Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 235
Mon. Oct. 21, 2013
Listening back after the fated conclusion of Elliott Smith’s passing, arriving from the clouds, “Kings Crossing” was Smith’s final lyrical valediction. Echoing Elliott’s much documented obsession with his own mortality, “King Crossing” is a link to inner reaches of Smith’s darkened underworld.
Author of Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith, William Todd Schultz called “King’s Crossing,” “Elliott’s unquestionable masterpiece, drug-addled and suicidal, as if through dark magic, he dragged it out by the hair, kicking and screaming.” Unfortunately, Smith never lived to see one of his greatest creations commercially unleashed to the world. I wonder what Elliott would’ve thought of the final released version of From A Basement on The Hill? Maybe Elliott was much to close to the lyrical content of “Kings” to objectively listen to the details he conjured up on this quintessential Smith cut?
In an interview with Rock Feedback, author Todd Schultz talked about the creative catharsis that Smith struggled with while composing songs like “Crossing” when he said, “For people like Elliott, when you’re writing about such difficult inner stuff, in some ways, you can see it as having the opposite effect of catharsis because it just calls it back up into your consciousness when you’re working on it or performing it or whatever, and you almost see yourself reflected in it, and it’s almost like a reminder of your own pain and so I don’t know if that allows you to move on, or overcome the pain intrinsically in some magical way, all out catharsis or is, in this case, an aural reminder of what you’ve been struggling with. It’s like what he says in ‘King’s Crossing’, “I took my own insides out”, and when you take your own insides out, you look at them and sometimes it’s not pleasant what you see. There are as many artists undone by the torture they make as there artists who are redeemed.”
“King’s Crossing” connects, collectively all the inspirational facets of Smith’s creative personality, Schultz once described Elliott’s songwriting persona as, “I think Elliott is this ineffable combination of Burt Bacharach, Chet Baker, John Lennon, Beckett, Kafka, and George Harrison. In one interview he talked about how you put it all into a blender and see what comes out. There’s this impossible catchiness, this melodic charm—like Bacharach. The sweet high voice, no vibrato—like Baker. Then the coarseness and anger of Lennon. The dense checkmate existentialism of Beckett and Kafka. The loopy chord structures of Harrison.” The author of Torment Saint is so right, Smith longed for his idea of From a Basement on the Hill to be his personal Beatles’ White Album. Schultz eloquently described, Smith’s goal of “capturing chaos […] like drip paintings splashed across canvas,” perfectly reflected on this song opus better known as “King’s Crossing.”
Speaking of Mr. Schultz, has graciously agreed to join us for another exciting installment of Don’t Forget The Songs 36-5 Questions with Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith author William Todd Schultz:
1. Was there a specific Elliott song that you heard that sealed your fate, one which inspired you to write this biography on Elliott Smith?
Yes, it was Waltz #2. My daughter was going through a serious Elliott Smith phase, and I overheard her listening to that song in our study one day, as she worked on a paper for a class. And instantly it was SHAZAM. The song just blew me away. From that moment on she and I listened to Elliott for about 2 years straight–until it drove my rap-loving son crazy. But I was continually astonished at how every single song was just so unbelievably good.
2. A great music biographer sparks the reader to revisit songs they might have overlooked, after finishing Torment Saint, for me, “Kings Crossing” was one of those songs. Tell me about “King’s Crossing” and why you think it’s Elliott’s true masterpiece?
I think Waltz #2 is Elliott’s true masterpiece, but King’s Crossing is a close second. I see the song as Elliott’s version of Dylan’s Desolation Row. It’s got this bizarre, apocalyptic cast of characters–skinny Santa’s, Beverly Hills fat fucks, rich white ladies, etc. And there are lines that make your skin scrawl–“I took my own insides out,” “don’t let me be carried away,” “I can’t prepare for death any more than I already have,” etc. But musically it’s a complete departure. It’s machine music, ugly noise, in a way. I love the looping Philip Glass piano intro; I also love the very eerie falsetto background singing that persists throughout the song. FYI, I’ve read about 6 drafts of lyrics for the song, all very different. So Elliott clearly put a lot of care into its construction.
3. After finishing Torment Saint, was there an Elliott song that you overlooked before writing and then after discovered a new appreciation for?
Definitely! Good question. Cupid’s Trick, which I now adore. Christian Brothers. St. Ides Heaven. Just listened to those yesterday. Also Southern Belle. And Heatmiser’s See You Later. The thing about Elliott is that once you rediscover overlooked songs it’s like you’ve discovered NEW material. It’s cool.
4. Do you agree with Pickle’s quote, from your book, describing Smith in Beatlesque terms as, “Elliott was John, Paul and George and we were all Ringo?” It reminds me of Smith’s amazing cover of The Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back.”
I think I’ve heard that cover. Can’t remember. But yeah, Elliott finally decided, after being in Heatmiser, that he didn’t really need a band, because he could be his own band! That was liberating. He had a very specific sense of what he wanted in a song, a very refined aesthetic, so going it alone was essential, since others didn’t always agree with his artistic sense of things, for instance his Heatmiser bandmates Tony Lash and Brandt Peterson.
5. There seems to be a treasure trove of songs that Elliott recorded and remain unreleased. Are there any that you would recommend to the readers of your book as essential to discovering a musical side of Smith that doesn’t appear on his commercially released albums?
Yes. Stickman is amazing. There were 15 versions of it on a CD in his car after his death. It’s one of my very favorite Elliott tunes.
I never do this but here’s a Bonus Question and only because you book, Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith was such a moving and inspirational read:
If you were asked to create a compilation of the best and most quintessential of all Elliott’s music, think your own personal version of An Introduction to Elliott Smith, which of his songs would you have to include?
This is super tough and near impossible, but here you go:
Can’t Make A Sound
Junk Bond Trader
Coast to Coast
St Ides Heaven
Between the Bars
Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud
A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to be Free
After reading William Todd Schultz’s magnificent biography Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith, “King’s” sounds like it’s coming from the nether regions of Elliott’s deepest subconscious, all the fears, doubts and second thought inner monologues that Smith shared with himself now live beyond time, within the haunted confines of his timeless performance.
Elliott Smith once famously told Uncut UK, “If everybody really acted like how they felt all the time, it would be total madness.” I urge you to revisit the “Crossing” that completely personifies the madness revolving inside the creative center of King Smith’s head. This chaotic epic is definitely the definitive track From A Basement in the Hill. Before returning to haunted sounds of “King’s Crossing,” I encourage you to devour William Todd Schultz’s new book— Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith. This biography is a must read for any Elliott Smith aficionado in your life.