Friday, January 22, 2016

The Color Bar Fetish -- Two "New" Elliott Smith Albums :: A Shot of White Noise & Violent Girl

The idea behind these two compilations was to try to create two albums that could feasibly be like actual Elliott Smith releases. The first record, A Shot of White Noise, is more acoustic and the second, Violent Girl, features compositions with more instruments and usually electric guitar. Two juxtaposing mixes to capture Elliott's juxtaposing natures. Read more about that idea below and in my post about Heatmiser, which can be found here.

All of these songs (except for "Flowers for Charlie" and "You Make it Seem Like Nothing") are on the dense collection easily found floating around the internet called Grand Mal. This post was mostly a curation experiment, so, sorry if you're a big Elliott fan and you were looking for newly unearthed songs. I wanted to gather together decent-enough-quality versions of non-album material into "new" releases that weren't bogged down in scratchy and blippy demos, instrumentals that aren't typically on Elliott Smith albums, or pocket quality live versions. I wanted to have a digital disk that you could spin and listen to and have a similar type of experience that you have listening to any of Elliott's other albums.

Mostly so I could sort of have the experience of listening to Either/Or again, for the first time.

A Shot of White Noise

Violent Girl

"A shot of white noise" is a lyric from "Crazy Fucker" (also called "Another Standard Folk Song"). "Crazy Fucker" starts off in the middle of a recording session where a disappointed Smith has already finished a song and says, "That wasn't such a good version of that..." Always self-effacing, the lyrics that follow capture a unique autobiographical portrait of the Elliott Smith in accounts from people that were close to him like photographer Autumn De Wilde. Arrow also happens to be the name of De Wilde's daughter that had him singing "Arrow, come pick me out." The song is a perspective of his music, flirtations with drugs, subtle hints about his past, and his contrasting character as a guy that sings sensitive songs but also gets into bar fights. This last juxtaposition is what I tried to capture with these two mixes.

"Violent girl" captures the more aggressive (and more upbeat poppy) songs, more like his work with his first band, Heatmiser, or his album Figure 8. The title comes from "Some (Rock) Song," and the lyric, "I want a violent girl who's not afraid of anything." It's an interesting song, because there's another, acoustic and quieter version of it present on A Shot of White Noise. One of the most striking differences is that the lyrics are changed from "Charlie beat you up week after week" in "Some (Rock) Song." Charlie was Elliott's step-father while he was growing up in Texas and, as one could gather from the lyric, they probably didn't have the best relationship. The name comes up in a couple other of Elliott's songs. See also "Charlie's got a band in his hand. A rubber loop," in "No Confidence Man." He's also in the title of "Flowers for Charlie" and the lyrics seem to imply forgiveness and understanding.

We can never really know what type of abuse Elliott suffered, but it's obvious that it affected his deeply. From all accounts, it seems like Elliott never repeated the cycle of abuse that so many other men across the county in a similar situation have fallen into, becoming abusers themselves. Elliott channeled everything into his music and that's one of the best things about it. A big reason why Roman Candle is one of my favorite albums is the cryptic a cripplingly honest narrative that relates to his family situation. It seems that Elliott always had a level of uncertainty about how much to reveal, as Joanna Bolme attests in the documentary Heaven Adores You, he changed around the lyrics a lot.

Similarly, a leaked song Elliott wrote anywhere between 1986 and 1993, called "Where I Get it From," stuck with him for a long time. It has a little Cheyenne twang to it that musically references Texas and the lyrics are Elliott pondering his behaviors and if he inherited them from his family. Elliott had a habit of resurrecting songs he had written years and years before and re-recording them. During the sessions for From a Basement on the Hill, Elliott apparently recorded the song under the title "I Don't Give a F***." The title reveals a lot about what went on in Elliott's head when he was writing intensely personal songs, especially about other people. He had a big internal conflict about it. It's this type of conflict that's ever-present in his songs and probably one of the biggest reasons why his music draws people in so intensely.

Roman Candle was an act of catharsis and Elliott probably never expected anyone to hear it. It was just by chance that his girlfriend at the time showed it to Slim Moon of Kill Rock Stars and they put it out unedited, exactly as it was in 1994.

Elliott has said in interviews that he when he played heavy rock with his first band Heatmiser, it was only because he thought no one would want to listen to what he really had inside him. This was immediately after the grunge tsunami of the early '90s following the explosion of popularity of Nirvana. I think the release of Roman Candle really opened a door for Elliott. He saw that he didn't have to censor himself and he could really open up and be accepted.

