Tag Archives: From a Basement on the Hill

A Whole Week of Elliott Smith

In early 2003, Elliott Smith played two sold out shows at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood.  For years, Smith descended into drug addiction.  He hadn’t produced any new music since 2000 – three years earlier with Figure 8.  His attempt with the shows was to try and reestablish his credibility as a live performer.  During the shows, he scrawled the words: “Kali the Destroyer” on his left arm in block letters. 

In Hinduism, Kali is considered the goddess of time and change.  Having felt that his career was at a crossroads, it’s understandable that would be attracted to the Hindu Goddess.   Like many Hindu gods, Kali represents a duality in life.   Her appearance is menacing – her skin is black, and she has multiple arms.  But despite her appearance, she is often seen as one of the most loving and protective of the Hindu Gods.   (It’s also worth noting that in the Beatle’s film Help! the fictional goddess is named Kaili, a variation on the spelling of Kali.)

Smith’s life at that point was a series of contradictions.  He wrote haunting and self-loathing lyrics, washed in soaring melodies.  He was critically acclaimed, adored by many fans and musicians – yet was a guy who couldn’t love himself.    

In the summer of 2003, on his 34th birthday, Smith finally attempted to kick his drug habit, even giving up red meat, and caffeine as well.  Months after he scrawled “Kali – the Destroyer” on his arm, Smith was beginning to finally come out of the haze – he was also starting to record for the first time in years. 

Pretty (Ugly Before)” is the musical representation of the duality of Kali.  During his strung out stage, he felt “so ugly before… [and] didn’t know what to do.”  But now, he feels pretty – “pretty enough for you” – pretty enough for his audience to final make music again, and express something different than self-hatred.  Smith came close to destroying his career through the depression and drugs.  Yet, just like Kali who is the creator and destroyer, Smith also the only person who could resurrect his own career and make it pretty.  “Is it destruction you’re required to feel?” He asks in the song.  It doesn’t matter anymore, because “there is no night-time – it’s only a passing phase.” 

Unfortunately for Smith, the “sunshine” didn’t last long enough.  He died for multiple stabs wounds to the heart, in October 2003, mere months after attempting to kick his bad habits. 

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A Whole Week of Elliott Smith: Coast to Coast

“Coast to Coast” is kind of unexpected as the first song on the  album From a Basement on the Hill that was originally intended to be his next release after Figure 8.  Released in 2004, it ended up becoming a posthumous album, after he died from a stab wounds to the heart. 

“Coast to Coast” is a straight ahead rock song. It  has got big fuzzy, distorted guitars – and of course the multi-layered vocals which were one of his trademarks.  Smith also had his friend Nelson Gary recite some poetry explaining to Under the Radar in 2003:

“I asked this friend of mine to make up something he could say as fast as he could in fifteen minutes about people healing themselves or being unable to heal themselves. While he’s saying this thing there is a main vocal that goes over that.”

The song begins softly with what appears to sound like a distorted orchestra – something that would have been suited to a latter-day Beatles’ song.  And then the actual music kicks in, and the central riff pulls in you.  It’s chunky and distorted – confusing the listener, a theme which also appears in the lyrics.    

 Smith was known for his love of the Fab Four, even claiming that The White Album was the reason that he started making music in the first place.  Even the repeated non-verbal “ahhhhs” beginning at the 2:38 mark are very Lennon-esque.    The song even ends with piano gently playing while numerous voices speak over each other in the beginning – linking together a standard “rock” song with avant-garde effects.  It’s as if Smith was trying to combine the things that he loved about the Beatles in one song – the conventional song, the open heart lyrics, and the experimental.

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