I Figured You Out

I don't have you with me but I keep a good attitude

I Figured You Out

Today a new(ish) short story by me for paid subscribers down below. Or you can jump right to it here. It originally appeared for paid subscribers of Flaming Hydra.

Gas Leak
It started to rain weird

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Speaking of Flaming Hydra my most recent piece this week over there concerns my journey to construct the mythical album I've wanted to hear for 25 years: Pinkerton 2.

Pinkerton 2
by Luke O’Neil Those of you unfortunate enough to still be following me on social media will know that when I’m not preoccupied by telling the media to go fuck their mothers 19 hours a day, I tend to, let’s call it… hyperfixate on bands. Oddly this usually

I mentioned in here the other day that an old Boston rock world buddy of mine, Kevin Patey, was going through some stuff in his house last week and a note sent to his ex-wife from a friend of hers fell out of a random book. A common occurrence sure, but in this case the note happened to be a very early version of the lyrics to the songs Miss Misery and All Cleaned Out by Elliott Smith, along with hand drawn chord charts. What a find! A literal rock and roll museum artifact.

I called up the recipient of the note, Mary Lou Lord, a beloved Boston musician in her own right, to talk about what she remembers about getting the songs sent to her. Elliott would often send her songs that he had written and didn't think were right for him, like her beautiful version of I Figured You Out, one of my favorites ever. She said she's glad she never took Miss Misery for her own. Who knows how that might have changed music history.

We also talked about Phoebe Bridgers, steering her daughter away from pursuing a fulltime career in music, and another old friend of hers, Kurt Cobain, who died 30 years ago this weekend.

Before we get to the other stuff, I just wanted to say that Got No Shadow and Martian Saints were great. My friends and I really loved those records at the time. I know you put out a compilation a couple of years ago, She’d Be a Diamond. Are you working on anything music wise now?

She’d Be A Diamond, by Mary Lou Lord
31 track album

Thank you. I put out a record, Backstreet Angels, it seems like it was just yesterday, in 2015. Last year or the year before, Fire, the label in the UK – they've got The Lemonheads and The Bevis Frond, and other people that I'm kind of affiliated with – they did a double vinyl of songs that they selected of mine that they liked. And I think that they did a really nice job. So that came out. As far as right now I've just been recovering from a shoulder injury. 

Oh no. 

Yeah, but it's getting better. I’m just kind of hanging out. My dog is elderly and I think that this will unfortunately be her last year, so I'm dedicating all my time to to her really. It's kind of a lot of work, and it's weird, I feel like I don't have a dog, I'm a caretaker now you know? 

That’s always so tough. 

Yeah, so that's kind of what I'm doing, just spending quality time with my dog.

Your daughter is a musician as well right? Is that something that you’ve given her a lot of advice about? Obviously you’ve been through a lot of shit in the music business, both good and bad. Was that something you were weary about her doing?

It was weird because Elliott had died when she was about three or four. That’s when a kid comes into their awareness really. I can't speak for Kevin, but for me, I didn't listen to anything around the house for a long time. I was really bummed out. I especially didn't listen to Elliott Smith. This was until she was maybe 10, and I remember I got an album, I think maybe from Kill Rock Stars, An Introduction to... Elliott Smith. I gave it to her, and I remember she was like, oh you got me a calendar of your friend? And I was like, no, this is a record. This is an album, vinyl. Of course she had seen our vinyls around, but she really thought that I had gotten her a calendar! So we got her a turntable and then we got her some Beatles records and she really took to it. 

I didn't know, but she had been listening in her room, like incessantly, to Elliott, and all the records that we bought, the Beatles and the Zombies and the Kinks, all the good stuff. She got a ukulele and one day she said, mom, I learned a song and it was by the Beatles. Till There Was You. It was really good. I said kid you’ve been holding out on me. 

Then we got her guitar and she just kind of got better and better. And along the way, she's a very academic kid, loved school, loved studying. Kevin and I, we always said, we know that you're really good at music, but please don't go into this for a full time career, you'll never make any money. Never. Don't do this. So she went to college and she's actually graduating in May with a masters. She's going to be a music therapist, which is kind of the best of both worlds. So she can still, you know, do her music on the side, but she's got a degree. She went to Lesley University. I think it's called expressive arts therapy, so she's leaning towards the music part of that, which is awesome. We were really, really proud of her. And she's a very special person, as far as her listening ability, to be able listen to people, to understand people, and she's using music as a tool to help connect and help people connect themselves to themselves. 

