There’s an Elliott Smith song I’ve been trying to learn for a while now, called Son of Sam. The studio version which opens Elliott’s figure 8 album has a nice video directed by Autumn de Wilde (there is a funny story somewhere about how hard it was to control the red balloon) and it captures a moment when Smith was at the height of his mainstream success. It’s a great song. That version is musically driven by the piano, which could be done when he played it with his band on the Figure 8 tour, but he also played it live on acoustic – sometimes including the intro like here in the Amoeba Records concert, but other times with a more simple chord sequence under it – like in the neat Jon Brion show. This is more like the very early prototype version that appears in a song Elliott wrote in high school called “Shiva opens her arms now” which has a few of the final version’s lyrics as well as the distinctive and unusual chord sequence that goes under them.
The reference to Shiva is interesting – for a start he gets Shiva’s gender wrong – this article suggests that it could be because he found out about the god through Final Fantasy where there is a female character called Shiva (the ice queen – sort of the opposite of the Hindu Shiva). There is also a line in that early version of the song where Elliot says people keep saying he looks like a guy (or a God?) .. I wonder if its one of the other final fantasy characters, the one with the spiky blonde hair as Elliott had hair like that then. And there’s all this fighting talk which makes me think of the game.. but Elliott seems to be fighting with a version of himself to win back a girl. The final verse of the song which is the proto Son of Sam verse seems here to mourn an early love and the “I miss you so” line appears for the second time. The image seems to invoke a first awkward sexual encounter.. this I think is what Shiva ‘opening her arms’ is about.. it’s also what I think of when I hear the line “like some kid trying to park his car”. This line is gone from the album version.
Another funny 90s teen culture reference involving a strong woman .. Elliott said he wrote ‘Between the Bars’ while watching Xena: Warrior Princess! although the song itself doesn’t seem to reference the show at all. But its funny when you’re song writing you can tweak a few words to disguise the original inspiration completely, if you don’t want to reveal it.
The other Hindu god that Elliott seems to know about is Kali – there are pictures of him with “Kali the Destroyer” written on his arm in black pen (covering scars) later in his career. This extends the image of the god of destruction opening her arms to welcome Elliott in her embrace. It’s not to hard to see why the theme of destruction resonated with Elliott, but still I’d love to know more about his interest in Indian religion.. it’s another Elliott mystery we are left with. There is one more reference to a female Indian God in “No Name #1” – an early song from Roman Candle – the line is “The mighty mother with her hundred arms/ swept all aside..” the scene is a party where Elliott feels out of place .. trailing in the wake of someone else’s ambition.. but he forgot her name.
I visited a small Kali shrine (technically it might have been some local variant of Kali like Mahakali) when I was in India last year. The local bus and lorry drivers all stopped there to make an offering and get their vehicle blessed before going on long trips. Lots of limes on tridents and smashed melons outside. These replace the animal sacrifices that until quite recently used to go on at temples like this. Gory pictures on the wall inside of the god with severed heads dangling from her belt. The god herself was very strange looking with large eyes and nearly completely covered in yellow flowers. Some of the priests are transgender. I loved it.