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Monday, November 03, 2003  

Elliott Smith and Portland: An artist and his city

One of the objective correlatives writers sometimes use is to make a city a character in their books. Hannibal, Missouri. Dicken's London. Oxford, Mississippi. Pete Dexter and David Bradley's Philadelphias. The editors of Willamette Week did something similar with Portland in this week's issue. The cover story is in memoriam to Elliott Smith. The conceit of the piece is that the singer and songwriter, who committed suicide in Los Angeles last month, represents Portland and Portland represents him.

A city is lucky to have a musical icon. An artist who, for a brief time, embodies the unique urban history of a place, while adding chapters to that history. New York had Lou Reed in the 1960s, Detroit had Iggy Pop in the early 1970s, Seattle had Kurt Cobain in the early 1990s. And up until last week, Portland had Elliott Smith.

For some Portlanders, Smith's name might recall a simple, beautiful song from a sentimental film some years back. To others, Smith's tales about living on the margins of misery captured the city's dark side, while his gritty realism delivered beauty, too. Even though the musician left Portland five years ago, each song he has written since contains a new piece of history for our town.

. . .L.A. may have been where the musician's life came to its sudden end, but Portland is where Smith spent his formative years. As his songs retain the stamp of the city, Portland retains Smith's imprint. WW asked friends, family, colleagues and fans to share impressions of the young songwriter with the quiet sound. Listening to their voices offers some help in coming to understand a musician--and a man--who never quite understood how to live.

Memorialist John Graham takes the analogy even further.

Though it may sound like an absurd overstatement, in some ways Elliott Smith is artistic Portland. Or at least a fine representation of and avatar for it. Literate. Stormy. Tormented. Prone to grandiose ambitions but weighted down by shame and insecurities.

Portland, Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest in general, is a kind of schizoid place. The PNW is the least churched part of the country and something of a haven for free-thinkers. People here are more likely to read books than elsewhere in the United States. They were the first to approve medical marijuana and Oregon is the only state in which medically-assisted euthanasia is legal. Oregonians vote by mail exclusively. But, that is not the whole story. The Pacific Northwest has disproportionately attracted cults, including survivalists and white supremacists. These states rank high on indices of hunger, and, for the last few years, unemployment. Drug abuse, particularly of meth and heroin, is surprisingly common. The PNW has the highest suicide rate in the country. Getting throught the bleakness of a Pacific Northwest winter in itself can feel like an accomplishment.

Elliott Smith's association with Portland began during one of the most impressionable periods of anyone's life -- adolescence.

Smith enrolled here [Lincoln High School] after moving from Duncanville, Texas, at age 14 to live with his father and siblings. At Lincoln, Smith played in a band called Stranger Than Fiction, belonged to the National Honor Society and graduated with the Class of 1987 before heading to Hampshire College in Massachusetts. He was born Steven Paul Smith but started going by Elliott because he thought "Steve" sounded too "jockish."

He left Oregon for college, but returned afterward, becoming part of several bands, including Heatmiser. The success of the movie Good Will Hunting transformed Smith from a regional attraction into a full-fledged star. The soundtrack featured six of his songs and won Smith a nomination for an Academy Award. It also ended his Portland period. He relocated to real cities, New York, and later, L.A. However, his artistic center, the place he thought about when writing songs, seems to have remained Puddletown.

The place for mourning Smith in Portland is The Wall. But, Inara Verzemnieks, a feature writer for the Oregonian, suggests the connection to Smith that really matters may be interior.

The wall is at Southeast 12th Avenue and Division Street, just on the other side of a bargain store and beneath a mural of a giant banana, and it has become the place, in the days following his apparent suicide, where Portland fans of singer and songwriter Elliott Smith come to mourn.

. . .Up and down the wall, dozens of fans had laid down their offerings -- pictures, drawings, poetry, even a pumpkin carved with Elliott's name -- people like Alice, who may never have known him but who had lived with and loved his music, until it seemed like it was a part of them.

What they blasted from their Walkman in order to survive the trip to Gresham to fold sweaters at the Gap, so they would still have the strength to come home and dream of making movies one day. What they fell asleep to. What they made love to and broke up to. An escape and a validation. A soundtrack to their lives.

Sometimes, the relationship between the artist and the city is eerily clear.

Driving up and down Division Street
I used to like it here
It just burns me out to remember....

-- "Punch and Judy," released on Either/Or, 1997

What do I make of the analogy? I believe Elliott Smith may have 'been' Portland. But, emotionally, Portland can be anywhere.

3:40 PM