“Elliott Smith had been playing “King’s Crossing” sporadically at his shows for four years before he recorded it in late 2003. But it was only in his last few months, in a streak of sets that ran from transcendent to painful depending on his chemical imbalances, that his half-sister, Ashley Welch, and his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, would add their responses in-time. At the end of Smith’s second chorus, after he sang the crippling line “Just give me one good reason not to do it,” they would scream back: “Because we love you!”
You can find videos and bootlegs of those late performances now, Smith singing the line before voices come in from off-camera, piercing the white noise. The one that I keep coming back to is from the Henry Fonda Theatre, January 31, 2003. He opened his set that night with “King’s Crossing,” stuttering and slurring through the track, losing his phrasing while his right hand struggled to stay steady, a warped cog throwing off an intricate machine.
And then there’s the scream: “Because we love you!”
King’s Crossing” turned out to be the last song that Smith recorded, on October 12 2003. In his essential piece on Smith’s last days, Liam Gowing writes about that session at New Monkey studios. He writes that Smith recorded the vocals and then invited Chiba in to record her line: “Because I love you.” He proposed to her there and then. Nine days later, off-balance after radically altering his narcotics intake, diet, and prescription meds, grappling with what seemed to be a resurfacing trauma from childhood, Smith killed himself at his home in Los Angeles.
“King’s Crossing” appeared on his posthumous From a Basement on the Hillas a terrifying centerpiece, a howl of voices that gives way to a funereal waltz before a cast of marionettes and skinny Santas show up to hurl viciousness at the protagonist. By the time it reaches the end of that frightening second chorus, Chiba’s voice is buried so deep in the mix that you have to listen through headphones and turn it all the way up to discern her line. Unless you’re really listening for it, all you’ll hear is Smith responding to himself: “So, do it.”-from an article by Alex Robert Ross
Bridget hung a picture on her door. In alternating colors of fat Crayola markers from the basic 10 pack, she wrote, “I love you, mom. You can come in my room anytime.” Then, she signed off with a little black misshapen heart next to the letter B. An invitation, an invocation. A loving, yet beseeching, recognition of her mother’s emotional absence. Later, laying on my belly between her & her brother on the living room floor….we are building a Lego house for the three of us to live in. They take over & make a brightly checkered floor for the house out of the little square tiles. In the living room of the brick abode, they stack the pieces to make a rainbow colored stool for me, so I can sit & watch the world outside the little plastic window. I have to get up and go in the kitchen to hide the tears in my eyes. I love you, guys. You can come in my room anytime…but… it’s best if you just don’t.
And I’m sorry your mother is so sad. I’m sorry that even when you build her a house & give her a window to see the world, she continues to look for the exit.
The other night, Rowan came upstairs. He said he wanted to “’nuggle” with me. I was drunk again, laid out on his father’s bed. He laid down next to me, wriggling up close to me like a puppy. My heavy hand smoothed his soft, golden hair and I told him he was a good boy, meaning it more than any other words I have ever formed in this rotten mouth. He told me, “I know. You a good girl, too, mom.” I couldn’t feel anything beyond the shame of knowing I had done nothing close to earning him saying that to me.
I went to R & K’s this weekend to see their new black lab puppy, Branson. I have always been a dog person…in a way that borders on pathological. I baby-talked him and lovingly pet him, as he chewed on the hem of my dress, licked my face, playfully nipped at the ends of my red curls…K. laughed, delighted at my rare show of genuine joy. It was a thumbtack of a reminder that my relentless, inevitable slow roll towards suicide is hard for them, too…the few people who do love me & just wish I could be happy. R & I rhapsodized about going to Woodstock, Ny and finding Amanda Palmer & Neil Gaiman and making them our new best friends. R, K & I get on these kicks, these pipe dreams…While I know it won’t happen, it seems to sustain us even in the face of its cosmic improbability. Idealism, naivete are their own pipe dreams, I guess. I’m too old for it, but I imbibe. Then while I was there, my mom left me a voicemail…in a rare affectionate move, she signed off, calling me honey. It’s too late for that, mom, you’ve already lost me.
Lately, as I feel the net of my life close in on me, I think a lot about the annual summer trips to Lake Ontario to our neighbor’s camp when I was a little kid…I remember sleeping in the girls’ bunk with my sister & the neighbor girls, listening to a Beach Boys cassette in the tape deck. Playing on the beach, sandy footed & happy, shrieks of joy carried away on the wind…our hair whipping into our open mouths. Memories of all of us throwing each other off their dock, then twisting in the water with the sleekness of otters. My mom and dad each holding one of my hands and swinging me into the waves. Eating salt potatoes and corn on the cob and hot dogs at picnic tables. Playing hide and go seek in the dark. I think about these summer moments a lot lately because those are some of the only happy memories from my childhood. It’s hard to remember any of us ever being happy.
I wonder what my kids will remember someday when treasure hunting their own difficult childhood…I have a feeling it will be our car rides together, oddly enough. This weekend, I took them on a picnic and to a park. In the car, I pointed out how we were in the dip of the Mohawk Valley…how we were surrounded by greatness on either side of our old car, speeding along with the death rattle. Pointed out the massive farms. Trees like green spears. Cows like little plastic animals stationed on a model railroad, grazing lazily on a hillside. We talked about the clouds…what we thought they felt like. Cotton candy, pillows, bunnies…We sang along to the Mountain Goats, to Concrete Blonde…I tried to tell then how much I love them, but my vocabulary feels woefully inadequate. A few weeks ago, in the restless, bad judgment of a manic spell, I took them out and drove them into a rainstorm. Found some green-hilled, curvy back roads…and headed straight for the dark roll of the storm clouds…I rolled the windows down and let the rain into the car, laughing & screaming, exhilarated with the rush of doing something inexplicable and dumb. Seeing their mother come alive, my children laughed and squealed, sticking their hands out their windows, trying to catch rain on their tongues. We walked in our door and I shrugged at their father, as he appraised our sopping wet forms…goofy, sheepish grins on our faces.
Will they recognize my love for what it is?
I don’t know.
As a kid, I was sick all the time. I had asthma, severe dust allergies…leading to multiple bouts in the ring, fighting pneumonia & bronchitis each winter. Even then, my fluid filled lungs wondered if breathing air was worth all the work. But my mom, my mom who I give so much shit, my mom would record herself reading my favorite books on my little Playskool tape recorder…I could listen to tapes of her reading to me while I convalesced on the couch, as she scrubbed the cracked linoleum in the kitchen on her hands and knees. Bleach drying her hands, cracking her fingertips…not even thirty years old, but already used up by having too many kids at too young an age and being too poor to take care of us. I remember this one book about a circus bear named Kissyfur and his father, Gus….She knew I loved that book and she read it the best on that tape, acting it out. Maybe she loved me after all. I should’ve built her a house with a majestically rainbow colored stool, facing out a window to a better life. It all feels too late to fix now.
Rowan just came downstairs. I gave him a kiss and a hug. I asked him if he knows how much I love him. “With all your heart,” he answered.
Give me one good reason not to do it.
In truth, there are many.
I am undeserving of all of them.