I think it's some kind of a cool full circle thing, where we couldn't save Elliott – I don't know if anybody could have, or any of those guys – but we can, at least, knowing what we know, use what we've got to help other people. 

You can't make money in music now. It’s obviously different than when you started out. You could make a little bit of money back then, but now it seems like nobody can make money. 

No, once everything became intangible… Music is invisible, for the most part. So you put up a mp3 or a wav file up and it’s… bye-bye. It's such a microcosm of... the work that goes into it, the years of practice, everything that goes into making music, and then you narrow it down to one song and then it comes out and it's on this invisible platform that’s basically free. As far as I know the only way to make money is by touring, or if you get a placement in like an ad or a commercial or a movie. But mainly I think it's touring, or with those 360 deals. Somebody maybe would get a development deal back in the day, and you could get something like a hundred thousand or a couple hundred, enough to live on. Now it's like you're very very lucky if you get more in the ballpark of like 15,000.

But it's also cheaper to make records now too, so if people want to get their music out they don't have to go into a studio and spend $50,000 to make what they can make now for nothing. So it's got its good sides and its bad sides. But far as making a living, that went out the window around I would say 2004.

A lot of these younger artists out now, I feel like some of them are playing in sort of a similar style to you. These indie folk type of young women. Do you hear about any of them that were fans of yours now? Phoebe Bridgers came out, and now we're seeing all these young people trying to sound like Phoebe Bridgers. Do you see yourself anywhere in that sort of lineage? 

Absolutely I do. I think that's a combination of all of us women that did that kind of music. Phoebe is listening to the same music that I listened to, so as a result she's going to probably sound a little bit like me, even if I had never met her. She loves Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jackson Brown, Shawn Colvin, these are all the people that I loved. When I first heard Phoebe, I was like, holy shit, I hear all the elements of all the people that I love in this girl. It turned out that she had heard me because she was such a big Elliott fan, and of course the duet, the song that I did of his, I Figured You Out she loved.  I think she would maybe listen to who Elliott listened to. He was very vocal about who he listened to. So she was in that demographic of very young people, reading about him, but having the internet accessible so that she could learn and read about this person. I don't know how she first heard Elliott himself, maybe her mom or dad or friends or whatever, but she loved him. And it's so evident, when I hear her I can hear him. I know it's hokey, but how Joni Mitchell says that songs are like children. And in Phoebe, I'm like, oh, that looks like Elliott's nose right there. That's Elliot's smile. 

Right, right. 

I hear it, and I heard it immediately. And I was like, wow, this is fucking cool. He had a short but very profound and impactful life. And the legacy that he left musically is, every day, there's new younger people, people like Phoebe, who are finding out about Elliott. And it's like, wow, this is super cool. And it's a very exciting time for music because everything's so accessible. I do think the good stuff still rises to the top, even though I heard James Taylor say something like, OK, well, there's more doors open now, but when you walk in the room, there's a million other people in there. So it's kind of saturated with artists. But I do think the cream rises to the top. For the most part. 

Yeah, it's interesting. I'm noticing that the kids now, you know, the 20 year olds who are starting bands, they're starting to like the stuff that I liked when I was young. I guess it really always does cycle through like that. For some reason it seems like the kids are really into Smashing Pumpkins right now. A lot of these guitar bands with tons of pedals and stuff like that. And My Bloody Valentine still seem really big with the younger bands. When I was younger, I listened to, you know, Led Zeppelin and older stuff like that. It all goes around. And Nirvana too. I don't know if you mark it, but I thought I should mention that it’s the anniversary of Kurt dying today. Is that a day that you think about? 

You know, I didn't really even realize that it was today. I used to. I used to carry it, and I think over the last couple years, I'm just, you know, I've made my peace with it, and I've let it go. I don't dwell on the day. These days I don't really think about it anymore.

You had a podcast going for a while where you talked about a lot of your stories about Kurt and Elliott and that sort of thing. Are you still doing that? 

