Steven Paul Smith was born on August 6, 1969 to Bunny and Gary Smith, who were then living in Omaha, Nebraska. About a year later Elliott's parents decided to divorce. Bunny moved to Texas, taking with her Elliott, who was raised in the Duncanville area (near Dallas).
Asked about his earliest memory, he once replied: "Playing on a gravel embankment next to a highway in Dallas. I found a turtle, picked him up and he peed on my hand."
Technology was a challenge to which he rose at an early age. "My first memory," he recalled on another occasion, "is of breaking the TV by repeatedly flicking the volume and turning the set on and off. I was three. It was the first piece of electronic equipment I was ever allowed to operate. The first day I was, I broke it." He added "I got really into cartoons-H. R. Pufnstuf, y'know, crap like that."
Gary Smith, Elliott's father, worked as a psychiatrist. Elliott resembles him physically, and apparently they also share a certain considered way of speaking, of carefully enunciating their words. This way of speaking could be construed as part of a reassuring couchside manner-or an awareness of how important words are in shaping reality; how words can illuminate, can charm, can condemn or demean, elevate or heal. "When he was three," Gary once recalled about his son, "I brought him over to my apartment. I put the White Album on a lot. He loved "Rocky Raccoon." I just tried to get it off before "Why Don't We Do It In the Road" came on." (Spin, Dec. 98) A result of this early exposure to the White Album was his determination, at age 5, to become a bass player. He once commented: "How could you not want to be a bass player, after hearing Helter Skelter?" His fondness for the bass and those who play it was to be a theme in his life.
Elliott still remembers his first crush. " She was my next door neighbor when we were four. Her name was Amy, and we'd get married on the sidewalk almost every day. Then if we got mad at each other we'd have to get divorced for an hour or so till it blew over."
"When he was a little boy he hated to get dressed up, to wear button-up shirts," said his mother Bunny. "I asked him once why he didn't like to dress up. He said it was because the buttons smelled bad."
In an interview with a French reporter in 1998, he said: "I was born in Nebraska and I grew up in Texas. There was only country music. I liked some things though, mainly Hank Williams. On my mother's side, everyone was a musician but no one made a living out of it. Although they were very good technically. My grandfather was a Dixieland jazz drummer, my grandmother sang standards like "Moon River." (He has said that the title of the song Sweet Adeline was inspired by his recollections of his grandmother's singing in her glee club, the Sweet Adelines.)
Apart from musical accomplishment, the family was also religious. In an interview printed in the Jan./Feb. 2001 issue of Magnet magazine, Elliott recalled:
"I was brought up in a religious household. I don't go to church. I don't necessarily buy into any officially structured version of spirituality. But I have my own version of it ... I don't really know what happens when you die. I don't like the idea of being buried. I would prefer to walk out into the desert and be eaten by birds ..."
Given the family's interests, it's not surprising that music was a vital part of Elliott's life from the very beginning. His mother Bunny recalled: "I sang and told him stories even before he was born. He talked a blue streak when he was very little. He loved stories and songs and would make them up and entertain us constantly. As a child, he was always for the underdog."
His piano studies began when he was 9 years old. About this earliest phase of his musical training, Elliott recalled in a French interview:
"Luckily, there was my piano teacher. He was in his 20s and composed avant-garde piano pieces, was crazy about atonal music and dissonance. What he played sounded to me like the most awful noise, but, at least, he communicated to me his faith in music. I started buying records I never told anybody about; I'd spend days just listening to them in my room." He recalled such days as peaceful moments of happiness in an otherwise grim time in his life.
At age 10 he composed an original piano piece, Fantasy, which he played in a city wide arts festival in Duncanville. It won him a prize. ("Writer Elliott Smith and his Montrose family," Montrose newspaper, April 1998.) His own comments about his early career as a piano prodigy are typically self-effacing: "I wrote instrumental piano songs when I was a kid that were very... weren't very good, because they were just like a series of transitions. That's my favorite part of songs." (Erik Pedersen, "Happy Now?" Option, Sept. 1998) As it turned out, his parents had his piano lessons discontinued after one year. He then turned to woodwinds. In junior high, he played first chair clarinet and continued in the band for three years, serving as band president in the eighth grade. ("Writer Elliott Smith and his Montrose family," Montrose newspaper)
Asked about early musical influences, Elliott commented: "Probably the Beatles, and then Dylan. My father taught me how to play "Don't think twice, it's all right." I love Dylan's words, but even more than that, I love the fact that he loves words. That's my favorite thing with him. Sometimes we play "When I paint my masterpiece" in concert." (He has also played "Don't think twice, it's all right," dedicated to his father in some performances; and, in Minneapolis, Elliott played "Ballad of a Thin Man" in an October 1998 concert. ) He noted: "I like folk songs but it is a very defined genre and I think it's not really what I play. For me, the difference between folk and pop is that in folk there is a clear message in every song and there is usually a moral to the story. That's fine but it's not how I write. I like more "impressionistic" things, word pastings. Pop is broader, more things can be in it together."
Another strong musical influence he has mentioned only occasionally in interviews is flamenco. One may wonder whether some of those records he listened to by himself were flamenco discs. In a March 2000 interview in London, he remarked:
"I used to listen to flamenco a lot. I used to try and play it and end up with a bastardised version of it."
