Elliot Smith's “Some Song.”
There are a ton of songs about or inspired by Dallas, and they say a lot about who we are. So each week in this space, we'll take a closer week at one of these songs — and we'll try to determine what, exactly, they say about this great city of ours. Check out this feature's archives here.
In 1998 a largely unknown Elliott Smith stood onstage at the 70th annual Academy Awards performing his song “Miss Misery,” that had appeared during the closing credits of Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting the year before. And though the song wound up losing to Celine Dion's “My Heart Will Go On” in the “Best Original Song” category that night, Smith's newfound fame greatly impacted the rest of his career. Hell, maybe even the rest of his life.
Around that time Smith reflected on the process of adjusting to the idea he had suddenly become a known commodity, telling journalist Erik Pederson at the time that he thought the prevailing narrative in the media that Van Sant had discovered him performing in a coffee shop while working on the movie was complete bullshit.
“I don't know where that came from, but, like, we're friends,” Smith says, “They're all songs I wrote before, except the one that was nominated, and they're all on previously released records. That's why it was so weird when someone was like, 'Oh, Gus discovered him last year playing in a coffee bar.' It's like, Right–since then I went back in time and recorded three records. It makes a good story, but it's not true.”
It's important, here, not to forget Smith's early records, and not just because his deeply autobiographical lyrics reveal so much about Smith as a person, but how his entire personality was shaped. More importantly — for the sake of this column, anyway — they also tell us a bit about Dallas, as well.
In particular, let's look at non-album single “Some Song,” that was released as a b-side to 1995's Needle in the Hay, namely, because it's one song from the period that references the time Smith spent growing up in North Texas by name.
Smith opens the second verse with some biting criticism about his old stomping grounds: “You went down to look at old Dallas town / Where you must be sick just to hang around.”
Though Smith was born in Omaha, Nebraska, his parents split not too long thereafter, and his mother eventually moved him to the Dallas suburb of Duncanville to live with her new husband when Smith was just four. While growing up in the area Smith began taking piano lessons and eventually picked up the guitar as well. His grandfather, a professional musician himself, even went as far as to call Smith a prodigy.
But, musical upbringing aside, Smith's formal years weren't exactly pleasant. Not the way he remembered them, anyway. Many of Smith's songs about this period — this one, included — hint at broken homes, child abuse, and other types of violence.
During the first verse of “Some Song” Smith sings, “Charlie beat you up week after week / And when you grow up you're going to be a freak.” Smith frequently asserted he was abused by his stepfather Charles Welch while growing up. Violence, though, was kind of a pervading theme in Smith's life in those days.
In Autumn de Wilde's biography on Smith, his former girlfriend Joanna Bolme had the following to say about his history of dealing with violence: “He definitely wasn't afraid of getting his ass kicked. That's fucking growing up in Dallas for you. You just get in fights. It's weird. There would be fights scheduled for you. Whether you wanted to or not. You know, they'd say, 'Okay, five o'clock, you have to meet this guy over there by the monkey bars and fight him. We decided.'”
It's a sentiment Smith related to Texas Monthly in 1998. Says Smith: “I was kind of a violent little person—I was not a very happy kid—and the kids at my school were violent little monsters too. So every couple of weeks there was somebody new to fight. I only won a couple in my whole life, but I was one of those kids who just wouldn't throw in the towel, no matter how badly I was getting beat. It was like, 'Yeah, you're gonna kick my butt, but I'm gonna try to hurt you before you do.' More than anything, fighting on the school grounds just landed me in the principal's office, and back then they would spank you with a big wooden paddle that had holes drilled into it.”
It was ingrained from an early age that violence was punished with more violence.
And Smith was far from the only one of his classmates getting embroiled in frequent physical altercations. To this day violence is still something the city of Duncanville deals with. Following the 2005 school year at Duncanville High School — a year in which 78 fights were recorded in the 187 day instruction period — the district voted to spend over $360,000 building a fence around the school to help dispel some of the afterschool violence.
The youths of Duncanville aren't the only ones engaging in violent behavior, either. According to FBI crime data, “the chance of becoming a victim of either violent or property crime in Duncanville is 1 in 27.” For comparison's sake, that makes Duncanville a more dangerous place to live than 81 percent of Texas' cities.
For all its violence, though, Duncanville High also boasts an exceptionally lauded music program. The school's marching band is the only such 5A group to make it the finals of the UIL state championship every year from 1988 to 2012, earning titles in 1986, 1990, and 2002 in the process. In a way that dichotomy is a pretty solid summary of Smith's entire being.
Says Smith's grandfather, Bill Berryman that despite his tendency to get into scraps, violence wasn't necessarily who Smith really was. He related as much in a 2004 Dallas Observer interview where he describes a camping trip the two embarked on when Smith was a teenager. According to that article: “A pack of wild raccoons tried to steal some of their food, and Berryman ran out into the woods with a rifle looking for the raccoons to try and either frighten or kill them. When he got back a few minutes later, Smith was sitting by the campfire feeding potato chips to one of the raccoons by hand. 'That's what kind of person he was. He wasn't about to harm or injure any living thing. He loved everything and everyone.'”
So the fact that, at the age of 14, Smith decided to relocate to Portland to live with his biological father makes perfect sense. And, though, roughly a decade after the move Smith released his first solo album, he never did completely escape his past. To be perfectly fair he didn't necessarily want to, either. Said Smith, those years shaped who he was and influenced a large amount of his material.
He even went as far as to commemorate his time in the state with a Texas tattoo on his left arm — although not for the obvious reasons. In an interview with the fanzine Comes With a Smile Smith was quick to point out this particular bit of ink had nothing to do with his heart growing fonder after relocating to Portland.
“I didn't get it because I like Texas, kinda the opposite,” Smith says. “But I won't forget about it although I'm tempted to 'cause I don't like it there.”
And with that Smith's two biggest musical trademarks — his deeply emotional and often depressing lyricism and delicate, wispy vocal delivery — can both be attributed to the often tumultuous decade he spent growing up in the Dallas suburbs.
Smith echoed the latter in a 1998 interview with Rolling Stone.
“It's probably pretty easy to put together why somebody who grew up in Texas getting in fights a lot would not want to get up on the stage and start belting out songs at the top of their lungs. I've had enough of people yelling.”
How do you like them apples?