Dispatches from a Placeholder: A Story About Elliott Smith's New Moon

Rewind, Local Music
Martin Douglas

With Rewind, KEXP digs out beloved albums, giving them another look on the anniversary of its release. Even though Elliott Smith's posthumous collection of material, New Moon, was released in May, since we're celebrating his life and the tragedy of his passing 15 years ago on Oct. 21, we thought we'd make an exception.

It’s ten in the morning and we were drunk.

We’re sitting on the floor of my bedroom, deep in the heart of the apartment I shared with my sister. My wastebasket runneth over with cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Cans upon cans upon cans. She came in clutching a case of the inexpensive beer like a toddler who would still get mad when you didn’t hold them, wearing her signature black hoodie and black jeans. It was a grey spring morning in 2007; I had the day off from my increasingly stifling job at a Southcenter department store and she was just kicking around doing nothing that day. She unzipped her hoodie to reveal she was wearing one of my shirts. I wasn’t at all surprised, it was, at this point, an established part of our dynamic. We each cracked open another can of PBR and continued to listen to the newly released collection of Elliott Smith b-sides and rarities, titled New Moon.

There was no way we were going to have a chance at getting anything done that day, so we decided to lean harder into the 24-pack she brought over.

Que Linda and I had known each other probably two weeks. During an encounter selling her shoes at the aforementioned stifling department store job, she slipped me her phone number at the wrap desk. We hung out two nights later. The bulk of our conversation was standard getting-to-know-you fare until I told her I had been blogging about music for a couple years. We ended up chatting in her kitchen until 3:30 in the morning about our love of music and how it pretty much saved both of our lives up to that point.


One of the artists we bonded over was Elliott Smith, an artist whose music I sadly didn’t discover for myself until after his death. Que Linda seemed kind of surprised that From a Basement on a Hill was the first album of Smith’s I had heard, partly because she kept forgetting we weren’t the same age and partly because Heatmiser had gotten her through some pretty rough years as an alienated teenage punk. I joked to her I was a late bloomer when it came to having good taste and had to catch up fast out of necessity. She professed how much she loved Big Star when Smith’s cover of “Thirteen” gently cut through the air of my bedroom. Most of the punks I knew loved Big Star.

Though we all were immersed in the days of album leaks and whatnot, I waited until the album was released in stores to listen to this collection of b-sides and rarities mostly recorded during my favorite period of Smith's output, the years between his self-titled record and the epochal Either/Or. I had no idea whether she had heard it or not, but I was going to make her listen to it with me. I mean, what better way is there to break in a new friendship than to listen to the most heartbreaking music you could possibly curate?

We drank beer and talked about music over the spaghetti western guitars appearing toward the end of "High Times," over the sunrise organ of "Either/Or" (one of the many title tracks of Smith's which don't appear on the albums they're titled after). We marveled at the guitar playing of songs like "Angel in the Snow," "Whatever (Folk Song in C)," "Placeholder," and "Going Nowhere." At the time, I dabbled into what I would generously describe as an experimental singer/songwriter project, but I was more of the "learn four chords and go write a song" variety. Elliott Smith songs are impossible to play unless you have achieved a certain mastery of guitar; I knew I'd have to play at least another ten to fifteen years to catch up to his facility with his instrument in these early days of his solo career.


By the time our first go-round of New Moon got to “See You Later” and “Half Right,” Que Linda was audibly sobbing, reminiscing about the nights she would spend, wracked with depression, crying in her bed. Underneath heavy blankets with all of her clothes on, thinking about the rising count of friends and loved ones swimming in alcohol dependency or lost in the fog of drug addiction. Smith’s mastery of choosing the saddest melodies for maximum impact certainly didn’t dam up the tear ducts, either.

We shared commonalities in the way of depression and being survivors of abuse, so both of us felt a strong kinship with Smith’s music. We drank to celebrate still being alive, but we also drank to take the edge off of a very heavy existence. Neither of us were drug users, but we were very close to people in various stages of addiction. We both considered suicide at a time where we had people asking us, "Why are you so sad? You are so talented, you have the world at your fingertips." Like talent – or any other external ego-stroking quality, like intelligence or good looks – is enough to truly stop someone from hating themselves. We identified greatly with faking it through the day, thanks to Johnnie Walker Red (the early version of “Miss Misery”); with feeling like a loser, a “Placeholder;” with feeling like an “Angel in the Snow,” a cold, still life that fell from the sky to lay beside someone else.

Que Linda was 34 when she took her own life. Elliott Smith was the same age in 2003, when he – according to consensus – did the same thing. I didn’t know how young that actually was in the early days of my friendship with a woman who changed my life, listening to an artist who deepened the scope of my life, pounding back beers on a rainy morning with nothing to do. But I’ve been thinking about it with great frequency in the weeks since I turned 35.

What I did know is that we were going to finish that case of PBR at all costs. After about four listens of New Moon and three or so hours of conversation about the darkest recesses of our soul and how music has the power to balm that pain, we finally got through it.

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