learning love songs

est. 2008


Elliott Smith


Currently celebrating the fact I had the wisdom to make the spontaneous purchase of Elliot Smith on vinyl a few months ago. Called “An Introduction to Elliott Smith,” it has some of my most favorite tracks including the original “Miss Misery” and “Twilight.” After a weekend with rained-out plans and little to do but listen to the storm and my head and the music, I put this on and heard Smith the closest to the way I did when I first discovered his work: closed up, locked up and searching for serenity.

People will tell you he is sad and melodramatic. He certainly can be those things,  but listening to his music has such a profound, uplifting effect when you’re already mostly down. It’s partly his playing style, patient and plucky, and largely his vocal delivery, as delicate and withdrawn as he was. His heat so obviously broken always  – even when he’s a little more aggressive about it, or when it’s barely beating. He’s a songwriter’s songwriter, when it comes to the simplicity he displayed. The best lines that punch you in the chest are the ones that come with the least anticipation, like in this little two-verse lament. The rhymes are elementary, accessible, as they toss around these concepts of love and loss and death and lucidity.

There’s something so somber-pleasant about his work, like wildflowers plucked off by the wind.

I’m waiting for the train
Subway that only goes one way

The stupid thing that’ll come to pull us apart,
And make everybody late.
You spent everything you had
Wanted everything to stop that bad,
Now I’m a crashed credit card registered to Smith –
Not the name that you called me with.

You turned white like a saint,
I’m tired of dancing on a pot of gold-flaked paint.
Oh we’re so very precious, you and I.And everything that you do makes me want to die,
Oh I just told the biggest lie.

I just told the biggest lie.
The biggest lie.

~The Biggest Lie
Elliott Smith, Elliot Smith


For the first time in seven years, no one will be at the hill to light a candle.

This is very sad to me, but we knew this day would come. We talked about it, wondering how long we’d all be close enough – regionally and emotionally – to get together, commemorate, cry, wonder. But seven years went by, and here it is.

“There we stand about to fly/Peeking down over land/Parachute behind/What was that moment for which we lived?/Without a parachute, about to dive?” ~Parachute – Guster, Parachute

We started the tradition shortly after Lizzie’s funeral, which felt formal and social and unbelievably sad. I don’t remember crying during the church service; I do remember eating a turkey sandwich in the vestibule that tasted like cardboard, the first bites of real food I’d had in days. I remember the lines of people, classmates and community members, wrapping around the church, and wondering why some of these people were here and giving me hugs, and then I remember Tim grabbing me by the shoulders with tears in his eyes when it was clear that neither of us was processing what was going on around us.

Shortly after, a group of us brought candles to the hill where we’d spent many summer nights, the one at my elementary school down the street from my house, and the one I’d walked to from my grandmother’s for years on end. It became the de facto central spot of Tim, Liz, Dan and I for sneaking out, meeting up and making out. We’d call out meet-ups “snizzling,” why exactly I do not remember, but the invented verb worked. “Hey, what time do you want to snizzle?” That was the best summer. You could see the whole school from the top of the hill, the baseball diamond and the soccer field, and the trees obscured extending suburbia. It felt peaceful, private, ours.

“But right now/Everything is turning blue/And right now/The sun is trying to kill the moon/And right now/I wish I could follow you/To the shores/Of freedom/Where no one lives” ~Honey and the Moon – Joseph Arthur, Redemption’s Son

One year later, we sat at the hill again, feeling lost, missing a limb. The hospital felt lightyears away though it had only been a week or so…the timeline was as fuzzy then as it is for me today. We lit candles, talked, cried and laughed then sat in silence, played Guster on our iPods, and let the candles burn as we walked away.

