It was barely the evening of Nov. 3, and a line poured out of L.A.’s Henry Fonda Theater, stretching down the sidewalk. I approached a woman shifting about impatiently and exhaling cigarette smoke and asked her whether this was the line to get inside. No, she replied with rolled eyes, this was the line to beg for tickets. It had been nearly an hour since the doors had opened, and over 60 people were still waiting to get into a show that had been declared sold out over a week before. Such is the dedication of Elliott Smith fans, and such is the desire to witness his send-off.
The concert had been thrown together haphazardly, but admirers and friends were swift to respond. Elliott Smith, one of our generation’s foremost singer/songwriters, had committed suicide Oct. 21, and the gathered musicians for the night’s tribute had only days to prepare. These musicians, which included Beck, Beth Orton and Lou Barlow of Folk Implosion, would cover Smith’s songs and pay homage to the great artist as best they could. There was no pomp to the ceremony. Most of the performers made no announcement of who they were, simply walking onto the stage with their instruments and launching into their dedication. Even Beck received no special treatment as he strolled onto the stage, nodded to the crowd and belted out three of Smith’s songs with the precision of someone who had practiced them tirelessly.
Every person in attendance paid tribute in his or her own way. Some in the audience hooted and hollered without cease, some shoe-gazed; and the artists’ performances on stage varied from committing straight-faced covers of Smith’s tunes to morphing them into new forms. In the latter category, Future Pigeon’s dub transformation of “Waltz #2,” complete with horn section, caused the audience to grow a collective cheesy grin, while Papa M lulled everyone into a trance with their use of only classical instruments and a slide guitar. Goose bumps were raised as Jenny, the lead singer from Rilo Kiley, sang “I Didn’t Understand” without instrumentation, leaving only the sound of her voice and Smith’s words reverberating through the concert hall.
The night ended with a movie titled “Strange Parallel,” an experimental documentary starring Smith. Though many broke into tears the second Smith’s face hit the screen and began to play guitar in a sunny forest clearing, it seemed to most a fitting conclusion. The movie showcased Smith performing, sipping tea in hotel rooms and offered multiple interviews with those who knew him. Hearing Smith’s favorite bartenders relate stories of his reserved nature was particularly endearing.
Reminiscing on the evening, I also recall the first time I heard Smith’s music. I was watching the glitz and glamour of the 1997 Oscars, the same as I do every year out of the corner of my eye, when the nominees for Best Song began their performances. One theatrical number after another paraded across the stage, each full of elaborate choreography and false emotion, and then there appeared a man looking as nervous as anyone could, wearing all white and staring distantly upwards. I had never seen anything more out of place, whether it was in his appearance or the gorgeous simplicity of his song, and I was sold. Smith was someone I could relate to, a buoy in my downtimes, and I believe people for years to come will find the same comfort and optimism in his music as I do. He will certainly be missed.