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Elliott Smith and Samuel Beckett

At the beginning of the song ‘King’s Crossing’, which figures on Elliott Smith’s posthumous album ‘From A Basement on the Hill’, there is a poem buried in the introduction, whose lines are quite difficult to understand. The voice (not Elliott’s) is pronouncing these half-sentences and groups of words among others, ‘I'm the wolf man’, ‘white people only fought with their parents’, ‘white father’, which have triggered the attention of many who were trying to decipher their mysterious meaning. I know that the adjective ‘white’ has always and lazily been interpreted as a reference to drugs, but there is more about it.

Elliott Smith liked a lot of classic literature, and Samuel Beckett was a favorite of his; after all, the line ‘Everyone is gone/Home to oblivion’ from ‘No Name #3’ is directly taken from Beckett’s novel ‘Watt’. Furthermore, Elliott appeared a few times on stage with ‘More Pricks Than Kicks’, the title of Beckett’s collection of short stories, written in big black and red letters on his left arm.

After a conversation with a friend, I realized there was another Beckett’s work that could be interesting regarding ‘King’s Crossing’.
‘From An Abandoned Work’, written by Beckett in 1957, is the story of a neurotic old man remembering his childhood. As a child, he had a propensity towards violence, and he would enter into a terrible rage at the simple thought of a color, the color white. The old man, in poor health, is described having a constant sore throat that may well be a psychosomatic condition, and as a disturbed individual with a great deal of hostility toward his parents, an obsessive behavior, even a propensity towards self-harm, finding some comfort from suicidal thoughts. There is an emphasis on his bad relationship with his stepfather, and his lack of closeness with his mother.

Reading from all this, it would seem quite obvious that Elliott had identified with such a story, knowing his relationship with his abusive stepfather, his depressive condition and the suicidal talk all over his work. This would explain the ‘white father’ reference, as an allusion to this Beckett’s story?

The Beckett’s story has been discussed a lot, especially in term of Freudian themes, and an emphasis has been made on adults in psychic distress haunted by their traumatic childhood,… a typical Elliott Smith’s theme.

But what about the wolf man?

According to J. D. O’Hara, this Beckett’s story points to Freud’s famous case, Sergei Pankejeff, aka the Wolf Man, as Freud had given him this pseudonym to protect his identity, after a dream Pankejeff had of a tree full of white wolves.
The Wolf Man’s case was characterized by sexual abuse (Pankejeff had been abused by a member of the family during his childhood), the inability to have bowel movements (another psychosomatic condition), the sense of a veil between him and the world, the death of the older sister by suicide which caused him to experience depression.
Of course, Freud had interpreted the dream about the white wolves as some kind of Oedipus complex, but this is not the point.

Both stories could explain the mysterious references in the text at the beginning of King’s crossing, the wolf man, and the white father, the theme of child abuse and suicidal thoughts,.. we are so far away from the usual drug interpretation.

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