I think of her all the time. Less now, then I used to maybe, and that is a shameful reality, but the thoughts come on with the same wistful intensity. But the heart-heavying truth that someone so beautiful could die at 16…that means more to me now than it did then. One of the last phone calls we had was about how excited we were for college, how we wanted senior year to hurry up and leave so we could go somewhere new. She was thinking about going to school for art, or maybe English, possibly at this one private school near Albany. I wanted to go to Boston or New York, somewhere glamorous. We’d definitely go shopping together for dorm room furnishings, though, and we’d totally visit on the weekends. I remember Liz used to say that, when she decided to start drinking alcohol, she’d never want a screwdriver, because liquor would taint the purity of her beloved orange juice. Somewhat ironically, I am drinking a mimosa as I write this, thinking maybe she would’ve come around.

She was better than me, better than most, in so many ways.

Finding out about what happened was surreal, fate and my worst nightmares converged. I was sitting on my couch in the plant-filled, window-paneled Florida room with Tim’s older brother, feeling flirty and happy and thrilled he wanted to hang out with me. His dad called and I instantly knew something was wrong. His hands started shaking and  then he told me what happened. We rushed to the hospital, and I kept saying “Maybe it’s not that bad, maybe she’ll be OK.” I remember him saying something about possible brain damage.

I remember the first night at the hospital, sitting in a chair outside her room, my friends scattered around. A nurse gave me one of those flimsy hospital blankets and told me usually, they don’t let this many people in the ICU overnight, but they’d make an exception. I half-slept, hearing gray words and seeing whispered feelings of the nurses and Liz’s family, “Can you believe they’re all staying?,” “This is so sad,” “Do they think she’ll wake up?”

Seeing Liz’s dad Mike was the hardest. You could tell he was trying to be strong, but a man can only take so much loss and this was his only little girl. I remember how he’d gather us all for updates after such-and-such test or scan. They had to wait for her brain swelling to go down some before they’d know how bad the damage was and if she could wake up, something like that. The medical version of what was happening to my friend was beyond me, at that point, I just wanted to know if she’d ever be her again.

“I’ve gotta bust you outta here somehow/I’ve never seen your heart this tired/I’ve never seen your spirit held down/I know that you say/This is what you get/For being a bad child/But I know this will be your reward/In just a little while/In just a little while/It’s testing the strong ones/Scarring the beautiful ones/It’s holding the loved ones/One last time” ~ Testing the Strong Ones – Copeland, Beneath Medicine Tree

She was so small in that hospital bed, she was a tiny girl as it was. But a spunky tiny, you noticed Lizzie in a room. Her arrival at Eastridge was not uncontroversial. Who was this adorable girl with the short hair and Snapples and why was she befriending all our crushes? We became friends when I found out she liked Brand New, and we were pretty inseparable from that point on, the beginning of a social circle that exists, on some level, to this day. Here, in the hospital, the looming monitors and tubes in her mouth made Lizzie seem so small, and weak, contrary to everything I knew her to be. Her eyes were shut, but clearly swollen with fluid. Her dark curly pixie cut was matted back against her bandaged skull, her toes were polished.

We made playlists, full of Elliott Smith and Guster and Jimmy Eat World, songs we knew she’d love. We drew pictures, so many of my friends are amazingly talented artists. We bought journals to circulate, making sure they had the right looks to them (“Circles, not squares”), and wrote our feelings out, messages to Lizzie and God. We sat next to her bed and held her hand, I remember telling the nurse when I saw blood coming out of her left ear. I remember her telling me that can happen in situations like this, don’t worry, and all I could think was how fucking unbelievable this was. I still don’t know what happened in that car.

Crisis friendships formed, even one between Tim and Liz’s new boyfriend Greg who went to a different school. They’d met at Alexandria Bay — Lizzie loved the water, and the long drive there, too, so she could read and write and think. Dan and I began talking again, whatever we were fighting about instantly became irrelevant when faced with the loss of this mutual cornerstone to our existence. Liz had so many friends, some we’d never met from her past school and from the bay, and we shared our stories and memories to pass the time. We kept talismans close — the friendship bracelets she made, the notes, the decorated song lyrics, the mix CDs. Everything that was her favorite became a lifeline.

