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Friday, 24 October
Missing Misery

The wife and I were driving home from rehearsal the other night when the local indie station told us the sad news about Elliott Smith. We were both pretty bummed out; I had always liked his sad, crabbily smart songs, and later that night I put the headphones on and listened to some favorites, like "Stupidity Tries" and "Waltz #2." I'll miss that papery keen and his penchant for Beatlesque string swells. I always wondered what it would be like if he and Aimee Mann tried their hand at collaboration: probably some gorgeous misery-orgy of an album along with one lone, snarky, evil perversity like a cover of "Muskrat Love." I'd buy that.

I grew up with a serious hard-on for pop music (my father warned me against never touching his new stereo until he realized that I treated it like a holy thing, and would sooner cut off my feet than harm it; after that, I had unlimited access to their vinyl, and sat for hours listening to The Who). But I never tried my hand at it, apart from some effort on my mom's part to teach me piano; because of my boundless laziness, I regarded the lessons as one step up from being slowly poisoned, so I soon quit, because it was irritating to me that I wasn't instantly good at it. But I was really excellent at sitting around and fucking off, so I enthusiastically embraced that as my hobby of choice.

So I never learned an instrument, and I never sang, either. I mean, I did some bullshit chorus stuff in junior high, but when I tripped into acting during college, I never even considered the musical route: for one thing, I detest musicals; earlier tonight someone was talking about seeing a production of Oklahoma!, and I offered that it would take six strong armed men to force me to watch that fucking thing. I'd rather be chewed to death by vampire Shriners.

But I have sung. I've been cast in shows where I had to sing, God help me, mostly terrible little throwaway numbers, or as a part of the ensemble, because, no shit, I'm not being falsely modest here, I really am not too good. I have no training at all; I smoke; I am profoundly unconfident; the idea of it makes me sweat pure uranium--so it's just not sensible for anyone to try and make me sing anything.

But a couple of years ago, I made the mistake of having an interesting idea: I had just stumbled across the Magnetic Fields' horrendously wonderful 3-disc 69 Love Songs, and I mentioned to my friend R. that it would be a pretty neat thing to do a Valentine's Day cabaret set featuring nothing but selections from the albums. He thought it was a great idea, and immediately set it up, scheduling three days in February for the event. He planned on singing himself, lined up two female friends for the project, and then--it was my idea!--asked me if I would be the fourth person to round out the show.

For unclear reasons, I agreed. This was deeply irrational and weird; as I said, I'm no singer. I have no training, and the whole prospect was terrifying: R. had also lined up a freakishly talented local band who specialized in a sort of ethereal chamber pop to do the music, and I clearly had no business on stage with any of them. It's no exaggeration that I was the most hopeless person involved.

And yet. He was offering me songs! Such songs! "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side"! "Yeah Oh Yeah"! "When My Boy Walks Down the Street"! And then I apparently went off my nut, because I was suddenly suggesting things: "Why didn't you pick 'Grand Canyon'? Or 'The Death of Ferdinand DeSaussure'? Those are great songs!" They were promptly given to me.

So there I was: self-fucked. How was I going to fucking DO THIS? The answer, as it turned out, was scotch. We kept a bottle of the stuff backstage (we were all pretty nervous), and there's nothing like a little Dutch courage to make situations seem suddenly less daunting. It has other side effects too.

On the night we recorded the performance on CD, I can be heard jabbering nonsense in the middle of "Luckiest Guy," and then blurting, "I seem to have forgotten that line!" At the end of the song, I inform the audience, "Come back tomorrow for the complete lyrics!" Similarly, later in the disc, R. and I are bulldozing our way through "Abigail, Belle of Kilronan, " and there's an amusing moment where we both kind of lose the momentum and then uncertainly fuck up coming back in on the melody, somehow sharing between us maybe six different keys: "Abi--" "ABIGA--" "--GAiiiil . . . " (chuckles) "ABIGAIIIIL!"

And yet, and yet. R. and I also performed a version of "Grand Canyon" that, well, is admittedly probably never going to set anyone's house on fire with its pyrotechnics or anything, but man alive, it sounds wonderful to me. It sounded wonderful doing it, and it sounded even more wonderful when a couple people told me that it had made them tear up. That might have been the most wonderful thing I've ever heard in my many hours in the theater: what actor doesn't want to move people to tears? (Weird actors, and I've known them: they hate audiences, and wish them ill, and have only contempt for them; they are, in my opinion, creepy and dangerous, and should be boiled.)

I don't know what the point of all this is. I'm just writing. I do know that I'll miss Mr. Smith and his lovely, plaintively literate songs. And I miss singing "Grand Canyon" in that way that you miss a good vacation when it's over. And I think it's good, though of course painful, to miss things, and people: it's part of remembering. You don't reminisce about things you never cared about in the first place.

If I was the Grand Canyon
I'd echo everything you say
But I'm just me
I'm only me
And you used to love me that way.

I know it's not Smith's lyrics. I'm just saying: I'll miss the echoes.


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Comments

Me foreigner, me not know Elliott Smith. Famous man? Me like you sing much more please (me kinky).

Comment number: 003793   Posted by: Anna on October 24, 2003 02:10 AM from IP: 212.136.78.25

"Was I drepessed because I listened to pop music, or did I listen to pop music because I was depressed." - High Fidelity, Nick Hornsby -

Comment number: 003794   Posted by: heather on October 24, 2003 07:52 AM from IP: 63.227.131.182

Is it wrong that I would pay money to hear this performance? Probably. But that never stopped me from masturbating on buses either.

Comment number: 003795   Posted by: ColdForged on October 24, 2003 09:13 AM from IP: 66.152.60.98

"I detest musicals; earlier tonight someone was talking about seeing a production of Oklahoma!, and I offered that it would take six strong armed men to force me to watch that fucking thing. I'd rather be chewed to death by vampire Shriners."

This is the first incontrovertible proof that Skot is not, as I always maintained even when he got married to a woman, a gay man. (I mean, look, Rock Hudson got married too.)

The funny thing is, although I am gay, I've started to well, not hate, but. . . not love musicals. They seem so pallid, with their boy-meets-girl plots, their shouting to the back row acting, their brisk Broadway efficiency.

I remember a time when it was different for me. I watched Funny Girl when I was twelve, and immediately KNEW that Streisand was up there talking and singing to ME.

It's the memory of that that keeps me listening to soundtracks even though I'm no longer in love with American musical theater. Because somewhere out there is a twelve-year-old gay boy whose world is suddenly getting explosively bigger when he picks up his grandmother's scratched LP of Gypsy.

Sorry for an extended reminiscence only tangentially related to your lovely valedictory for Mr. Smith.

Comment number: 003796   Posted by: Bill on October 24, 2003 03:34 PM from IP: 162.119.64.114

Lazymanlazymanlazyman...
you keep calling yourself that. How do you write so well if you are just lazymanlazymanlazyman?
Or are you one of those floatyflitty improvisors with the big grins, who make the rest of us sloggers feel like our brains are made from leadfilled concrete?
I dont believe it. I can tell a meticulous writer when i see one..

Comment number: 003797   Posted by: david on October 26, 2003 05:26 AM from IP: 202.137.86.117

Skot! I am actually a bit messed up that a twee fella like Elliot went for a grizzly self loathing method that is way ballsier than what my hero, Darby Crash, did. Was Elliot toughter than Darby, or did he hate himself more? I mean a freaking knife in the chest! I have no clue how you can get your arms to obey such a command, I think mine will fall down limp and dead before they let me self terminate.

Comment number: 003798   Posted by: Johnny13 on October 26, 2003 09:52 PM from IP: 67.73.160.70

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