Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 234
Thurs. Oct. 10, 2013
According to author William Todd Schultz, in his amazing new biography Torment Smith: The Life of Elliott Smith, the singer/songwriter’s two minute and fourteen second performance at the 1998 Academy Awards—“was a snatch in time that [he] was forever taken back to.” Smith told interviewer Matt Dormer, how the Oscars forced his hand when he said, “Yeah, right at first. I thought ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’ But they said if I didn’t sing the song they’d get someone else to sing it… like Richard Marx! It was like, ‘Well, then again… I could do it!” After reluctantly going through with his decision to perform at the Oscars, Elliott would go on to relive that moment, over and over again through interviews. Reprinted in Schultz’s Torment Smith biography, Elliott told John Chandler, talking about his performance at the Awards, “[The Oscars] was a dream come true. But it wasn’t my dream.”
The song that would change Elliott Smith’s life went through many incarnations. Eventually released on New Moon, Elliott’s posthumous song archivist Larry Crane produced an early version of “Miss Misery” that reflected a more positive refrain with Smith singing, “♫ But its alright, some enchanted night I’ll be with you, ♫” But as we know, Smith’s songs like his life rarely had happy endings. Crane talked about this early take of “Miss Misery” with Glorious Noise when he said, “When I recorded “Miss Misery” with him I had no idea there was an earlier version and how much lyrics had changed. In fact, we did the music and then later when he was back in Portland we did the vocals. So he must have needed more time to write.”
Say what you will about Elliott’s unforgettable Oscar performance or the early New Moon version but who can listen to “Miss Misery” without thinking of Gus Van Sant’s Oscar nominated film Good Will Hunting?
According to Elliott’s interview with Dormer, Smith talked about he ended up penning a song for Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting when he explained, “A couple of people were like ‘Miramax wants you to write a song for the movie because you can’t be nominated for an Oscar if the song came out on a record before.’ And maybe that was their motivation, but Gus [Van Sant] wanted me to write a song for the movie because he thought it would be nice. People were joking ‘you’ll be playing this on television’. It was a total shock.” Elliott’s television prophesy came true when Smith would perform “Miss Misery” in front of the world at the Academy Awards in 1998.
But who really was this elusive “Miss Misery” that Elliott sung about, was a question that author William Todd Schultz tried to answer in his book Torment Smith. Although some believe it was his on and off paramour at the time Joana Bolme, Schultz has a different and more fascinating theory about the true identity of “Miss Misery” when he wrote, ““Miss Misery” might be depression itself. Elliott’s muse of melancholy. He was a major fan of Kierkegaard, whom he read at different points throughout his life. The Danish philosopher himself [like Elliott] suffered through lifelong depression. […] “My depression,” Kierkegaard wrote, “is the most faithful mistress I have known—no wonder, then, that I return the love.”” Maybe Schultz’s theory was spot on; Smith penned an eloquent ode to his own mistress of depression that was better known as “Miss Misery.”
Regardless of the inspiration, “Miss Misery” remains Elliott’s the most popular song in his melancholy rich filled song canon. Whatever Smith believed, everything that came after his historic performance at the Oscars was all because of the lyrical timelessness in his talented genius, Elliott could never truly believe in. All you need to do is press play and you will hear the brilliance of Smith’s true soft spoken magnum opus that reflects Elliot’s songwriting gift brought to life in the guise of this acoustic tinged post modern day classic; the same song that Elliott performed at the Oscars, was the longest two minutes and fourteen seconds of Smith’s life…that we will eternally relive— inside the masterful and mysteriously personified sound of— “Miss Misery.”
Elliott Smith fans this is the biography we have been waiting for. William Todd Schultz’s Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith is available at all online outlets and a bookstore near you.