“When I was younger and thought of myself/I never dreamed I’d become like this/A snap of your fingers/An end to the argument/Anything for you, love” ~Ramona – Guster, Keep it Together

Six days in the hospital, living in this haze, going home to shower and fake sleep and going right back. My parents asked me if I wanted to sleep at home one night. No, I told them. No, because if this is the last time I get to see her, I need to be there. Where else would I be?

I remember not knowing what to say most of the time. I remember crying lots, then being unable to cry. I remember throwing up in hospital bathrooms. I remember us dragging a couch from one lounge into the other so we’d have more room to hang out. I remember laughter feeling awkward but necessary, as we distracted ourselves between updates.

That Saturday, doctors told Mike what was happening. She wouldn’t be able to breathe on her own. She had limited brain activity. Nothing else we can do, doctors said. At least, this is how I remember it. All I knew was that my friend was going to die. This wonderful girl I’d spent so much time with, shared so much with, was not going to make it.

They brought in some therapist to talk to us. We sat in a big circle in a conference room. No one really had anything to say. Dan and I made jokes about each other, feigning normalcy in the face of something so horrible. We were such kids, who thought we’d knew it all and felt it all, only to realize none of us can ever know anything for certain.

I said goodbye to Liz that night, holding her tiny, tiny hand in both of mine and saying “I’ll see you someday.” I didn’t want to go home, so I called a couple trusted girlfriends to pick me up and drive me to the pier. The water was so, so stormy, and the sky was thick with black clouds, stars invisible. The world was menacing and awful and I screamed and screamed and screamed, mostly nonsense but a lot of “whys.” I think we went to the diner after, and I ordered black coffee.

“So what would you think of me now?/So lucky, so strong, so proud?” ~Hear You Me – Jimmy Eat World, Bleed American

Senior year started shortly thereafter, and I was a shell of who I was the year before. I left campus when I wasn’t supposed to, smoked cigarettes outside the courtyard window. I became very ill in October, stayed home for a month with mono and slept through most of it. Back at school, none of us wanted to be there, but we made the most of it, I think. We didn’t talk about her much — Tim least of all — and we pretended we were into what we were doing. I re-started the school newspaper to help pass time, taught extra hours at the dance studio on the weekends. Every now and then one of us would reach out to one another to cry, to remember her, or to pontificate on the meaning of life and death. We knew none of us would ever be the same, but we were stronger. We were prepared. Nothing would ever hurt this much again, we knew.

The following summer, before we left for college, we still lit candles at the hill even though it wasn’t the exact anniversary. We were going our separate ways, but we’d be back, we told each other. We’d always be back. Through the years the attendance has varied depending on who is in town. I’ve missed two of these events myself, though I made sure to call and find out when it was, made sure they’d remember me there, too. Mostly, lately,  we talk about how fast life seems to be changing, how we’re growing up. And we’ve talked about how our memories of her still live somewhere in the back of our minds, but it’s harder to see her than it was the year before.

I cling to the details I have, of her gorgeous brown eyes and tiny hands, the shirts she always wore and the purse she often slung across her shoulder. The way she’d rub your nose when you were sad, and it was weird, but it helped calm you down and made you smile. How she volunteered at summer Bible camps. The incredible sculptures she could make out of clay, ceramics, Snapple caps, whatever you gave her to transform. The amazing things she could do with Sharpies. The way we made fun of our pre-calc teacher in class and pretended we didn’t care but always tried to ace the tests. Her poetry. The times she talked me off the ledge. The depth of the darkness she had herself and tried to hide, and the strength she’d always seem to find.

She would’ve been amazing. She would’ve graduated, gone on to school, gotten rid of so much that was bringing her down. She would’ve been the coolest indie chick on campus. Her talents as an artist, a writer, a thinker, would’ve become even more obvious. They would’ve gotten her far. She would’ve been brilliant. She already was.

