Long Live Rock: Elliott Smith

The Black Cat, Washington, D.C., September or October 1998

I’ve been doing this concert series on and off for two years now, and a chance encounter with a bootleg recording of Elliott Smith performing John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” at the Black Cat club cracked open a forgotten memory, a forgotten concert.

In 1998 I saw Elliott Smith at the Black Cat, and I saw him cover “Jealous Guy.” But the performance I saw was not the live version you can find online, generally regarded as the best bootleg concert ever of Smith. That’s the April 17, 1998 show at the Black Cat. I don’t know the exact date, but memory and circumstantial evidence tells me that the concert I saw at the Black Cat was in the fall of that year, late September or maybe October.

No record of that concert exists.

I googled my heart out, scouring the web and local newspapers for a shred of proof that Elliott Smith was at the Black Cat twice in 1998, once when the widely circulated bootleg was taped, and once when I saw him.

Nothing.

It’s as if the show never happened.

I know it was the fall of ’98 because I was no longer living in D.C. and I made a special trip down from Philadelphia to see the show with Eileen. A special trip after we had already fallen halfway apart. By this point, every conversation left us, in Eileen’s words, gutted.

But we had the tickets, we had the plans, we had the Amtrak schedule, we had it all, and we went through with the concert. Back then the Black Cat was in the middle of a desolate strip of 14th Street. Whole Foods hadn’t been built, and gentrification was a word that only flittered across the pages of the City Paper, a word we laughed at in Logan Circle, when we saw the junkies and dealers come out as night fell, their needles sharp, their eyes hungry.

The concert that Eileen and I saw — unlike the gentle bootleg acoustic April concert — was hard-edged, sharp, maybe even brittle. I don’t think Elliott Smith even brought his acoustic guitar. It was all electric, backed up by the opening act. I don’t know their name, but even if I hadn’t forgotten it, it would have been forgettable. When someone from the audience shouted out “Angeles” as a request, Smith laughed sardonically and mumbled something about that song being impossible to play.

It was Eileen who turned me onto Smith. She had a knack for finding tortured, fated musicians. She adored Jeff Buckley, who drowned while we were together. She was devoted to Morphine, whose lead singer died just after we fell apart. And of course, she found consolation in Elliott Smith’s introverted lyrics, his dark view of the world, his bad haircut.

I guess I must sound hurt or angry, and I guess I probably am. I don’t know whether I’m angry at Elliott or Eileen. After the concert, after that night, I never saw either one again, though I sometimes heard and read their words, on the phone, in email, on CD liner notes.

Elliott Smith hung around for five more years, and that’s more than I can say for Eileen. She’s around, but she didn’t hang around.

Ten years have past, and somewhere along the way I had forgotten that show. Most times I forget Eileen too. But every so often, when I’m random shuffling through ten thousand songs, I hear Smith’s “Baby Britain,” and a lyric that reminds me of haunted, frightened Eileen, who, in the end, I hope has found her way: “You’ve got a look in your eye / when you’re saying goodbye / Like you want to say hi.”

Elliott Smith, “Jealous Guy” (Black Cat, April 17, 1998)
Elliott Smith, “Baby Britain” (End Sessions, February 22, 1999)

3 thoughts on “Long Live Rock: Elliott Smith

  1. There was a part of me that saw this post and said “I’m going to figure it out.”  It was the side of me that is so sure of my Google skills that there was no way I couldn’t find at least a page.

    That fought with the part of me that, after a few hours’ searching yesterday, couldn’t.  I was left saying to myself, “just leave it alone.”  I’m not one to argue things with which I’m not involved, and I’m a strong believer that nothing in life is truer than sentiment. 

    But the first impulses came rushing back this morning.  I guess this post evoked something more in me than a research challenge.  You see, I liked people on and off through my high school stay, but my first major crush came in my junior year.  For chronological purposes, that was the 2003-2004 school year.  In one of the few classes that allowed us completely free seating, she chose to sit next to me.  I tell myself that, anyway–it could have been the lack of remaining seats, or my proximity to the back of class–it could have been anything.  Still, she was gorgeous and we hit it off well.  She was smart, witty, and probaby most importantly, paid more attention to me than most other people in high school.  I was hopeless.  So when we started talking about music, and she was into the indie scene, of course Elliott Smith came up.  So did Jeff Buckley, Ani DiFranco, Damien Rice and others, but I was particularly taken with Smith’s work.  I found out she and I weren’t meant to me about the same time Smith took his leave; it was just when I needed his music most, or least.  I don’t know for sure. 

    Anyway, I came up with this:
    http://janiceordal.tripod.com/1998_elliottsmith_showreviews.htm

    I kept thinking, what if the details escaped, and really you went straight through DC to NC?  The Cat’s Cradle is down there, and he played on 9-29-98.  A bit of searching on this date came up with the search preview containing this information:

    “09.29.98 – CAT’S CRADLE – CARRBORO,NC (Electric)”

    But it turned out to be a sponsored search page.  You know, the useless kind that tease you with the information you want, but not what you need.  I searched on this information specifically, and came up with this site again as the only result.

    And then, as I was persuing that search with freer, more liberal terms, I found it.  I was ready to tell you that you had to have been mistaken, that it couldn’t have been then, because, as you found, there was nothing.  But there’s this.

    Only a few days after his North Carolina appearance at the Cat’s Cradle, where presumably he was playing the electric guitar, he shows up at the Black Cat again.  There is no track listing here, or a recording, but there’s a date.

    That’s where my search ends.  I tried briefly searching for this date and details about it, but it was in vain.  Though I wish I could provide more, hopefully this site will be nostalgic solace enough.  And hopefully it will not ignite any splinters left behind.

  2. Great detective work – you found it. The 10/1/98 concert must be the one I saw. It’s so strange that there’s no set list or recording of the show — it’s as if something were willing it off the face of the planet…

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