Go on YouTube and pick an Elliot Smith video at random—a live performance, interview—and it’s clear that that he was painfully uncomfortable in front of cameras and interviewees, but front of a crowd, armed with only an acoustic guitar, he transformed into someone infinitely more comfortable and unimpeachably cool.
As a novice guitar player, it’s natural to gravitate to my favorite songs, many of which were written by the late Smith. Unfortunately, most of his songs are (so far[?]) beyond my skill set.
The realist point of view is that I should stick to the basics, crawl before I can walk and so on. An important lesson to any aspiring artist is to not become discouraged by the inability to match the masters who have far more experience. I should be doing finger exercise, repeating progressions from major chord to major chord, playing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” not “Miss Misery” and “Pitseleh.”
I have not adopted this mentality. Rather I’ve chosen to actually blame Smith for writing a song that’s so hard to play. Why on Earth should there be G minor-add 9? Surely, a less-challenging chord will suffice. I insert plain old G minor—no picnic to finger, itself—it sounds terrible. I consult the internet. Is there an easier way to play B flat than fingering an A on the third fret with a barre on the first? No there is not, although there are plenty of more difficult ways to do it.
What worse fate than to love a song so much and not be able perform an adequate simulacra? I make a mental note to consult the Greek myths to see if someone was tortured in this way for forsaking the gods.
On the way to work, I listen to “Miss Misery” four times in a row as if the music will find its way from my ears to my fingers over the course of the day and I’ll come home able to play it forward, backwards and blindfolded before an entire harem of enraptured hipster girls.
I get home and my wrist is too sore to even come close to sounding the A sting with a barre. I spend fifteen minutes of playing E-G-A before eating dinner and stewing about how this failure in execution represents a microcosm of my entire life.
Good Will Hunting made a star of Elliot Smith. He had to play “Miss Misery” in front of a camera like a million times, but the hard part was struggling though the idiotic interviews with the likes of Carson Daly, then performing in a baffling white suit at the Oscars in front of millions only to have the song blown out of the water by “My Heart Will Go On.”
It’s obvious what’s happened here. Elliot Smith encrypted his most famous song to protect it against hacks. “Hahaa!” I hear him saying in his soft, disinterested voice, “That’ll teach these people to waste their time trying to appropriate someone else’s psyche.” Four months after Smith’s death, YouTube was born.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch another “Miss Misery” tutorial video.