I haven’t done one in a while, but Maryanne, the gal that I did it with, is coming to the States in a couple of weeks. We’re gonna go see Neil Young, and hopefully we’ll do a couple more podcasts about where we are now. I think that doing those podcasts sort of helped me to put in my own words what happened. The whole Kurt Cobain thing. Because for so long it was Courtney's narrative. Like she had the floor, and I had no voice at all, and it just got so fucked up back then. She was on the cover of Rolling Stone when she had this big ass diatribe about me, and I couldn't defend myself because no one knew who I was or anything. 

Episode 10 - Remembering Kurt and the darkest day
This episode, Mary Lou shares some more recollections of Kurt Cobain and shares her thoughts and feelings as we approach the 25th anniversary of his tragic death. If any of you our listeners and friends are struggling with depression, there is help available so please know you are not alone. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_suicide_crisis_lines

I just like to think now that, you know, her story, you've got to take that all with a grain of salt. I feel like with the podcast I got to say what really happened, how I really felt, where for so long I didn't have a voice. Maybe somebody might think, oh, big deal, who cares? But to me, it was a big deal back then because I was  just a small fry musician, and all this big shit was happening around me. I don't know, I took it to heart, I guess, and it affected me negatively. It bummed me out, that whole thing. Not being able to sort of defend myself or to say the beautiful things about my take on it. Courtney just made it so ugly that there was no beauty in any of it, you know, there was no truth in it. There was no beauty. And I felt like I got to at least put a cap on it and put it to bed, you know, and be like, look, this is what happened. Now I can finally fucking move on. 

Completely understandable. 

It's so weird, you know, like even with Elliott. With Elliott it's a little bit less intense, but with Kurt, it was like, you know, you meet somebody and then you get close to them, and then all of a sudden they're everywhere. It’s not like when you have a boyfriend or girlfriend and you break up and then maybe somebody at a party a year later is like, how’s so-and-so, and something shoots through your heart. This was every day. Oh my god, some kid in a t-shirt. Oh my god, it’s on the radio. I couldn't get away from it and it perpetuated and kind of augmented itself to the point where I don't know if that's normal. Right? It just never had any fucking closure. 

And then when I met Elliott, it was like, oh wow, I love this guy. And he loved Nirvana too. And I loved Elliott. He was like my buddy, my friend. I felt like I could talk to him about all this stuff. I also felt like… I met him quite soon after Kurt died, actually, like maybe a year later. And it kind of took away the heartache because there was so much joy in this new friendship with Elliott and his music, and looking forward to this great artist and his future, and he's my friend. So that really, took a lot of the pain away, the whole bummer of Kurt Cobain dying. Everybody felt that, you know. Everyone that was in that timeline. It wasn’t just, oh, this guy died, it was a whole generation, just a big cloud over this entire generation of people that were young and happy, and it was like, oh shit, you know? It just felt weird and horrible. So with Elliott, I got to really feel joy again. 

And then, like I said, for all those years when Annabelle was little, after Elliott died in 2003, I didn't listen to Elliott. I rarely even listened to music. And so Annabelle, when she was like, 13, she was becoming a huge Elliott fan, even more so than I knew, and she was asking questions like, mom, can you tell me about Elliott? Instead of it being a complete downer, it was awesome. Because it's kind of like in Elliott's song Say Yes, “I’m in love with the world through the eyes of the girl.” I got to enjoy Elliott again, through her, through the newness. And it became a joy again to listen to him and to go through this awesome phase with her. And it wasn't a phase. I mean, she still adores him, but it was such a big, big part of her life. And it really didn't have anything to do with me, because I never pushed, like, you gotta listen to Elliott Smith. I never ever… I gave her that record. I was like, here's a record. I think I got it for free. And it's not a calendar! Have fun. And she certainly did. And it's a really great full circle, I think. 

That is beautiful. What do you remember about these Miss Misery and All Cleaned Out notes? Do you remember getting them?

I totally, totally remember getting Miss Misery. I don't remember All Cleaned Out, but I remember he had written Miss Misery, but it wasn't called that, it was called like Some Enchanted Evening or something, and he said, you know, I’ve got this song. I think it's good, but I think it's more something that you might like. Please feel free to do anything you want with it. Because he kind of knew that my arsenal of songs was always very limited, and his wasn’t! So we would get together sometimes and work on songs and I'd come up with nothing and he'd come up with something, and he came up with I Figured You Out… I think it might have been one of the stretches of time where I went to Portland to write. The label had me do that, but I of course didn't and he did, and so we went into the studio one night, and I remember he got a brand new Manley microphone and he was really wanting to test it out, so we went in the studio and we did I Figured You Out, and he played everything to test the new mic, so that was really cool. 