On "Flowers for Charlie," Elliott sings, "I won't fight you." Instead of releasing his anguish, anger, and pain in an outward aggression, he turned it inward. In "Pitseleh," on XO he says, "I am so angry, I don't think it'll ever pass." Many of his lyrics are scathingly self-deprecative. On "2:45 AM" (from Either/Or) he says, "I'm going out like a baby, a naive unsatisfiable baby." Yet, that sort of confession was probably the thing that helped him heal. But, that kind of intense, perpetual introspection and self-examination is also a sort of solitary confinement that could have fueled his darkest thoughts as well. If you don't believe the conspiracy theories, it's a pretty convincing motivation (check out here and here for some interesting reading).

For the most part, Elliott put a lot of himself into his music, so you can get a pretty good idea about what he was going through in his lyrics. On From a Basement on the Hill, in "Let's Get Lost," he says "I had true love, I made it die. I pushed her away. She said, 'Please stay.'" This girl, whoever she was (maybe the subject of "Say Yes") was someone that he couldn't let himself be happy with, and I'm sure drug use had a lot to do with that. Eventually, Elliott was seeing a dealer/enabler type of girl. This is the same person that sued Elliott's family one year after his death for the rights to his music (but it was thrown out of court). By most personal accounts, Elliott was in a chaotic situation.

In "A Fond Farewell," Elliott sings, "A little less than a happy high. A little less than a suicide. The only things that you really tried." He's talking to himself and he knows that drugs and self-violence are the only ways that he's tried to fix his situation. On "King's Crossing," as epic music swells, he sings, "give me one good reason not to do it...So, do it." The "it" could be either of the two, heroin or self-destruction. However, Elliott had a habit of writing about drug use, particularly heroin, way before he actually did it. His friends in the documentary Heaven Adores You attest to this.

For example, his self-titled album that was released in 1995 uses heroin as a device all throughout, supposedly before he started using. It's clear that the drug is a literary-type device, because it is personified as "The White Lady" and nearly every song is a drug reference that become emotional analogies. Full of poetic turns of phrase from, "Your arm's got a death in it," in "Single File," to "Your cold white brother all right in your blood like spun glass in sore eyes" in "Coming Up Roses." He might not necessarily be singing about heroin at all, and it could stand in for that thing inside of you that compels you to do things you're not proud of. That shame boiling into violence turned inwards. When Elliott wrote about suicide in his music, it could've been the same thing, just a device.

Despite the romantic martyr portrait painted of Elliott by the media, he may not have been tortured at all. He was conflicted, sure, but everybody is. The excellent photography collection published by Autumn de Wilde contains mountains of interviews with Elliott's friends that paint a drastically different picture of him. He would load 40 bucks into a jukebox to dominate it for a night and then fight anybody that tried to usurp his picks. Elliott was funny too. Take for example this moment at 7:07 in the short film made by Jem Cohen called "Lucky Three." Elliott imitates a hard rock poster hanging on the wall behind him in the kind of  sarcastic way that would have contemporary hipsters scoffing for hours. Or, take the opening line of "Color Bars" on Figure 8, "I see color bars when I come." Only Elliott could mask a sexual innuendo with just enough ambiguity to still seem poetic. These two moments highlight one of the biggest, obscenely overlooked reoccurring themes in Elliott's music: hyper-masculinity in American culture.

Yet, there was always a bit of Heatmiser in him, as much as there was "Elliott Smith." Everybody has that struggle going on between the way they know that they are perceived, by their friends, by fans, by groups (like the media), and the way that they feel they truly are and want to be perceived.

Contemporary gender studies of the male role (by authors like Susan FaludiPierre BourdieuMichael Kimmel, and Jackson Katz) all suggest that the basis, throughout American history, for most masculine identities has been and still is shame. The ideal of what a man should be is so unobtainable and contradictory that it fuels not only a deep sense of humiliation for failing that goal, but also a constant need to prove one's manhood. Only now is this idea of "fragile masculinity" breaking popular consciousness (check out #fragilemasculinty). This frustration can easily erupt in anger and violence for extroverts, which is the type of man that society expects.

