Mapping Elliott Smith's Portland

With sweetly melancholic songs about everything from the Rose Parade to the sidewalks of Alameda, Elliott Smith remains perhaps the closest thing Portland has to a bard, even 10 years after his death.

By Jonathan Frochtzwajg October 1, 2013 Published in the October 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

We map the record stores, streets, and clubs where our city’s drizzle seeped into the singer-songwriter’s music, with local author William Todd Schultz’s new biography, Torment Saint, as our guide.

1. LINCOLN HIGH: For Smith, the transfer from suburban Dallas schools to the comfortable liberalism of Lincoln was a bit of a culture shock, but he soon found friends—and bandmates—in a group of musically inclined gifted-and-talented types. In Lincoln’s 1987 yearbook, Smith’s “final words” as a senior are Tom Waits’s: “Just let me fall out the window with confetti in my hair.” 

2. DJANGO RECORDS: Smith killed hours flipping through LPs at this High Fidelity–esque, now-closed shop. Django even stocked tapes by Smith’s high school band Stranger Than Fiction—and, to the teen’s disbelief, actually sold some. 

3-6. SATYRICON, X-RAY CAFE, LA LUNA, EJ’S: These grungy, now-shuttered rock clubs formed the circuit for Smith’s post-college band, Heatmiser. In Torment Saint, Schultz’s sources remember the 1990s Portland scene as a “backwater” where “hookups and drama were commonplace,” but where a noncompetitive, anticommercial spirit bred creativity. 

7. ALAMEDA: From the street the protagonist of “Alameda” walks down, “shuffling [his] deck of trick cards over everyone,” to an intersection near where the man in “Needle in the Hay” is “gonna make it all OK” (SE Sixth & Powell), Portland roads pop up like signposts in Smith’s lyrics.  

8. ELLIOTT AVENUEAs apocrypha has it, the singer, né Steve, chose his name from this Ladd’s Addition thoroughfare. But according to Torment Saint, the pseudonym was in fact a high school girlfriend’s nickname for Smith.

Check out a playlist of Elliott Smith songs with Portland references:

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