With Miss Misery he said please have this, do whatever you want with it, and he had a tape with it, with like instructions. I don't know where the fuck the tape is. Kevin found these notes and even the little chord chart that he made, so cute, in a stupid war book. I don't know why, all my shit's all over the place. 

What, like a history book or something?

Yeah he's got like a Douglas Bader book or something, and his friend was like looking at the Douglas Bader book or something like that, or the history of World War II, and that fell out. But I definitely remember getting it, I remember getting it with a tape that had it on it, and I'm so grateful that I didn't touch it, because he was the kind of guy that would have been like, okay, well, I'm not going to go back to that, because Mary Lou, you know, put her stamp on it. It would be weird for him to do that, to be like, oh, I want that back, and I'm going to fix it. He wasn't like that. But as it were, I was so useless that I couldn't even add anything to it, and I didn't think it needed anything, I didn't know, and so I left it alone. Thank god I did, because he did go back to it, and it became what it became. 

It might have changed the course of musical history!

It kind of might have. That said, I think he did have at least four songs in the movie, so maybe they would have picked another song to be the big song from Good Will Hunting, I don't know. 

For the record, I prefer… and I won't say this about many people, I'm really precious about Elliott covers, and not that your version is a cover, but I think I like your version of I Figured You Out better than the one he did, and... I'm not gonna say that about many people. 

Aw. Thank you. I think that he was really happy about that. When we recorded it we were in a good place. He played everything, the drums, the bass, and it was just a really nice natural night. I think it came out maybe on New Moon, his version, but I don’t know if he recorded it fully in. With his heart. Maybe he just recorded it to kind of document it. 

He really didn't like the song, and I think towards the end of his life, the last couple years, people really wanted to hear him do it. They were aware of the song through me and Kill Rock Stars, but they wanted to hear him do it. At his shows people would yell that one out all the time. He was kind of reluctant, but then he started to do it, and I think the more he did it the more even he began to warm up to it and realize that it's a great song 

It really is. 

I think that there was a shift when he started to play it and maybe he went a little bit easier on himself. But I do think that maybe the recording that you feel that way about is just that there was a bit more alacrity in the recording when we did it. Just a lighter, lighter feeling. But thank you so much. I really appreciate it. 

That’s the one my wife and I sing together when I break out the old acoustic.

Oh that’s beautiful.

I certainly don't play it anywhere near as well as Elliott, but you know who ever does.

I wrote about Kurt's passing in this piece here which is one of my favorites I've ever written if you somehow missed it the 100 other times I shared it.

And here's another one I have plugged many times, in which myself and an absolutely stacked lineup of music writers and musicians share our top 5 favorite Elliott Smith songs ever.

Before we get to the short story you know I couldn't let a headline like this (from AL.com) pass by unmentioned.

Seven-year-old Emouree Johnson knew there were four lemons in the Scottsboro kitchen she shared with her grandmother, Jennifer Bordner, so when she got off the school bus one afternoon, she went straight to the kitchen and exclaimed that she was going to start a lemonade stand.

Emouree gathered all the items she’d need for the endeavor – a jug her late mother bought her, a small table, material she’d need for a sign – and started her venture with the help of her family, selling the drinks for $1 a pop.

But this isn’t your typical lemonade stand. Emouree isn’t selling lemonade to buy a toy. Instead, she’s working to buy her mother a tombstone – and in the process, she has inspired a community.

This sort of shit is the quintessential Hell World story. It is exactly what I've been talking about this whole time.