When one doesn't behave this way, people don't understand it. This type of false perception bombarded Elliott constantly, whether by journalists or fans. Take a look at this interview (at 4:18). The interviewer asks him "are you a sad sack guy?" She clearly already has an idea what type of person Elliott is, or rather the person that she wants him to be for her story. For men that don't comply with the normative standard, for men that are sensitive, honest, quiet, noncompetitive, there are few alternative narratives that exist. An easy one is depression. He must be sad, because he isn't and can't be like the normal guys. There aren't really any other stable male role models in American culture.

Like Elliott sings on "Suicide Machine," "Everybody's trying to turn me into a suicide machine."

In "Color Bars" he says, "everyone wants me to ride into the sun, but I ain't gonna go down!" Imagine how you would feel if people expected you to kill yourself. If it was on TV. Imagine how you would feel if it was only because you didn't conform, you didn't act 'normal.' The rest of the song is exactly this polemic. He compares two male role models, Sergeant Rock, an American DC comics, perfectly sculpted, dutiful soldier, and Bruno S. Full name, Bruno Schleinstein, he was a German musician and actor famous for his roles in Werner Herzgog movies in the 70s and a far cry from American exceptionalism. Take this video for example. He was also beaten as a child, spent time in mental institutions, and would never fit unreasonable American body image standards. Perhaps these parallels are why Elliott gravitated towards him. Yet, he could be an earmark of German culture without question. Without a constant barrage of challenges to his legitimacy. Elliott said, "how come we have no Bruno S. here? . . . How come he can be a film star in Europe, but over here everybody has to look like they were computer generated?"

The media quite literally was a machine that fabricated a suicide narrative for Elliott. It is this kind of media influence that can alter the perceptions of the police. If they arrive on the scene after they've heard on television over and over how Elliott Smith is a person that will probably kill himself, they'll probably already have assumed, maybe already have decided, that his death was a suicide and will be less likely to give the scene the thorough investigation it deserves.

I'm not going to say that there is merit to the conspiracy theories of Kurt Cobain's death, but the documentary that was released last year perfectly shows how the media manipulates both public opinion and the police to fabricate a story and an unsubstantiated verdict. Worse, how just one single person can be the one that manipulates the media and in turn the entire process. This is a serious problem in the American justice system, most notably (and more legitimately) assessed in the excellent documentary series Making a MurdererTo this day, the official police investigation of the cause of death of Elliott Smith is open.

Later in that same video Elliott makes a great point, when the interviewer asks "Would you say that it's more personal then, say, like, and Iron Maiden song?" Elliott responds, "If I was playing Iron Maiden songs, I would feel like that was extremely revealing." It's a personal joke that he finds thoroughly funny, but it doesn't even emit a jostle of the camera from a suppressed chuckle on the part of the interviewer. She doesn't get it. The Iron Maiden type of masculinity reveals the deep seeded desire to prove one's manhood in flashy, ornamental ways like only glam metal can. Elliott just says, "it shows different things."

Elliott doesn't immediately deny that he's a "sad sack" in the video. He accepts the possibility, considers the ambiguity of the definition of the term, and turns to a third party for objective validation. His friend sitting next to him firmly confirms that no, he is indeed not a sack of sad. All of Elliott's friends say the same thing in Heaven Adores You. Elliott constantly tried to explain the function of sadness in his music, which explains the function of sadness for human beings in general. In response to the question, why are you so sad?, he said, "I'm not 'so sad'. There has to be a certain amount of darkness in my songs for the happiness to matter. Just 'cause I'm not singing about sex and sports doesn't mean I'm sad."

In these types of interviews, Elliott seems to sort of get a kick out of being perceived as a depressive type, and in a very ironic way. In that same video again (at 9:05 with VH1), he's asked "Do you have any favorite tracks?" He responds, "I like the ones that are weird or more idosyncratic. Like this one called, 'Everything Means Nothing to Me.'" He pauses and give a suppressed little smirk, because he knows how she's going to respond. Already, the situation is surreal. Elliott doesn't seem like he belongs there at all. Here he is, sitting on a plush couch on a sleek, highly decorated set with a flat screen spinning graphics and logos beside him and a woman who you can tell is more used to interviewing Brittany Spears and N'Sync. So, of course, her response is awkward and hilarious and worth a watch. It also shows how mainstream culture doesn't know how to respond to a person like Elliott Smith, and how, in fact, his personality type is discouraged and repressed.

