Some realizations take a decade to come to—a girlfriend breaking up with you in a way that let you know that it was okay to say this ends, that it was okay not to move through recriminations and regrets.
And other realizations are right there, fully formed at the moment that you experience them.
Elliott Smith playing Miss Misery on the Academy Awards was one of those moments. It was a moment that I saw myself in Culture. Culture with a capital C. Saw my friends, my crushes, my most romantic or overblown reaches toward…you know, reaches toward a better life, far from a small mid-western company town or a lazy, post grad working a terrible video store serving horrible people life.
There he was, looking small on stage in his ill-fitting suit, brown sleeves sticking out guitar, strapped high. There he was, staring down at the microphone as the set parted behind him and two spot lights trained on him. A fan dance of lights from the wings and he’s already in the first verse before the camera gets settled.
At first, he looks fragile. But the further he gets into the song the more you imagine him tensed like a boxer ready to take a punch or a boyfriend ready to get dumped. He seems enclosed somehow. Small, sure but a tense ball of vibrato. And when he leans back after taking a fall his eyes do it. They do it and I like to imagine anyone my age saw it and knew it. In them I swore I saw that brief how-did-I-get-here followed by a this-is-all-bullshit. This is all just bullshit. But then his eyes look forward. And that voice continues. And so he does.
Do you miss me. He sings it in the face of all that is ridiculous. This private thing, this quiet voice that carves a space for a whisperer and one leaning to listen is asked to be in the world, is asked to create in the middle of all that is big, false, overproduced, sold-out, they-were-better-before world. He sings even though it is ridiculous. The stage, the crowd, the awards, the lights. He sings in spite of, or is it that he sings because he needs to sing?
Since that night in 1998, I’ve always meant to become a fan of Elliot Smith, but it never quite clicked. There are a handful of songs I love, but no digging into the deep cuts yields that sense of identification I had in 1998. Even still, I’m left with this little thought as strong today as it was nearly 14 years ago, it is possible to create a life even if you are sandwiched between Celine Dion and Michael Bolton.