A couple pieces from the archives on this matter:

For a select few there are no consequences
I understand the anger and disappointment that many of you feel
I don’t know what you think when you hear a story like that or one when like a girl scout or whoever raises $600 selling lemonade so her mommy can stop having to go to the “ompcolojist” all the time but it’s impossible for me to feel much relief or happiness for anyone because the existence of the story in the first place by its very nature highlights how many people don’t get to win the feel good lottery. It’s like when you’re watching a big Hollywood action film like Avengers or Transformers or whatever and the camera follows one guy who keeps dodging robot missiles and you’re like thank god they made it! but meanwhile every skyscraper in the city just got demolished by a space monster’s giant ass and tens of thousands of people are dying in the rubble but still the one guy made it. Every fucking movie is a holocaust it’s fucking crazy but then the hero pulls the main lady close at the end and they don’t fuck because it’s PG but everyone goes home happy and stops thinking about the piles of crushed bodies in the background because the camera didn’t focus on them it was busy showing something else.
Maybe it’s just a borrowed piece of someone else’s childhood
It was an extraordinarily hot summer in New York City in 1880. The type of day “a salamander would find no fault with,” an extraordinarily purple but charming piece of prose in the New York Times on July 10th explained. “You might have boiled eggs in the fountains,” the journalist
Here’s another story from early 2020. A five year old girl in San Diego named Katelynn got sad because some of her friends couldn’t afford a school program, so she decided to sell cookies and cocoa and so on to raise money to help. When she was done she used the money to pay off the lunch debt of 123 students in the district. 

75% of school districts around the U.S. report outstanding lunch debt by the way. In a number of high profile cases this past year students have been prevented from attending the prom or class field trips and so on because they don’t have enough money to pay for a carton of milk and a hamburger. They don’t have enough money to survive. 

“Katelynn’s mom, Karina Hardee, said the girl started asking questions, wondering why things like this happen,” NBC San Diego reported and that’s a very good question indeed and if you ever find out Katelynn please let us know.

“I don't want people to be hungry,” Katelynn said.

In Ohio the news ran a story on children raising money to cancel student debt of their own last year. Around the same time two sisters in North Carolina raised $41,000 to cover their district’s debt.  

I just saw a GoFundMe started by a seven year old boy named Cayden asking people to help him with his goal of selling lemonade to raise money for kids with cancer. Peruse your Facebook events and you’ll find dozens of similar efforts like this one in Texas last year hoping to sell $400 worth of lemonade for children with cancer. The local TV news in Arkansas featured two little girls who raised $3,000 for breast cancer last year because one of their mothers is suffering from it. 

Whenever you see pieces like those in the news they’re covered as a feel good inspirational stories. Look at the pluck of these young kids doing their part they say. What a bunch of good kids the news guy says, and then we share them ourselves on social media because it makes us feel good.

Illustrations by Tyler Littwin

A Gas Leak

It started to rain weird

This story originally appeared in Flaming Hydra.

It smelled like someone might have left the gas stove on so I muted the news and got up off of the couch and went into the kitchen to poke my snout around. 

Everything seemed to be switched off as best as I could tell. 

The bulldozers were breaking ground along the border they had been saying a minute ago. In a place a lot of people didn’t want them to be bulldozing. A place of some import. A consecrated place. I was only half paying attention but it seemed bad. A matter of something despoiled.

When I was done checking I got worried I had turned the stove back on somehow so I had to do the same routine over again in the exact same order. One more time again but no more after that. Controlled enough to not do it the third time.

Half of a thing of macaroni and cheese from yesterday there wilting in the pot and becoming more and more yellow. An exceptional yellowness. So yellow it wasn’t yellow anymore it was orange. 

Who closed last night? 

The odor of rotten eggs and sulfur was all of a sudden overwhelming. The only thing I ever really heard about sulfur is that it is supposed to be what Hell smells like but then again how could anyone know that? Who reported on that? 

Dante I guess. 

I opened the fridge out of habit and there were near to rotting eggs and near to expiring milk in there so that complicated things in terms of my investigation olfactory wise. I didn’t have it in me to check the pest traps under the sink next. I knew that there were cockroaches thriving and multiplying down there in the damp dark but as long as I didn’t see them it wasn’t my problem at the moment.

I had spent so much time fighting against them that I had given up. Spraying them and poisoning them and crushing them with my feet in their only visible to me hundreds and furious as they insisted upon struggling to survive so relentlessly.

And for what? Just to live? To reproduce?

It made me feel like they knew something I didn’t.

What kind of life can that be at long last?

I’d have given anything to wipe them all from the face of the Earth. Or at least the specific earth I was on top of. I needed a flamethrower. 

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