From a Basement on the Hill (Anti Records)
By: Alex Steininger
I know you're never going to read this, but I have to get it off my chest. I just got a copy of From a Basement on the Hill (Anti Records), and I needed to talk to someone. Since you're the one that wrote the record, I thought I'd talk to you. Maybe you're reading this wherever you are?
Remember when we were at Colosso that one night, with Sean Croghan (or rather, I was with you and Sean, I tagged along), and you and I got talking. We talked about suicide. I told you that I was really depressed - stupid young adolescent shit like I couldn't get a date, was a virgin, felt like such a loser reject, yadda, yadda, yadda? And I told you I kept having these reoccurring thoughts of killing myself and that my worst fear was if I killed myself, nobody would care, my funeral would be empty?
Well, you told me that you would be sad if I killed myself. You then went on to tell me that plenty of other people would care too, all my friends and family, and that your fear wasn't that your funeral would be empty, because you knew it wouldn't. But you were scared that six months after your death, after all the grieving, people would move on, and forget about you.
I have to say you played it clever. Leave an almost finished record behind and have your family and friends finish it and release it a year after your death. By default, the release of the album a year later means you won! People remembered you more than six months later and your worst fear didn't come true.
However, just as you told me you'd be sad if I killed myself, I am deeply sad that you did. When I heard the news, from Ryan O'Neill, the other half of In Music We Trust and one hell of a great guy, I was speechless. I wanted it to be an Internet hoax. A bad Internet hoax, but an Internet hoax. So, what do I do? I pick up the phone and start calling people, anyone I had the number for. I finally got a hold of Shon Sullivan, and he was just leaving the Silverlake Lounge where, I believe, he saw Alaska! play (I could be wrong on that detail). Anyhow, Shon had sadness in his voice and was crying. I said, "So, it's true?" and he said, "Yes, Russ Pollard told me about an hour ago". I then said goodbye and sat in my bed, speechless. I couldn't believe it. I had to get on a plane only a few short hours later and go to New York, to CMJ, where all anyone did was talk about you. It was supposed to be my escape. Where your music had been my escape in the past when I was sad or hurt or depressed, this business trip to New York was going to be my escape. But, no, you're Elliott Smith, and there was no escape to be had.
On the plane to New York, I kept thinking of that one line, the one that you wrote: "Nobody's gonna drag me down to a death that's not worth cheating".
I kept repeating that line in my head, over and over again. Over and over and over again. It felt so... it felt like a lie, Elliott, I won't lie to you. It made me cry. I actually started to ball up and cry.
Why? Why? I am sure many others have asked that. But, I know that question will be answered by some, if only for comfort so they can get closure, while others will never even dare to answer it, because the truth is, nobody knows why, even if they have assumptions. Nobody knows why, except you, and, well, you did the deed and now you're gone and can't tell us why. Not even in song.
You did leave us with a great record. From A Basement on the Hill. Arguably your best record. And I'm not saying that because it's your final piece of work. I am saying that because it is your most adventurous, most daring record, and it also showcases where you started, where you've been, and where you were going. However, as much as I think it is brilliant, it has some serious flaws that I will tell you about later in this letter. First, let me tell you what I love about From A Basement on the Hill.
Album opener "Coast To Coast" is your return to true rock form, without losing your uncanny ability to turn a beautiful melody at the drop of a dime. While "Let's Get Lost" is just you and an acoustic guitar, shining with your bittersweet lyrical sense and seemingly wounded-but-will-recover voice gently floating over the guitar.
On "Don't Go Down" you delve into swirling, neo-psychedelic-pop, a haunting, if not intoxicating blend that both plays with your mind and makes your lips move.
It is the guitars-and-vocal of "Fond Farewell", with its up tempo, bouncy melody and burning desire to almost be a campfire sing-along, if it weren't so downright depressing, that bring tears to my eyes every time I hear it. Still, in all the ugliness, you somehow come out with a beautiful, eerily inspiring number that uplifts the soul and wakes you up from a bad nightmare. Only you, only you Elliott could do this.
The album's swan song is no doubt "King's Crossing". It's minute-and-a-half intro, with random voices speaking over your faint instrumentation painfully relaxing. Then your elegant voice gently blows in the background. Soon a piano finds itself on top of your voice. This continues before the song starts, transforming into a guitar-and-voice track before bursting into orchestration. A full-on, lush, pulsating rock number that is one of the most lyrically biting songs you've ever written. And that is saying a lot.
I remember, at Colosso, I asked you, "What's that song with the line, 'The method acting it pays my bills, keeps a fat man feeding in Beverly Hills'?" and you told me, "I am throwing that song away, I can't get it to work". Well, I'm glad it finally came to fruition. It's my favorite song on the record, and still one of my favorite songs you've ever written.
