At what point in a relationship do you start sharing music? For some, a mutual admiration for an artist serves as the catalyst for a great friendship. For others, finding an anthem for your love is the way to take a romance to the next step.
But for my stepmom, there were certain artists that were meant to be kept secret.
That’s not to say my stepmom didn’t share her music with me. She did. Treks to school were set to the Smashing Pumpkins or the Smiths or the Pixies. Many of my first concerts were spent holding onto the tail of her shirt, and many of the playlists on my iPod Nano were curated to reflect what she had taught me about good music.
But it wasn’t until my stepmom played me an Elliott Smith song that I really understood that music could be a symbol for who a person is, not just what kind of music they like.
“Waltz #2 (XO)” was the first song I heard from Smith. I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing when my stepmom put it on. All I remember was the lull of the snare drum, those low licks of the guitar strums and the ratty texture of Smith’s vocals hitting my eardrums, softly at first, and then all at once.
Hearing this song wasn’t some big epiphany. It didn’t bring me inner peace or rock my world. “Waltz #2 (XO)” wasn’t my white whale, and it wasn’t a desperately needed breath of fresh air. Instead, the song made me really nervous. I was afraid to ask my stepmom to play it again, afraid to even say that I liked it. There was some haunted mystery behind those lyrics and that collection of chords that left me feeling like I was picking at a box I couldn’t, and probably shouldn’t, open.
And that feeling helped me understand why my stepmom didn’t introduce me to Smith right away. Some music is really easy to share. Sending someone songs from well-known bands or tracks that have agreeable beats requires very little emotional labor. But there are certain artists, songs or albums that require a level of protection. They expose something about the listener that isn’t, and shouldn’t be, shared with everyone.
For my stepmom, this was Elliott Smith. His music is not supposed to be for everyone. His songs are found in pockets of shade and hidden under piles of scarves, not basking naked in the sun. His lyrics were never superficial. They were hymns of sun-kissed sorrow and hands flailing while sinking deep underwater. His music scored his battles with addiction, with unrequited love and lack of self-worth.
Smith left a piece of himself on the table every time he made a song. He personally laid each part of his tracks, carefully decided where each finger-pick landed and where each harmony came in. No, it didn’t feel like these songs were made for the person listening. But it was clear that he exposed himself making his music. Being vulnerable while consuming his work was the least a listener could do.
Listening to Smith, I learned a lot about my stepmom. She was always a happy Texas-born, Los Angeles-chic woman who bought me slushies at movie theaters and held my hair back when I got sick later that night. She was joyous to my dad’s glum, optimistic to my dad’s pessimistic. But through Smith’s music, I was introduced to an incredibly complicated person. Here was a woman who had seen unbelievable loss, who had faced unimaginable pain head-on, and yet would never let the sun go down.
And by listening to Elliott Smith, my stepmom became my mom.
There was a point in our relationship when my mom chose to play Smith for me, just as there was a point when she decided that I was going to be her daughter. She knew Smith before his Grammy, before “Good Will Hunting,” when he was just a man playing music from a basement on a hill. And she could’ve kept him her secret, protecting his music from whatever meaning I might bring to it or whatever way I might change what he represented for her.
And the truth is, we both have our own relationships with his music now. I associate Smith with nighttime drives from Santa Ana and boys trying to learn to play my favorite song on the guitar. He followed me to college, and his music scored every time I moved into a new house, a constant everywhere I go.
But my mom and I will always have a shared connection to him, one built on drives from LA to San Francisco, late nights playing XO on my record player and Either/Or tattoos. Even my individual experiences with his music are informed by the memories I built with my mom. Whenever I hear his music, I am comforted to know that somewhere, a thousand miles away, she might be listening to him too.
So, I will go on protecting Elliott Smith, the way my mom did before she introduced him to me. And I’m not just protecting his music and the story it tells, but the story of me and my mom.