One afternoon in 1997 (maybe1996?), an emerging 27-year-old singer-songwriter named Elliott Smith performed at WMUC-FM, the student run radio station at the University of Maryland, College Park. The station regularly hosted punk and indie acts on its live-in-the-studio Third Rail Radio program and Smith's performance wasn’t anything out of the ordinary — just him and his guitar, playing around 10 songs in WMUC’s unadorned recording studio on the fourth floor of South Campus Dining Hall.
Before the performance was broadcast, Smith played a front-porch-folky song called “Misery Let Me Down.” It’s just two minutes long and ends abruptly, and few have heard it since 1997. That’s because it’s been missing for more than a decade. (Listen to the song below.)
Like all Third Rail sessions, the performance was recorded, transferred to MiniDisc and added to the station’s library. (As a former WMUC DJ myself, I played songs from this session in the late '90s.) But at some point this disc disappeared. When station DJs wanted to include a song from Smith's performance on a 2002 compilation CD, the disc with Smith’s 1997 performance was nowhere to be found.
A lot happened over those five years. At the time of the recording, Smith was garnering underground acclaim for his 1997 album “Either/Or” (it would later finish No. 20 in the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics poll) and he would soon earn a way-out-of-leftfield Oscar nomination for his song “Miss Misery.” The lilting ballad was featured in the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck feel-good movie “Good Will Hunting,” which led to a fish-out-of-water performance from Smith at the 1998 Academy Awards. When he was finished, he shared a bow with fellow Best Original song nominees Trisha Yearwood and Celine Dion.
Soon Smith became something of a star, albeit a reluctant one. His pop sensibilities blossomed on 1998’s “XO” and 2000’s “Figure 8,” bringing him some crossover success. Even as his songs got prettier they became more heartbreaking — so sweetly sung yet filled with so much pain. Smith took his own life in October 2003, although some details surrounding his death remain unknown.
Since then Smith’s cult has grown considerably and fans have combed over his discography for unheard material. One song appeared in May of this year when Ben Weisholtz, a former WMUC DJ (and good friend of mine) decided to sell his old MiniDisc player on eBay. Before shipping it off he opened it and discovered a disc inside -- “Elliott Smith/Braid” it said. (Braid being a ’90s emo band that also recorded a WMUC session around that same time.) He immediately mailed it back to WMUC with a written note that said, “I found this in my MiniDisc player when I recently sold it. Looks like I accidentally stole it around 10 years ago. Here it is back.”
The recording made it into the hands of current WMUC DJ Vaman Muppala, who added it to the WMUC digital archive. Leila Mays, another DJ at the station, played a Smith song from that session, “2:45 A.M.” on her radio show on Oct. 29.
Meantime, Alex Teslik, 37, a devoted Smith fan living in Burbank, Calif., had long been intrigued by the mysterious WMUC session after reading about it on SweetAdeline.com, a popular Smith fan site. A Google search earlier this month brought him to a playlist Mays had posted of her Oct. 29 radio show.
He got in touch with Mays, who sent him a copy of the recording. Teslik was surprised by what came at the beginning — a song he had never heard before.
Eventually “Misery Let Me Down” made its way to the SweetAdeline community where it was confirmed that this was a legitimately never-before-heard Elliott Smith song.
“It definitely sounds like [Smith] songs from that era,” says Matt Lemay, author of “Elliott Smith’s XO,” part of the 33 ⅓ book series, noting its similarity to outtakes of that era that appeared on the
2007 odds-and-ends compilation “New Moon.”
“If you see misery going through the things in my place/Won’t you do me a favor and come invade my space,” he sings, accompanied by an almost-chipper, front-porchy guitar. The song will hardly make its way onto any best-of compilations but is reminder of both Smith’s stunning
talent and the many places where songs can go missing.
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