The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #92: Waltz #2 by Elliott Smith (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #92: Waltz #2 by Elliott Smith.

My father passed away when I was eleven years old. That meant that I then inherited the title of “Man of the House”. But, truth be told, I could barely make my own bed in those days, let alone, assume any sort of leadership position within our household. That responsibility, fair or not, fell almost completely on my mother’s shoulders. I cannot imagine how heavy that burden must have felt. But, the grace with which she handled that situation forever coloured my life and that of my sister. Because, no matter what happened, from that dark day forward, my sister and I have always felt completely loved by our mother. She loved us, even after working a full shift as a nurse at the hospital and coming home to be our “Ma”. She loved us, even though we transformed into teenagers who felt that we possessed more of Life’s answers than she did. She loved us even when other gentlemen callers came knocking upon our door. Whether it was true or simply the perceptions of a sheltered child, it always seemed like she was our mother, first and foremost; a professional nurse, second and then, with whatever time and energy she had left over, she was a woman.

After my father died, My mother ended up getting married twice more. Part of her willingness to marry another man hinged upon his ability to care for us, as well. How my sister and I were treated by the men who carried the title of “Step-father” was everything. For the most part, we survived ok. But, if we were being honest, neither man really cared that much about us. Both guys were there because of my mother; my sister and I simply came with the scenery. But, the one thing that made it all tolerable for us, as kids, was that, even if our step-fathers never really loved us, our mother always did. No amount of romance from other men ever dimmed her love for us so, in that light, I view my childhood as being very warm and, my sister and I, very lucky.

I tell you all this because, as you know, not every family situation turns out as rosy as did ours. Whether, by way of death or divorce, once the players in any family drama start to change and move about, the potential that emotional damage may happen becomes very real. The song, “Waltz #2” by Elliott Smith tells that side of the story. Like my sister and I, Elliott Smith’s childhood memories were coloured by the absence of his biological father (for him, via divorce) and the impact of the man his mother chose next. “Waltz #2” is a richly written story of what it was like to, in essence, lose his mother, even though she was still his parent, if that makes any sense. Through Smith’s words, we watch as his mother seemingly allows herself to be absorbed into her new man’s life, leaving her own past behind; a past that included her son, Elliott. As he grew up, he did so as a captive to the new world his mother and step-father were creating; a world that he was forced to be involved in but, one in which he was never truly welcomed.

There are whole industries devoted to the creation of books and movies that chronicle the impact of broken homes on the lives of those who live within them. In “Waltz #2”, Elliott Smith uses the craftsmanship of a poet or playwright to paint a picture of the bleak world in which he grew up. The writing is brilliant. His pain is very real. As much as I admire how well written “Waltz #2” is, it is, at the same time, a devastating song to listen to when you truly listen to the words. Elliott Smith has been profiled in this countdown before. His stature in the Alt-Rock music genre is unparalleled. HIs influence is widespread. You may recall that he was even nominated for an Academy Award for his song, “Miss Misery”, from the movie, “Good Will Hunting”. However, like me, his childhood experiences coloured his adult life but, unlike me, those experiences set him off on a path to addiction and mental health challenges that, ultimately, saw him take his own life at age 34.

“Waltz #2” was a very personal song for Elliott Smith. So, it is not surprising that this beautifully-written song was very painful for him to sing live. There were many instances when he actually stopped singing the song, midway through, because of how it made him feel. There are many videos of this happening that you can find on YouTube, if you are so inclined. I am not so inclined. It gives me no pleasure to watch another human suffer. So, for the only time in this entire countdown, I am not going share a video of the artist, in question, singing their own song. Instead, I am going to share with you, a beautiful cover, sung by Christ Thile on his podcast/show, “Live From Here”. Because this song is not from his own life, Thile is able to focus on the beauty of the lyrics and the delicate construction of the music. The result is a wonderful, wonderful rendition of “Waltz #2” which is, for my money, as well written as anything produced by the pen of Springsteen or Dylan or any of The Beatles.

It never ceases to amaze me how razor-thin the margins of error are, that separate those of us who live happy lives, from those of us who suffer. “Waltz #2” shows what happens when family matters are decided in a certain way. My life, and that of my sister, show what happens when you are wrapped in a blanket of unconditional love your whole life through.

Even today, as I write these words to you, we still feel our mother’s love. I know that, even though she is 90 years old now, if I were to turn up at her door, the very first thing she would do is invite me in and make sure I was comfortable and then, she’d offer to make me a hot cup of tea. And I would let her. <3

The link to the video for the song, “Waltz #2” by Elliott Smith, as covered by Chris Thile, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Elliott Smith, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Chris Thile, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for always acknowledging all artists and genres. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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