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Alternate History X: Elliott Smith never releases solo material…

on February 14, 2010, 8:00am

For some time, Heatmiser’s own Elliott Smith had been writing and recording in the basement of his home on Taylor Street in Portland, Oregon. These were personal songs that he would play on his old Le Domino mini acoustic guitar and would eventually whisper into a lone cassette recorder. They weren’t for release, however. The recordings were for his own personal enjoyment, a secret that he enjoyed very much.

This activity continued for months and peaked throughout 1994. In between odd jobs, like scaffolding in Portland, Smith would close off the world and venture down the basement stairs. It was the same process each time: pull out the little guitar and press record. Soon enough, he had about an album’s worth of material, with most songs having no names. It was all there though, on one cassette. Eventually, he pulled out a roll of tape, ripped a strip off, pressed it onto the plastic casing, and messily scribbled the words “Roman Candle.” He didn’t mean for anybody to hear it; maybe just a few friends, his girlfriend, that’s it.

elliott smith pic1 Alternate History X: Elliott Smith never releases solo material...

Photo by Gonson. Smith hanging out in the infamous basement.

But as fate would have it, Smith and JJ Gonson, Heatmiser’s manager and his girlfriend at the time, got into a huge argument right around the time Smith had worked up the courage to show her the cassette. He had been planning to tell her about all of the songs he’d been working on, all the pain and emotion behind every lyric, but instead, the two split up before Smith could even mention a word of the cassette to her. Discouraged from the bad breakup, and unsatisfied with his role in Heatmiser, Smith let the tape collect dust. Gonson never heard it. His friends never heard it. And Smith just trudged along with Heatmiser, a band he initially loved being a part of, but slowly felt imprisoned by, hidden under loud guitars and inflexible song structures.

Elliott Smith never released Roman Candle. In fact, he never released any of his solo work. And that was that. Heatmiser ended in 1996 (though a reunion and a short lived comeback would occur a decade later) and Smith continued music only as a hobby, tapes piling up and never being anything more than home recordings. He sat idly as grunge consumed the airwaves, while the songs in his heart only made their way into the stuffy air of his basement before disappearing into the dust.

Without Smith’s presence, indie folk-pop revivalism never caught on, so it could never fall off. His entire approach to songwriting — the quiet, unsure guy with an acoustic guitar — never became something worthwhile, so it never became a cliché. Nick Drake’s low-key folk style grew lost to the next generation of music fans. There was nobody there to revive it, nobody there to put a modern, if not punkish, spin on melancholic folk, and so it just remained in place as another set of old, dated records. There were consequences…

Good Will Hunting was a fine movie, but Gus Van Sant had trouble putting together a decent soundtrack to capture the film’s mood — eventually opting for The Pogues, who fit in with the Boston subculture, though rather awkwardly. Garden State suffered a similar problem, because most of the music that Zach Braff wanted to use in the film was never created. The Shins’ “New Slang” couldn’t change any lives, even if Natalie Portman swore on it. Who would want a simple three chord punk song from a Beach Boys knock off band?

elliott smith Alternate History X: Elliott Smith never releases solo material...

Rare photo of Smith backstage at Lollapalooza 2006, Heatmiser reunion

It goes deeper. Forget about Sam Beam leaving his professorial roles at the University of Miami to form Iron & Wine. He’s still teaching film and cinematography over there, and with a clean shaven face, too. As for Conor Oberst, he never made the shift from emo to folk-rock and his eyes never reached the level of brightness he had aimed for. He’s still putzing around with Commander Venus. Forget about all the Dashboard Confessionals of the world, too. (Although, who doesn’t wish that?). Rather than capitalizing on acoustic melodies, Chris Carraba plays every other Friday night at a bar in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, fronting a house band that nails 90’s covers for transitory beach goers. If only Smith would have been a little more sure of his talents and the quality of his compositions, that tape may have just changed the face of indie-rock.

When Elliott Smith opted to keep Roman Candle to himself, the world lost out on something profound. His music would have inspired a whole new approach to songwriting. Elliott Smith could have paved the way for a whole slew of unsure, depressed, underdogs to make some of the most cherished tunes of the past two decades. The unpolished, quiet record would have given us the blueprint for an album rich with voyeuristic qualities for the listener. Elliott Smith’s insecurities and lack confidence are written all over every uttered word and every strum, giving listeners a look into not only the thoughts of their creator, but the very method to the songwriting. Behind these insecurities is a damn fine guitarist, and a songwriter whose lack of confidence embodies a very specific songwriting style. The vocal straining, the subdued anger, the frenetic guitar work, they are all byproducts of a conflicted, uneasy state of mind — a state of mind many would try to imitate or assume for years to come, if they only could have heard this record.

heatmiser Alternate History X: Elliott Smith never releases solo material...

The 2007 comeback record that brought mild critical appeal.

Elliott Smith could have made the quiet weirdo cool again, but he had no idea what his depressive tunes were capable of. He didn’t mean to have his songs heard, and so they never were. I guess we can’t miss something we’ve never heard, but it seems like something has been missing all these years without Elliott and the undying influence he would have had on it all.

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