yet the power of his voice isn't lost at all. It wasn't just the well-written songs of love and hope and despair and addiction and heartbreak that made me turn to his music in some of my most difficult times... it's how you can hear all of those things in his voice as he sings them to you.
Here's a gem of his that never made it to an album. I have it on a bootleg and I was thinking of uploading it, but there's actually a great version on YouTube here:Elliott Smith - Flowers For Charlie (1999-03-26)