The sensory memory I always associate with “Behind the Bars” by Elliott Smith is of a cool, drizzly night, the sidewalks cleaned by the rain. I’m in an alley between two bars somewhere in Portland, Oregon, probably on NW 21st Street, back up against a wall, while some handsome indie rocker kisses me furiously. I’m drunk and I haven’t a care in the world.
That was the image I had of my life when I was 16 years old and Elliott Smith’s Either/Or was released. Having discovered Elliott Smith via a friend’s cool older brother, and after seeing him play in coffee shops, I was fully prepared to love the record. “Between the Bars” stuck out for me because it came out right around the time I started picturing adulthood, and what I wanted adulthood to look like. I was also enamored of the Portland indie scene, dying to be one of the hip kids and not just some juvenile hanger-on. I wanted to be equal to the artists I admired, to be one of them, part of the in-crowd.
My parents rarely drank, and I wasn’t much of a drinker as a teenager, but my image of adulthood always revolved around hanging out in bars, having deep conversations, and staying until the last call. When Smith sang about drunkenly making out while looking at the sky, it was quite possibly the most romantic thing I could imagine. I was a weird, precocious (and honestly, pretentious) kid, and I cared little for teen culture, instead watching talky indie films about twenty-something couples and their problems. Nothing was more grown-up than smoking cigarettes and drinking beer at some dirty dive bar.
Although I had barely lived one lifetime, I liked to imagine that I would accumulate baggage and tragic secrets and would then be driven by the need to find someone who could accept that. It was another marker of adulthood — experiences to be shared at cocktail parties or detailed in memoirs, dark stories about sex and drugs. The idea that I would even have a history that I’d want to forget, and that I would find a man who could help me forget it, was the epitome of the future experience I wanted.
“Behind the Bars” sticks with me now, even though I’ve had many drunken nights with plenty of men and have no desire to ever make out in an alley again. I did all those things, and they were interesting, and now I am done with them, but I miss that romantic ideal. Adult relationships, as it turns out, are about more than drinking and smoking and talking all night — there are things like house mortgages, vet appointments, and vacation plans that must be dealt with — the mundane stuff of life.
Elliott Smith is also the troubadour of my teens and early twenties — he died when I was 23, and I’ll still never forget waking up to the news of his death, right as I was realizing the vision laid out in the song. I’d been out the night before and woke up in a bed in a grody punk house that had a pirate radio station in the laundry room. When I opened my laptop, I saw the news on Livejournal. I cried before shuffling off to my boring office job to spend the day posting lyrics online and commiserating with other fans on Friendster.
He was the patron saint of Portland, a Portland that no longer exists — of specific bars, restaurants, and experiences that are all long gone. I remember watching him walk down the street with two other nineties-era local music stars, Pete Krebs and Sean Croghan, all wearing identical white shirts and cuffed jeans. I thought, “That’s it. That’s the future.” I had that future for a while, and now it’s the past, but hearing the song still makes me feel like it’s all yet to come.
Song Stories is an essay collection written by music professionals and independent artists about songs that impacted their lives. It's available on Amazon.
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