March 9th, 2005 John Graham, Mark Baumgarten, Chris Lydgate | Special Section Stories
 

1997

     
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Errant Son

BY JOHN GRAHAM & MARK BAUMGARTEN

In 1997, a handful of songs by an obscure Portland musician named Elliott Smith showed up on the soundtrack of Hollywood blockbuster Good Will Hunting, directed by fellow Portlander Gus Van Sant. Smith's songs-particularly "Miss Misery"-served as the emotional anchor for a film filled with melodramatic scenes of love, loss and redemption.

The audience was hooked. The whisper-thin tales that Smith sang over his nimble guitar lines struck a chord, and he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song. Although Smith had developed a loyal Pacific Northwest following and was already being courted by major labels before the film, "Miss Misery" was Smith's breakthrough tune.

It was a fitting title for the quintessential Portland poet. Portland was where Smith rode out the turbulent waves of adolescence. It was where he suffered the internal, invisible traumas of the shy and poetically inclined. And it was where he persevered and grew into a distinctive and skilled musician.

After playing a variety of instruments as a child, Smith picked up the guitar in high school. He later formed a band with college friend Neil Gust. Their group, Heatmiser, would go on to release three full-length albums.

Along the way, Smith began writing his own songs. In the mid-1990s, he released three solo albums-albums that read like cheat sheets for comprehending every Rose City songwriter who ever wrestled with a four-track recorder in his or her bedroom. Fighting the guitar for that elusive transitional bridge chord. Trying to decipher lyrics scribbled onto a bar napkin at last call. Whispering into the microphone so as not to wake the housemates.

It was these confessional tales, on 1994's Roman Candle, 1995's Elliott Smith and 1997's Either/Or, which made him such an adored figure around town. There was something about those first three albums-so private and yet strident at the same time-that hit some kind of Portland indie-rock G-spot.

Witnessing the odd symbiosis that occurred between Smith and his audiences during those early shows was like being privy to a cerebral orgy. Here was this decidedly unattractive fellow floating his innermost fears and romantic devastations into the crying wind, and the local zeitgeist sucked it down greedily. Did it make you feel dirty to be such an emotional voyeur? Hell, yes. At a time when grunge mania was finally dying, Elliott Smith's brand of miniaturized psychodrama seemed the ideal balm for a music scene that felt as if it had just been raped.

Smith rapidly ascended from playing small, unassuming gigs at coffee shops like Umbra Penumbra to upstaging local favorite and friend Pete Krebs at the (then pre-lesbian) Egyptian Room.

Suddenly there were shows like the Satyricon gig with Cat Power. Rarely was an audience compelled to sit, cross-legged, on the filthy tiles of that scabrous punk-rock dive and act like polite, silent and reverent schoolchildren. But they did just that as Elliott poured himself out into the hushed atmosphere. It was then you realized Elliott Smith could be huge. And not just in Portland. He had a kind of magnetism that quietly worked its black-magic ways.

When Smith released XO on the DreamWorks label in 1998, he officially traded his status as a local cult icon for that of a national indie-rock darling. A stark contrast to the loud and angry grunge sound of the early '90s-a scene in which Smith started his recording career-Smith's popularity marked a shift in indie rock to a more gentle, but no less intense, sound.

Eventually, Smith would find a larger audience, moving to New York and then Los Angeles. Still, he never forgot Portland-he'd often return to visit friends like Sam Coomes or Larry Crane. He even spent some of his DreamWorks advance money on a giant vintage mixing board for Crane's Jackpot! Studios. Sometimes he'd randomly be caught slumping across the threshold of favorite haunts like My Father's Place, familiar as old times and more bashful than ever.

Smith maintained a devoted fan base until he died from an apparent self-inflicted stab wound at his Los Angeles home in October 2003. Pointing at the singer's history of drug use and the depression apparent in his songs and in his life, many in the media concluded that the suicide was a regrettable but fitting end to the 34-year-old punk troubadour's life. Those pronouncements proved premature, though-no drugs were found in Smith's system, and a coroner's report ruled the cause of death undetermined.

In the weeks following Smith's death, legions of fans around the world gathered to mourn in candlelight vigils and singalongs. In the end, Smith's songs of rain-soaked sadness stretched beyond the Pacific Northwest to any listener who needed a confidant in times of despair. Smith's suicide was certainly such a time, and his listeners would receive one more dose of that healing balm when a postmortem recording titled From a Basement on a Hill was released in October 2004, almost a year after his death.