“Heaven’s not a place that you go when you die/It’s that moment in life when you actually feel alive/so live for the moment/And take this advice live by every word/Love is just a hoax so forget everything that you’ve heard/And live for the moment now” ~The Tide – The Spill Canvas, Sunsets and Car Crashes

Seven years. When you’re 17 you don’t know what it feels like to look back yet, you’re too busy focused on the present. High school is a bubble, these people are your world and the future is so far away. But now? On this side of perspective? If you told me that I am who I am, that I’ve done what I’ve done, I never would’ve dreamed life could be like this. But then again, at 17 I didn’t have much of an idea of what it was to be out in the world… I wonder if I would’ve made different choices if Liz hadn’t died.

Sometimes I think that her death gave us all a better shot at this life, in some cruel backwards way. We were talented but tortured and I wonder if the reality we were faced with at such an impressionable age gave us a perspective that no matter how hard life became, you’d be able to find your way out of it. Those were some of the darkest days, that week and the months thereafter, I’ve ever felt…by comparison, depression became a selfish endeavor and I think of all this when I begin to feel sorry for myself, when goddammit I am still alive aren’t I? I’ve made it this far, right? No point in giving up now.

Your identity shapeshifts after loss, you adapt to a new world minus this person who previously helped define it…but being able to remember her with others is a gift. Her 16, nearly 17, years on this earth were a gift, and we were lucky enough to receive it, blessed enough to learn from her. In the years since Liz’s death I’ve been so grateful to still be able to hold onto others who felt the same. Seven years and I still love them, respect them, wish them all the best in the world. I think this might be the start, though, of paths truly diverging. Where to, exactly, I don’t know, but I do know we’re not together lighting candles at the hill this weekend. That says enough…but I know, I have to know, that they wish we were all together as much as I do.

“You say go slow/But something’s right behind me/Can run away for so long/It will not stop/I will come down, oh no/Let me find way/I’ll take you the edge/Go across that window/And I’ll carry you there/Oh when nothing goes right/Oh when days don’t come to night/Oh when all I see is the error of my own enemy” ~Window – Guster, Parachute

“Will I still laugh with you 
Or has the damage been done 
I knew it couldn’t last forever 
But why’d it have to end so soon
Of course I will still see you 
It just won’t ever be the same 
Nothing really matters now that 
Forever has an end”
~Liz Williams


One great song, three great versions. Ordered in a progression of increasing sadness factor.

“Won’t you let me walk you home from school?
Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?
Maybe Friday I can
Get tickets for the dance
And I’ll take you

Won’t you tell your dad to get off my back?
Tell him what we said about “Paint It Black”
Rock and roll is here to stay
Come inside now, it’s ok
And I’ll shake you

Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of?
Would you be an outlaw for my love?
If it’s so then let me know
If it’s no then I can go

And I won’t make you”

Big Star,#1 Record

Is there a better feeling than falling in love when you’re too innocent to know the trouble you’re getting yourself into? 


Something about hazy June days draws me to Elliott Smith, specifically “From a Basement on a Hill.” I attribute half of this to nostalgia, and the other half to the raspy acoustic sound that is quite numbing from the inside out.

“He said really I just want to dance
Good and evil matched perfect, it’s a great romance
I can deal with some psychic pain
If it’ll slow down my higher brain
Veins full of disappearing ink
Vomiting in the kitchen sink
Disconnecting from the missing link

This is not my life
It’s just a fond farewell to a friend
It’s not what I’m like
It’s just a fond farewell to a friend
Who couldn’t get things right
Fond farewell to a friend”

~A Fond Farewell,
Elliott Smith, From a Basement on a Hall


“I’ll fake it through the day
With some help from Johnny Walker Red.
Send the poison rain down the drain
To put bad thoughts in my head.
Two tickets torn in half
And a lot of nothing to do.
Do you miss me, Miss Misery
Like you say you do?

