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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 Lot of Elliott Smith: Waltz # 2

Waltz # 2” might be Elliot Smith’s most enduring (and with the exception of “Miss Misery”) his most popular as well. 

It’s also a song that seems like  it’s  existed forever and is timeless.  It exists in its own universe as a song, yet it is familiar.  It’s the sound of Civil War-era Ball, of an evening dance in Vienna.    Even if you’ve never heard “Waltz # 2” before, you swear to yourself that you have.    The synching of the piano and the guitars playing the same hummable melody ensure that once you hear it, you’ll never forget it.

“Waltz #2”’s  sweet melody is betrayed, but the bitterness of the lyrics.  Smith seem s to be pinpointing his anger towards his mother, and new husband – “That’s the man that she’s married to now
That’s the girl that he takes around town”  The rejection cannot be denied.  The closing lines of the song – “I’m never going to know you now But I’m going to love you anyhow,” echo the opening l lines of John Lennon’s “Mother”.  Both songwriters are pleading for the attention of their mother, but are denied through different forms of abandonment.  In Lennon’s case, his mother died during a car accident when he was 17, and Smith feels the pressure of a new step-father in the song.  He doesn’t like that his new man is interfering with his life – “Tell Mr. Man with the impossible plans to leave me alone.”

Smith’s  left to wonder if his mother is happy or not.  She appears to have him “like a dead china doll”.  She appears composed and fakes having a stable marriage in public – but can anyone be so sure?  It might all be a lie, to save face.  A wedge has clearly been place in the relationship, one that might not be able to be repaired.  Yet, he’s not entirely bitter even if the relationship is breaking.  “I’ll never know you now,” Smith pleads.  “But I’m gonna love you anyhow.”

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