I think Elliott knew all of this on a certain level. In "Some Song," he sings, "when you grow up, you're gonna be a freak." I think he also liked it to a certain degree. He liked how it cultivated a unique public persona for himself. Fame was another huge internal conflict for Elliott. In the first few minutes of Heaven Adores You, he says, "I'm the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous." On the surface, it would seem that he didn't want to be famous at all, and I'm sure he didn't, but something inside him pulled him in the opposite direction as well. In the song he wrote for Mary Lou Lorde, called "I Figured You Out," she sings, "Your ambition and promise and your addiction to fame." It's a song Elliott wrote to himself, assuming the perspective of a spurned woman that loved him.

Elliott chose to put his music in movies and go on national television and move to LA and play on the Oscars. There's a moment in the documentary about the instant that Elliott made that choice, when he went into a room alone with director Gus Van Sant. Gus knew that Elliott was going to get nominated for an Oscar, but only if "Miss Misery" was really a song composed for Good Will Hunting. They decided then that the song was indeed written for the film, which it wasn't. Of course, Elliott was under immense pressure to follow this narrative of success. The aforementioned line in "Color Bars" could also be about fame. Riding into the sun like Icarus with his wax wings, getting too close and self-destructing. The point to emphasize is that he was a complex person. It wasn't all one thing or all another. He didn't blame these influences. He blamed himself. In "Pictures of Me," Elliott sings, "Flirting with the flicks, you say it's just for kicks. You'll be the victim of your own dirty tricks."

The basis of all those self-depreciating lyrics is shame. As he says in "Pitseleh," "I'm not half what I wish I was." Elliott may not have been as sad and depressive as he was conflicted and embarrassed. Sociologist Michael Kimmel says that for the introverts, there is a "profile" of people that deal with shame by self-medicating, "taking drugs, drinking, cutting themselves." It sounds a lot like what Elliott went through. Turning to drugs to try to assuage his shame and guilt only created a vicious cycle where he disappointed the people that loved him, creating more shame and guilt. And, of course, it's the same profile that is prone to suicide.

Our culture doesn't really teach us how to deal with shame. We're taught to achieve success and to dominate and we can only do that if we pretend our shame doesn't exist, until it eats us alive from the inside.

A person's relationship with shame is an important thing for them to come to terms with. On the outside, Elliott had a lot of people that loved and supported him, and he knew that. There are backing vocals in "King's Crossing" when Elliott sings, "give me one good reason not to do it." They were sometimes sung by his friends on stage at concerts and it's usually noted as, "because we love you."

In an interview with Carson Daily on MTV, Elliott explains the tattoo he has on his arm. He says, "It's a children's story, it's called Ferdinand. It's about a bull who doesn't want to go to the bull fight, but he does." The video is worth watching, because immediately afterward, Daily doesn't know how to respond to such a subtle, complex, and honest revelation. He just stares vapidly for a second before saying, "That's awesome." The book, called The Story of Ferdinand, is by Munro Leaf and was published more than fifty years ago. It's about a bull that would much rather smell flowers and enjoy life than be forced into the arena for the bull fight. I think that sums it up pretty well for Elliott.

If you want to support Elliott Smith's memory and his family, donate to the memorial fund or go to and buy a record.

Here are the tracklists:
To find out when and where each song comes from, check out the post here.

A Shot of White Noise:
1. Let's Turn the Record Over
2. Taking A Fall
3. Place Pigalle
4. Grand Mal
5. Another Standard Folk Song (Crazy Fucker)
6. No Name # 6
7. Some Song
8. Figure 8
9. Stickman
10. No Confidence Man
11. Misery Let Me Down
12. Burned Out, Still Glowing
13. Stained Glass Eyes
14.  I'm Gonna Get Crushed
15. Where I Get From
16. You Make It Seem Like Nothing
17. I Figured You Out
18. I Don't Think I'm Ever Gonna Figure It Out

Violent Girl:
1. How to Take a Fall
2. Some (Rock) Song
3. A Living Will
4. Division Day
5. Cecilia Amanda
6. Suicide Machine
7. I Can't Answer You Anymore
8. The Enemy Is You
9. Stickman
10. The Real Estate (The Mailman Thinks Me Dumb)
11. Abused
12. Brand New Game
13. No Life
14. Mr. Goodmorning
15. Dancing on the Highway
16. True Love
17. Flowers for Charlie
18. Splitzville

Check out my other posts on Elliott Smith:

Elliott Smith's Heatmiser Work and the Subliminality of Masculine Conformity

Elliott Smith Rarities Archive