‘My life had stood – a Loaded Gun- in corners – til a day/The Owner passed identified-And carried Me away/Though I than He – may longer live/He longer must-than I- For I have but the power to kill/Without-the power to die-’ My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun by Emily Dickinson
When he took both the power to kill and to die by stabbing himself in the heart on October 21 2003, I began to think almost daily about Elliot Smith. Around the same time, I watched the documentary “Loaded Gun: Life, Death and Dickinson” and began imagining Elliot Smith in love with Emily Dickinson. I see him leaving flowers at her headstone (died: 1886). I glimpse him studying this fierce scribe in Amherst’s gloomy caverns— the Massachusetts town where locals referred to resident Miss Dickinson as “the shadow,” because she was such a total recluse. Coincidentally, Hampshire College in Amherst is where Elliot Smith’s began his education in Philosophy, and where I’m certain, he read all the poems by his lyrical soul mate.
“Defiantly unknowable;” “a killer poet;” “Private person;” scholars say this of the life and works of Emily Dickinson. The same words could apply as easily to Elliot Smith. I interviewed Ellliot Smith in the spring of 1997, the day before the album Either/Or was finished, and we talked about books. Elliot said his reading list was not out of the 19th century yet. He added, “I’m usually reading something that someone’s giving me shit for because it’s not Gen-X.” I believe now that Elliot Smith professed his love for Emily Dickinson’s 19th century poems, and I wish I had picked up the cue.
So, I’ve turned something Elliot Smith said more than five years ago into a wing-nut theory. It’s the revisionism typical of the bereft. It’s typical of the living to piece together scraps left by the dead; a refusal to let the unanswered questions go to the grave.
I believe Dickinson’s poems are as parchment paper over some of Elliot Smith’s lyrics. The song “A Question Mark” on XO speaks to Dickinson’s potent inscription to God or the great unknown: /Giving back a little hatred now to the world/Cuz it treated you bad/You couldn’t keep the great unknown/From making you mad. There’s a grudging and irritable agnosticism in many of Dickinson’s poems. Take ‘Poem 1552′: Those–dying then/Knew where they went/They went to God’s Right Hand/That Hand is amputated now/And God cannot be found/The abdication of Belief /Makes the Behavior small/Better an ignis fatuus/Than no illume at all– .
While Dickinson personified death (Though I could not stop for death/He kindly stopped for me), she also wrote about hope. (“Hope” is the thing with feathers— That perches in the soul— And sings the tune without the words— And never stops—at all—). I thought he just seemed more reserved and droll than most, but Elliot Smith may have been sadder even than Emily Dickinson.
There’s little of the chirping bird of hope in Elliot Smith’s lyrics, who used to say he felt more like himself when he was depressed than when he was not. Unlike Dickinson, Elliot Smith’s songs were largely about relationships: Got a broken heart/and your name on my calf/ (“No Name No. 5″); I’ll be forever/with my poison arms/around you (“Angeles”). Maybe those relationships were his undoing. Dickinson spared herself the heartache, for the most part, by remaining a spinster and a recluse. Perhaps that’s why she lived 56 years to Elliot’s 34.
Elliott Smith lost all hope, and told us in a gesture so tragic, it should be unreal. I still wonder why so few can survive the depressing medication of drink and drugs he was taking. I also wonder how many times the Belle of Amherst’s poems had already saved him in the years before.
Sunday, December 14th at the Curb Cafe in Nashville, The Elliot Smith Memorial Fund Tribute Show featured residents covering their favorite and most valued Elliott Smith songs.
See the Elliot Smith web site http://www.sweetadeline.net/ for more information on his sixth full-length release, which at the time of his death, was tentatively titled From a Basement on the Hill.
The Emily Dickinson documentary LOADED GUN airs nationally on December 16, 2003 at 10:30 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).