It hinted at many directions you could go. It was lush, orchestrated, heavy for you, powerful, driven. It completely contrasts the song following it, "Twilight", another beautiful acoustic track that reminds me why I fell in love with your music in the first place.
Your tender heart, mended wing approach to life through your lyrics, your multiple vocal tracks creating a sweet front for the fragile guitars, relying on little (though strings to flesh out the song), but your heart, fingers, guitar, and voice. That was you when you started. Still was you at the time of your death. And yet you were able to go from a sweeping, weepy acoustic number like that, and be perfectly able to create an album of just that, to spicing things up with something like "King's Crossing". That was your genius, and nobody will ever be able to do that like you again. I am very certain of that.
Let's not forget the lush pop of "A Passing Feeling", more fragile acoustics with "The Last Hour", or the garage-rock-turned-remorseful-pop song, "Shooting Star".
Then there is the song that closes out From A Basement on the Hill, your final masterpiece, "A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free. Harmonious backing vocals via multiple vocal tracks, just enough rock beats behind it, and a sugary sweet, juicy melody that bathes the song in unforgettable beauty.
I told you, this is your best record to date. It is a testament to your genius. Nobody will ever question it. Nobody would have questioned it. The saddest part, beyond your death, though, of this record is that, despite my praise, despite how great - and legendary it now will be - it isn't everything you envisioned. It was stunted, clipped off at the knees when you passed away. It is only half of what you wanted it to be. Of what it could be. Of what it would have been.
You wanted it to be a double album. It's a single album. If I remember correctly, you promised your fans a double album. Yet, we got a single album - and lost you. I would have been able to deal with an EP if you were still around.
Beyond it only being a single disc, what we're missing is your vision, your finishing touches, and your guiding hands. What I'm getting at is the fact that you weren't there for the mixing. You didn't finish what you started.
Sure, Rob Schnapf and Joanna Bolme did their best, and did a fine job creating a very glossy, nicely put together collection of your songs. And they did it all with their experiences of working with you, putting themselves, as much as they could, in your headspace and making it as you would.
Despite their efforts, I am certain it is nowhere near what you would have done: the track listing, the flow, making it two discs, adding something here or there. The album is lacking you. It is lacking your direction, your vision, and your insight. Again, you didn't finish it, so therefore it is inevitably lacking. As good as it is, it just lacks - you!
Now I sit here writing this, Elliott, to you, thinking back to that night at Colosso. How I felt renewed, somewhat confident, happy. It didn't matter I couldn't get anyone to date me. Couldn't get sex. Didn't feel like I had very many friends. You made me realize that I was loved and cared for and would be missed if I were to pass. And I hoped that in teaching me this, you would also learn the lesson for yourself.
Heck, that was the night you helped me convince Sean Croghan to do a solo record. Jr. High had just broken up. He didn't know what he was going to do. I had just gotten a settlement check for a car accident and had some money. I wanted to start a label. We both wanted Sean to do a solo record. He didn't want to be a sad singer-songwriter like you; he wanted to rock out. But, together, as a team, we convinced him to do a solo record that night. And he followed through, as he said he would.
Though I doubted him that night, since you both were drunk. I was sure he would tell me the next day it was a drunken promise and invalid, but, because of you I believe, because he looked up to you and you were telling him how great he was and how he should do a solo record, he did. And it was my first release, and I am so proud to have released that. I still credit you with helping me convince him. I always will.
I remember us leaving Colosso. You had just bought that car off of the money you made on the American Beauty soundtrack. You and Sean got into the car, and were going to drive off. But I was worried. I didn't think you were fit to drive and tried to convince you two to let me drive you home, and leave your car there. But you two wouldn't do it. You promised me you were OK to drive.
I called Sean the next day. You both made it to your destinations in one piece. I was happy again. It made me start thinking about the night before. I was hoping that you helping me would help you. That you helping Sean, instilling confidence in him, would instill confidence in yourself as well, and everything would be OK. I would put out Sean's record (which I did). You would drive back to L.A., record many more records, take Sean on tour, and grow old, generations after generations using your music as a way to keep the bad thoughts out of their head.
From A Basement on the Hill will be medicine for many. It will help many realize there is a light at the end of a tunnel. It is an optimistic record. A record that says, "I have seen the end, I have fought it, it's not my time yet, I will struggle on". You lost the struggle. You gave up. You gave in. And took your own life. It's sad that a record this grand, this medicinal, is a lie. It's a fraud. You couldn't make it, but you made it so others will. It is for that, even though you couldn't bare to live on, if only for a moment, the moment that took you from us, that you will live on, live on through your music, and your final swan song, From A Basement on the Hill.
Elliott, I miss you. We all do. I wish I could have talked to you more, hung out more. Got to know you better. Not just through mutual friends, but through more one-on-one time. I never will now. But, thank you for the music. Thank you for the gift. And thank you for the time we did spend together.