A man in the park
Read the lines in my hand,
Told me I’m strong
Hardly ever wrong I said “man you mean you”

I had plans for both of us
That involved a trip out of town
To a place I’ve seen in a magazine
That you left lying around.
I don’t have you with me but
I keep a good attitude.
Do you miss me, Miss Misery
Like you say you do?

I know you’d rather see me gone
Than to see me the way that I am,
But I am in the life anyway.

Next door the TVs flashing
Blue frames on the wall.
It’s a comedy of errors, you see.
It’s about taking a fall.
To vanish into oblivion
Is easy to do.
And I try to be but you know me
I come back when you want me to.
Do you miss me, Miss Misery
Like you say you do?”

~Miss Misery, New Moon/Good Will Hunting Soundtrack
Elliott Smith


Another Mix Find. Beautiful little song.

I’m in love with the world through the eyes of a girl
Who’s still around the morning after
We broke up a month ago and I grew up, I didn’t know
I’d be around the morning after
It’s always been wait and see
A happy day and then you pay
And feel like shit the morning after
But now I feel changed around and instead falling down
I’m standing up the morning after
Situations get fucked up and turned around sooner or later
And I could be another fool or an exception to the rule
You tell me the morning after
Crooked spin can’t come to rest
I’m damaged bad at best
She’ll decide what she wants
I’ll probably be the last to know
No one says until it shows
See how it is
They want you or they don’t
Say yes

I’m in love with the world through the eyes of a girl
Who’s still around the morning after

–Elliott Smith, Say Yes


Elliott’s Smith song collection has got a whole lot of heartbreak to pine along to. Folk style storytelling with John Keats-like kind of emotions–he was a fantastic songwriter.

You don’t deserve to be lonely
But those drugs you got won’t make you feel better
Pretty soon you’ll find it’s the only
Little part of your life you’re keeping together

I’m nice to you
I could make it through
That you’re already somebody’s baby
I could make you smile
If you stayed a while
But how long will you stay with me, baby?
-Elliott Smith, Twilight
From a Basement on a Hill

There’s a string break that occurs almost exactly midway in the song that makes something that was so simple seem so much more epic. It’s so satisfying, and the same phrase repeats so much it’s almost hypnotic. Hypnotized is how i want to feel when i’m listening to a singer/songwriter/acoustic guitar musician like Smith. i want it to be sad and dreamy and beautiful. Joshua Radin, The Spill Canvas-i think they’re pretty good at it too, for their respective genres, but they lack the dusty-trail sound that Smith’s got in his guitar playing.

He’s got that drug chic dripping all over his lyrics, making it a tripped-up, tragic love song for the doomed-from-the-start-everyone’s-down-chips kind of romance. He’s got in his breathy high notes, too, and in the pop-structure chords, that hypnotic thing. Oh the 90s. You had some great stuff.

i read this book from the 33 1/3 series that reminded me “My Heart Will Go On” beat “Miss Misery” for the Oscar for Best Original Song. Caused the author of a book to write a whole book about why people care about Celine Dion, if somehow a song like that mattered more to the Academy than a sing-along-to-the-sad-story kind of song like Miss Misery.

But Smith sounds a bit different to those who got into him after his death i think. He’s a learning tool for us, and while current fans may have really valued his musicianship, those listening closely might take his messages different than his fans did then. It might go for anyone whose art survives them if that’s what they were well known for when they were alive–does it resonate differently to the person depending on when they became fans?

I’m inclined to say yes. John Lennon’s fans when he was doing all his solo work for example, compared to those who listen to what he’s saying now–taken in totally different contexts. To them, he was talking about their plights, and now, we can relate them to ours. People here are still singin’ “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance” but it’s about different issues, with even more history piled on top of what those songs stand for.

The fact we’re still singing them? That’s a whole other show.

Twilight, from YouTube.

Sidenote: i still don’t know how i feel about people putting covers of themselves singing on YouTube. Are you trying to get discovered? Looking for advice to gauge your talent? i don’t know, and i don’t think there’s a wrong answer but, something about it is interesting. There’s fucking tons of them.

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