On the morning of Oct. 22, I was startled awake by a ringing phone. It was my editor calling to tell me that Elliott Smith had killed himself.
We were bumping the upcoming issue's big feature, she said, and replacing it with an extended eulogy to Smith, Portland's native son whose sad songs had both propelled him to unlikely success and predicted his tragic crash. Staff writer Zach Dundas was already calling friends and family for comment. How quickly could I come in? I hung up the phone, dug out my copy of Smith's album XO and played "Pitseleh" as I brushed my teeth. And I cried. Then I headed into the office.
When I had started my job as music editor a few months before, I might have told you that I would someday pen a cover story about Smith—his music was one of the reasons I moved to Portland. But I didn't think it would happen so soon, or that I would be writing about his death.
Five years prior, during the broadcast of the Oscars, I, along with millions of other viewers, first saw Smith. Dressed in a wrinkled white suit and holding a filthy acoustic guitar, he played a song called "Miss Misery," the melody of which was on everyone's lips thanks to its placement in the Gus Van Sant film Good Will Hunting. Smith eventually followed his fame away from Portland, first to New York, then to Los Angeles, but that didn't change his status as a Portlander. To the friends and family interviewed for our story, his death was devastating. And even for his fans—many of whom had come to Portland to be musicians themselves—the loss felt personal.
That was a dark time in the local music scene. A couple months before Smith ended his own life, three members of the Exploding Hearts—a band that seemed destined for bigger things—died in a van crash. This was just a few weeks after two members of the Spooky Dance Band were struck and killed by a car while riding their bikes. Also that year, two clubs—the long-running Satyricon, where Smith had played, and the upstart Blackbird—shut down. Those closings were less-tragic events, sure, but they added to the sense that the music scene was cursed, that it was disappearing.
It wasn't true, of course. Just a couple months after Smith's death, a hopeful force would emerge. Citing an abundance of great and underappreciated music coming out of the city—including recent debuts by the Thermals, the Decemberists, and Lifesavas—a group of musicians and fans began organizing the inaugural PDX Pop Now, a free, all-ages music festival that would help fuel a boom in the music scene still felt today. It was a turning point for this city. And while no one ever officially attributed this burst of light to the darkness that preceded it, it's impossible for me to recall one without the other coming to mind.
Mark Baumgarten is the author of Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music. He currently serves as editor-in-chief of Seattle Weekly.
From the Archives:
October 16, 2013: "Last of the Sad Bastards"
October 16, 2013: "A Brief Guide to Finding Elliott Smith in Portland"
October 29, 2003: "Elliott Smith (1969-2003)"