Note: This is Drunk Rock, a new ill-advised, potentially-regular column where emily gets weepy and nostalgic about old albums that you may have missed (or wish you missed) the first time around.
Okay, kids. We’re gonna mix it up a little here with a heart-to-heart. Personal anecdote time.
The first time I ever listened to Elliott Smith I was lying down with my eyes closed, locked in a bedroom, trying desperately not to go to sleep. Some of you might point out that that’s pretty much the least ideal way to try not to sleep, and those of you would be right, but here’s the story.
It had to do with a boy—of course it had to do with a boy, because it’s absolutely too bewildering and filled with teenage naïveté and sex and drugs and alcohol for it to be any other way—but most of the story takes place without him. He’s just in the background somewhere, on the other side of that door.
I had met M at a junior summer camp at an Ivy League school that neither of us would go on to attend. He was taking a Lit course and had learned Latin at his boarding school. I said to him, “You’re one of those guys, aren’t you? One of those guys who sits around in cafes and reads Hemingway?” and he wordlessly produced The Sun Also Rises from his pack. He bought me tea and I helped him hang a Miles Davis poster above his bed. Later that week, when our first time alone together morphed head-spinningly before my eyes from casual hangout to romantic entanglement, I gazed, stunned, into Miles’ solemn eyes, Kind of Blue in tidy compliment to the red marks all across my neck.
The summer came and went and September found me at a house party he was hosting. I spent the evening talking to everyone but him (where was he, in retrospect?) and refusing to put down my drink for even a second, fragments of some After School Special or parental warning going through my head. It didn’t seem like the kind of party those things happened at, but I didn’t know better, and to be fair, it seems like the kind of thing where nobody ever says “oh, yeah, this is a party where I’m gonna get dosed.”
At some point in the evening, my not-boyfriend remembers that I exist and everyone settles in to watch “Silence of the Lambs”. After the movie, two-thirds of the party goes out on the back patio and smokes pot. To put things in perspective here— I was too young and sheltered to be anything less than absolutely stunned by the sudden appearance of drugs, and I still believe to this day that I will never reach an age at which I will be desensitized to “Silence of the Lambs”, so here’s where it starts to get weird.
Long story short, pot smoke wafts into M’s parents’ Xanadu-sized neocolonial mansion. Liquor somehow materializes. At some point I hear M’s shrill, Catholic mother coming down the stairs calling for him. I panic. I close myself in the guest bedroom, put my headphones on, and lie down, determined that, if nothing else, I would not be yelled at by M’s mother for being involved in illicit drug use.
The next several hours, for me, are spent in absolute simmering confusion. I lie on the guest bed, terrified variously of graying Irish Catholic women, and jail, and serial killers who want to eat your skin. I want desperately not to fall asleep (so that I won’t have psychologically terrifying nightmares) and not to leave the bedroom (so that I won’t have to face M or his mother). I feel both affronted and forgotten, a combination which is difficult to achieve unless you’re me. But one iTunes track leads to another and somehow I wind up listening to Elliott Smith’s New Moon, which has mistakenly found its way onto my pink original-mini iPod via my father’s computer. In my state of social- and physical- paralysis, the somehow familiar yet tenuous-sounding voice of Elliott Smith keeps me comfortingly half-asleep, half-awake in the middle of the night until the coast is clear.
We should all be so lucky as to have Elliott Smith play the part of Virgil to our teenage Dantes, solemnly if somewhat spookily ferrying us through uncertainties too grand for us to comprehend in the moment. To this day, the opening chords of New Moon ring of simultaneous teenage woe and quiet strength, fading into full-blown song from some nebulous space just north of white noise. Elliott himself is something between ghost and mirage, coolly navigating with what is either detachment or an uncommonly level head; the “Angel in the Snow” to combat the inferno. A private guide to the weird times that we all encounter between middle school and college, providing ghostly voiceover until those times are over.
Speaking of “over”: when I eventually decide that it’s safe to open my door and venture out, everyone is either asleep or gone and the party is done. I’ve missed the danger but I’ve also missed the entire party.
In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I got the better end of the deal.
Keep in mind that I have no idea at this point in my young life what weed does to a person. As far as I’m concerned, smoking a spliff turns you into Zool, Keeper of the Keys from “Ghostbusters”…a movie which, by the way, I remained convinced was a horror movie well into my teenage years.