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Forgiving the past through Elliott Smith 

Wednesday, May 9 2007
It's an awkward feeling, forgetting where a song ends and the end of a love you thought would last forever begins. And yet

Elliott Smith 's new posthumous disc, New Moon, doesn't just assemble stunning tracks from the prime years of the indie balladeer's solo career. It assembles my memories from the prime years of a relationship that lasted more than a decade, with a boyfriend I was going to marry.

I thought I had moved on from the deeper sadness that Smith's music evokes. But exceptional songwriters create era-traveling tailspins, and Smith's phrasings of emotional wreckage and gentle longings are time machines. When I first heard New Moon, streaming from a PR Web site through my ancient office computer, my heart buckled. I had to hide my watering eyes from my co-workers. Smith's lyrics located sensitive nerve endings time had otherwise anesthetized, and my mind rewound.

Would you say that the one of your dreams, got in you and ripped out the seams/ that's what I'd say, that's what I'd say. "Half Right"

It's Christmastime 1994, and I've brought my new boyfriend, T., back home to Portland to meet my family. We're only on our first round of mixtapes, but I'm eagerly introducing him to everything that's mine — my relatives, my hometown, and my favorite local band, Heatmiser, fronted by Elliott Smith.

In a bit of puppy-love synchronicity, T. and I are also recovering from having our wisdom teeth out right before the holidays. We fumble with our matching prescriptions during the Heatmiser gig I bring him to. On the way back from the show, T. retches the remains of a painkiller and six-pack cocktail onto my old neighborhood golf course. I rub his back and hope this hangover doesn't sour his chances with my parents. The spins last through the morning, but a devotion to Smith's music cements between us over our next 11 years.

I saw your face in everyone I swear/ I'm so sick and tired of trying to change your mind/ when it's so easy to disconnect mine. "High Times"

The following summer, in 1995, T. makes his first decision to fly somewhere without me. We will spend too many years of this relationship dwelling in different cities like opposing magnetic poles. But for now we're still college kids skewered by cupid, and our separation is temporary. T. backpacks through Costa Rica while I distract myself from missing him while interning at a Seattle music weekly, writing blurbs about Smith. The singer performs solo in local dives, looking sullen and pockmarked and greasy, and sounding magical. After weeks of sending letters from Central America, T. visits Seattle, tanned and smelling of humid rainforests. We spend our nights cuddled in my basement sublet listening to every track on Smith's two CDs, Roman Candle and Elliott Smith. The melancholic lullabies hover sweetly over our reunion, Smith's voice quivering in a shivery near whisper.

Don't you know that I love you/ Sometimes I feel like only a cold still life that fell down here to lay beside you. "Angel in the Snow"

After graduating from UC Santa Cruz we rarely live in the same city for long, but we take almost all our vacations together. T. slides plane tickets and apartment keys for Paris into a cookbook he gives me as a birthday present. We drive most of California's highways, sleeping in random towns with names that make us giggle, like Coalinga. Heatmiser has one final implosion in Los Angeles in the late '90s before disbanding forever, and T. takes me to the show in his pickup truck. He insists I wear a blindfold and gives few hints as to where we're headed. When I see Heatmiser's name on the marquee, I'm dumbstruck by my boyfriend's thoughtfulness. Any morose feelings about the band's demise are lifted by this gift, and by now T. has gleaned enough Northwest music knowledge to confidently talk shop with the drummer after the show.

As it turned out, Smith didn't need Heatmiser. Even alone, he could still harmonize, double-tracking his vocals when he wanted his misty pop confections to expand into moments of pure ebullience. His "Miss Misery" contribution to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack in 1997 received an Academy Award nomination. Smith was a stronger artist stripped solo than he was struggling through difficult collaborative obligations.

It's dead and gone and matter of fact it may be for the best/ You said some things you can't take back, honestly I guess/ The old records are sitting on the floor, the ones I can't put on anymore. "Going Nowhere"

T. and I rarely bickered. Fast forward a number of years to last winter, though, and we made up for all the lost arguments in a matter of weeks. My now fiancé suddenly walled himself behind a concrete expression that nothing could chisel — not my pleading, not couple's counseling, not a fear of the end. T. was impenetrable, withdrawn to an inexplicable place I slowly understood would never include me again. Soon after we took our final trip together. This ride lasted only from his apartment to Richmond, and there was no blindfold this time. In agonizing defeat, I declared our engagement over. He didn't protest. He asked to be dropped off at Amtrak so that he could take the train home to his Sacramento apartment, shutting the car door without a slam. Only two years earlier he had proposed to me under an umbrella by the Brooklyn Bridge. I quit my job in Seattle and moved down here to be with him.

For a couple living together only part time, T. and I amassed a lot of shared possessions. The separation of banalities like camping gear and kitchen supplies felt like surgery, as if vital organs were being sliced away without my permission. I kept all the CDs, even the Elliott Smith discs I probably bought for him. He didn't ask for them back. He didn't ask for anything back beyond a few items I boxed up for him.

New Moon is a warm respite from those finalities, and a strange catalyst to begin forgiving someone so integral to your adulthood but with whom you never speak. But then music has bizarre healing qualities. No other stimulant, natural or otherwise, comes close in offering this permission to romanticize the past.

New Moon's collection of rare and unreleased tracks sounds tenderly familiar. I recognized two old Heatmiser songs, "See You Later" and "Half Right," on these discs, here stripped to the marrow. On these tracks, Smith used mikes like stethoscopes. You can hear the acoustic guitar strings squeak. You can hear Smith suck in quick breaths. You can hear the cluck of his mouth opening for the chorus. Sometimes there's nothing in the room but Smith and an echoey melody and unhappy endings with drugs and girls. Other songs bloom into those glorious upside-down-frown ballads where Smith transcends a momentous depression. I can step inside any one of these snapshots and remember a giddy intimacy with T. instead of our heartbreaking final weeks together.

Smith died tragically four years ago at the age of 34: His girlfriend found his body in their L.A. home, a steak knife protruding from his chest. The stabbing was originally ruled a suicide, although police later opened a murder investigation that remains unresolved. The interpretations of Smith's music are also inconclusive, critics now more than ever reading between the lines for clues in his songs. But in those empty spaces Smith left behind the life I see is my own.

I've spent a couple weeks with New Moon now. When they're not repeating through my speakers, Smith's music reloads automatically in my head. These are such beautiful songs, somehow happy and tragic, lonely and life-affirming. They've lodged hard in my throat and cracked grins on my face. Smith's music and my past turn figure eights in my head. The songs conjure bittersweet memories of this musician, of that ex, of a time when no one could have guessed how things would end for all of us. But somehow these two CDs make it all OK for a moment.

About The Author

Jennifer Maerz


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