I’m Going to Kill Myself Tomorrow

Elliott Smith

I first encountered singer-songwriter Elliott Smith in a movie. (Big surprise.) In Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, the titular family is a mess. A husband has learned that his wife, the adopted Tenenbaum daughter Margot, smokes. Her brother, the fallen tennis star Richie, has discovered that she had an affair with Tennenbaum wannabe and literary imposter Eli Cash, stirring his longstanding love for his not-quite-sister. Richie goes into a bathroom, cuts his hair, and starts to shave. He stares into the mirror and says, “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow.” Then he slits his wrists.

This is, without a doubt, one of my favorite sections of any movie. In the theater, I had tears streaming down my face, and then Anderson made me laugh as the Tenenbaums (including the family dog) rush to the hospital. The editing, direction, lighting, and acting in the whole sequence couldn’t be bettered, and — as is often the case with Anderson — the musical selection is perfect.

It’s Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay,” and you can’t imagine anything else working nearly so well. The song is an integral part of the soundscape, setting a melancholic tone before the bathroom scene and then getting cut off when Richie does the deed, only to resume a few moments later and get cut off again. It’s a strikingly effective use of music, but it also denies Smith’s work its full power.

I loved the song from the moment I heard it but didn’t tie it to Smith until a long time later. By then, I already owned at least one of his albums, and I downloaded “Needle in the Hay” from a music Web site. Hearing it for the first time in its entirety, it sounded very familiar, but it took me a few minutes to place it.

“Needle in the Hay” is an insistently plaintive minor-key song built on a deceptively-simple-sounding staccato guitar motif and augmented with vocals that mix pleading and bitterness. It sounds like it was recorded on a four-track machine — with two vocal and two guitar tracks — and its lo-fi trappings give it a bedroom intimacy. There’s an irregular, almost imperceptible thump that gets more frequent as the song builds, as if Smith is bumping his microphone. It’s the sort of blemish that adds to the work.

The guitar parts are instantly evocative, and like most of Smith’s work, only close listening reveals their complexity. Under the main musical theme of the opening, for instance, Smith is delicately playing on guitar the vocal melody of the chorus.

I never paid much attention to the song’s lyrics until yesterday, when I listened to “Needle in the Hay” repeatedly, and loudly, at home. The song turns the cliché of the title into clever wordplay on drugs and a desperate need for release. The final verse brings the song into the first person and shows the narrator panicked for relief:

Nearly touching this dirty retreat /
Falling out Sixth and Powell a dead sweat in my teeth /
Gonna walk walk walk /
Four more blocks plus the one in my brain /
Down downstairs to the man /
He’s gonna make it all okay /
I can’t beat myself /
I can’t beat myself /
And I don’t want to talk /
I’m taking the cure so I can be quiet /
Whenever I want /
So leave me alone /
You ought to be proud that I’m getting good marks

“Needle in the Hay” isn’t about suicide, but it’s certainly a fitting backdrop for one: “I’m taking the cure so I can be quiet.” As Richie contemplates his act, over the song is a series of sudden, brief images of the Tenenbaum family, and like the song’s narrator, he seems to need a break from his pain.

Elliott Smith, apparently, yearned to escape as well. He killed himself two days ago.

Although I like much of his work, particularly his 1998 Dreamworks album XO, I don’t consider myself a Smith devotee. But he breaks my heart every time I hear “Needle in the Hay.” For that, I thank him.

(Among the appreciations I’ve read, this piece in Slate speaks to me the most.)

congrats!

you do meaningful work on a most elegant couch.

cheers!

Such is Life

Educate yourself a bit - Wes Anderson took this from Malle’s “The Fire Within”. And when Ronet says these words it’s much more effective, much more heartbreaking. For the record I love Anderson, but I can’t stand folks who think the world began at about the time they graced the planet with their presence.

Took what? I’m happy to educate myself, but it would be helpful for you to be a little more specific. Malle used “Needle in the Hay”? Malle used this character? Luke Wilson?

And if you’re saying that I think the world began when I graced the world with my presence, I’d love to hear about how you came to that conclusion.

Or do you mean that I think the world began when Wes Anderson graced the world with his presence?

Educate yourself a bit — by learning to communicate more clearly.

“I’m going to kill myself tomorrow” comes from Le Feu Follet, a Malle film from 1963. I have no idea why Shaun reacted so strongly, since his response really has nothing to do with your post. Anyway, Le Feu Follet is definitely worth seeing.

Your description of the song makes me think it’s similar to “Hurt” by NIN.

That’s actually a really good comparison, Tony.

This is an impossibly old thread, but it’s interesting that you compare it to NIN’s Hurt. There is a great parody (not funny parody, a rip out your heart and childhood memories) of both songs done as Kermit the Frog. It’s called Sad Kermit, and it’s brilliant. The Hurt version is closer stylistically to the Johnny Cash cover, although it uses the NIN lyrics.

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