Ghost Town

BY CHRIS LYDGATE

You'd never call it grand, but there was a certain magic to the stately Roosevelt Plaza, on Southwest 9th Avenue and Salmon Street. Every day, its tenants-most of them low-income seniors-would gather in the spacious lobby to discuss the day's events. Ed Hayden, 72, would sit and read the paper, while 93-year-old Olive Lacsamana scurried up and down the stairs. Handsome bachelor George Marino, 79, played the keyboard at all the lobby parties.

But the 58 Roosevelt residents never realized just what a fragile world they lived in until their landlords, Hans and Kenneth Juhr, decided to pull out of a federal housing program and turn the building into a hotel. The residents were given 90 days to move out.

All the tenants were poor-most lived on less than $500 a month. Eight were over 80 years old. Five spoke no English. One was blind. Many had lived at the Roosevelt for 10 years or more, and none wanted to move. One woman even slit her wrists after receiving her eviction notice.

"The loss of the Roosevelt was devastating," says Susan Emmons, director of the Northwest Pilot Project, a nonprofit agency serving low-income seniors and disabled people.

NWPP advocate Martha Gies (who later wrote several moving essays about the Roosevelt) set up a makeshift office in the lobby to help the tenants find new homes, but it was an uphill battle. Downtown Portland was in the grip of an acute shortage of affordable housing. "It took four lousy months to place everyone," Gies says. "Some of them got disoriented when they moved. We just destroyed that community."

Back in the '70s, Portland boasted as many as 6,000 low-income housing units in downtown. Then, like old war heroes, the cheap hotels and apartment buildings flickered out one by one, falling victim to fire, the wrecking ball or gentrification.

With each closure, dozens of residents-often Portland's poorest and most vulnerable citizens-were faced with the increasingly daunting prospect of finding a room they could afford. By 2004, there would be fewer than 3,400 affordable units downtown-far below the city's official goal of 5,183. Swank projects like the World Trade Center and the Hatfield Courthouse demolished whole neighborhoods.

Painful as it was, the closure of the Roosevelt did have one salutary effect: It spurred the City Council to protect Portland's dwindling stock of cheap units with a housing preservation ordinance. But for the folks at the Roosevelt, it was too little, too late.


* Espresso decrescendo: Local javamongers Coffee People shave the number of coffee grounds per shot from a nerve-rattling 10.5 grams to the industry-standard 7 grams. Funny, people seem a lot less edgy recently.

* The Dandy Warhols release The Dandy Warhols Come Down.

* David Freedman and Charles Mann publish @Large, which describes a massive Internet attack perpetrated by the Phantom Dialer, a schizophrenic post-adolescent Portlander who lived on Doritos and never qualified for a driver's license. FBI says the Dialer broke into the computers of universities, corporations, banks and military agencies.

* Scientists at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center successfully clone two Rhesus monkeys. Alfred R. Menino Jr., associate professor of animal science at OSU, calls it "spectacular and exciting work."

* WW reports that Portland cops are guilty of severe cell-phone abuse. Story prompts Police Bureau to deactivate cell phones in patrol cars after an internal review shows that several officers were running up excessive bills for personal calls.

* Powell's Books' Internet sales top $1 million a year.

* WW uncovers "soft money" scam, in which the Democratic National Party skirted spending limits by funneling $830,000 through the Oregon Democratic Party and then spent it on Clinton's reelection campaign.

* Hovering on the brink of disaster, OMSI gets a hand from the City Council, which votes unanimously to bail out the submarine-tethered museum to the tune of $2.7 million; OMSI still owes $22 million on its spacious new digs on the east bank of the Willamette.

* Oregon Supreme Court Justice Edward N. Fadeley, 68, steps down from the bench, citing throat cancer. Turns out he was also facing possible suspension over accusations of making sexual remarks to and having an affair with a former assistant. The state Supreme Court was poised to decide on Fadeley's fate when he resigned.

* Led by the nearly unstoppable Natalie Williams, the Portland Power places second in the American Basketball League finals, delighting its fan base of senior citizens, families with girls and, yes, lesbians-WW reports that gay women make up as much as 40 percent of the Power's boisterous crowds.


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