Motown was yet another important genre that had an impact. He has cited Smokey Robinson's "I second that emotion" as a song worthy of emulation, and Stevie Wonder has come up among his most deeply admired artists, one with whom he would consider collaborating.
One artist frequently cited as an influence wasn't even known to Elliott until people began to make the comparison. About Nick Drake, he commented:
"I've heard about two Nick Drake songs, and I liked them. He seemed a lot softer or something than I feel like I am, lyrically. I don't know. I liked him, so I guess [the comparison]'s a compliment."
Impressionism of the Nick Drake/Sandy Denny variety was not exactly a feature of two other early musical obsessions: Kiss and The Clash. "The first record I ever bought was Kiss' 'Alive II,' with Gene Simmons all covered in blood on the front. As a boy in Dallas, they were about as good as it got." He also recalled: "I liked Kiss as well, because they wore make-up. I thought that was awesome." Later, this changed. "When I heard the Clash though, anything that wasn't Kiss or AC/DC became cool: punk! For example, Bauhaus was punk, wearing plastic pants was punk, a friend having a skateboard made us all punks!" Later on, "Elvis Costello got me through high school. That and the Clash." (He and Neil Gust covered a lot of Costello songs in their early days playing together at Hampshire.)
After divorcing Elliott's father, his mother remarried. Elliott lived with his mother and her new family for the most part, occasionally returning to Portland to visit his father. An important new presence in his life emerged in the late Seventies: alcohol.
"When I was ten years old, new people moved into the house next door to mine and they had a pool table so, obviously, I was over there all the time. There was this big kid who was 14 and he was on the football team. I looked up to him, as he was older and I didn't want him to beat me up. Anyway, one day he had this bottle of clear liquid with a root in it. I had no idea what it was , and glugged it like water. ... We kept playing pool, I just wasn't any good anymore! I wound up getting involved with one of his sisters, actually. That was a weird day."
He was around 14 when he first tried marijuana-right in back of his local church. "A friend's Dad grew his own pot which he kept in a greasy old margarine container. It was shiny. We didn't know how much to smoke, so we just kept on until we couldn't smoke any more. ... It didn't really work for me, but my friend was running around shouting, 'This is great!' About an hour later, he looked at me and said, 'what if it never goes away?' He was freaked out. The second time it worked, music sounded amazing."
In an April 1999 interview he commented about the relationship between his experience with drinking and drug use:
"... these days, I'm trying to take that piece of the puzzle back out. Just 'cos I think that's cropped up enough already in my songs. But it's hard to fully dispense with because it's such a permanent feature of people that I know. Not that they're necessarily alcoholic, some of them, but ... y'know, it's the only legal drug! (laughs) .... Y'know, some people do drugs, some people exercise. People find all kinds of ways to get out of the humdrum repetitive nature of having to be the same person all the time. But it might not be very interesting to write a song that describes the experience of jogging! Hahaha! ...
"I've kind of narrowed all drugs down to just beer and Irish whiskey, and that's it. And even then, I've come to the conclusion over the past several years that it doesn't make my life better to drink lots and lots of whiskey every night! I like to drink it sometimes." (NME, "Pretty Barfly," interviewed by Keith Cameron, 1 May 1999).
When he was 12, he went to Portland, Oregon, to visit his father, who gave him his first guitar. He and a friend soon became enthusiastic students of finger-picking. "I had a friend and we were both trying to learn how to play the guitar, and he learned how to play Amazing Grace and then, like, assorted country-ish fingerpicking songs. Between me and him, fingerpicking was quite the thing because it seemed really complicated and impressive, you know-when in actuality it's just repetitive motion. I spent a long time when I was a kid learning how to play AC/DC songs and the solo to Stairway to Heaven and all that, only to find out that it wasn't really much use for me to play blistering guitar leads." (Erik Pedersen, Happy Now?, Option, Jul-Aug 1998)
Music provided the one bright spot in an otherwise bleak world in suburban Dallas, but there were other distractions. Elliott recalled a friend of those years: "She had, like, a blue muscle car with the Grim Reaper on the hood. We'd get a sixpack or whatever and drink it on the way back. ... I got in a lot of fights in Texas." (Erik Pedersen, "Happy Now?" Option, Jul-Aug 1998)
His recollections of those years often emphasize the violence and fragmentation that pervaded life in those particular burbs. His Texas tattoo (on his left arm) showed a divided attitude to his childhood living there: forever turning his back upon the state, yet unwilling to forget that it had shaped who he was, making it a part of his own body. "Most of the people I knew, their parents were divorced. Or else their Dad beat them with a pool cue. There was a guy in the neighborhood who shot my cat for getting into the garbage. He beat up on his kid, and then he shot my cat." ... Outside the house, Elliott wound up often as not getting into fights. In one interview, remembering those days he touched his nose reflectively and said: "It's probably been broken more than once. I have a bunch of scars. But I don't get into fights anymore. .... Sometimes it's the little guy who'll kick your ass. Because he's been picked on to the point where he knows what to do. ... 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." (Rolling Stone, Sept. 3, 1998)