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The indie corner of the Internet went nuts Monday after WaPo‘s David Malitz published a piece about the recent rediscovery of a rare Elliott Smith recording. The story went that a former WMUC DJ Ben Weisholtz found a copy of a 1996 live radio session—-“Misery Let Me Down”—-in an old MiniDisc player he sold on eBay. Malitz’s blog post was blogged and reblogged with every passing minute. But it turns out this isn’t the first time that recording has been fortuitously unearthed. “WMUC sort of has a history of finding and losing things all the time,” says former WMUC general manager and Monument guitarist Anton Kropp.
Kropp says there are plenty of recordings that get sucked into a black hole only to pop up at some point later, including some reel-to-reel promos for the station by The Beatles. In fact, he says he found a copy of that Elliott Smith session back in 2004. So, he did what any curious crate-digger would do: He ripped a copy of it. But Kropp “never thought to share it with any of my friends,” and he didn’t know that the recordings he found contained an unreleased song. He was just pleasantly surprised to find a copy of the session after hearing whispers about its existence.
The same goes for former WMUC live music director Chris Henry when he found a CD copy of the performance back in 2009. As live music director, Henry was responsible for running Third Rail Radio, the program Smith appeared on in 1996, but he discovered the CD before he ran that show. Henry wasn’t even trying to find a recording of Smith’s set when he decided to go digging through the archives, though he’d heard about it—-he was actually hunting for a rumored WMUC performance by Will Oldham. But when he found it in a binder, he opted to do the same thing Kropp did some five years prior. “I had an engineer make a copy for me and I brought the copy back to my apartment and ripped it to my computer,” Henry says.
Henry placed that CD back in its original file, where it probably still remains. (“It sort of surprised me that nobody touched the CD after that, which I think is kind of odd,” he says.) He named the 10 tracks he ripped onto his computer as best he could, and gave the lead-off tune the title “Division Day, Take 1.” That’s because on the recording Smith began playing “Division Day” for about 20 seconds before stopping, mumbling, and eventually performing that impromptu version of “Misery Let Me Down.” Like Kropp, Henry wasn’t aware that the tune that followed his aborted take of “Division Day” was an unreleased gem. He learned that last Friday, long after he passed the digital files along to WMUC co-music director Vaman Muppala.
“It’s always been a legend at the station,” Muppala says of the Smith session. It landed in his lap in the form of a curious package from Weisholtz. As Malitz wrote, Muppala found a MiniDisc marked “Elliott Smith/Braid” in the package. But he couldn’t do anything with it: Muppala hadn’t seen anyone use a MiniDisc player at the station. Ripping the session from the disc got added to a future “to do” list, but nothing could be done then. That’s where Henry came in.
When Muppala realized Henry had a digital version of the tracks—-albeit a rip of a rip of the original MiniDisc—-he asked him for a copy. Henry passed it along and uploaded the session to WMUC’s digital music archive. In the wee hours of Oct. 17, Muppala sent an e-mail about the session’s availability to the station’s listserv with a subject that captured his rapt excitement: “Live at WMUC! on the music Archive and ELLIOTT EFFING SMITH.” DJ Leila Mays played one of those songs almost two weeks later, and her public playlist helped lead to the realization that the session contained an unreleased tune.
Since the news of the session went viral, Muppala has been swift to try and set the record straight and give proper credit to Henry. That’s because the session he uploaded to the digital archive didn’t come directly from the MiniDisc Weisholtz sent him, but the copy of a CD copy Henry made in 2009. After Malitz’s piece went live, Muppala wrote a humorous, scatterbrained post on WMUC’s Tumblr explaining how the tracks got online and included a link to an edited version of the session. And the story keeps evolving: Muppala says that WMUC record librarian David Taylor is working on ripping the original session from the MiniDisc in order to obtain a higher quality version of the recording, and Muppala adds that Braid singer-guitarist Bob Nanna called the station to clarify that his band did not perform with Smith as Muppala’s post indicates.
Discovery stories aside, Smith fans got their wish: a digital file of his WMUC show. Yet, it appears that new, slightly edited versions of that session dilute his set into listenable clips. (The above YouTube clip only contains the “Misery Let Me Down” cut, while the Click Track piece contains a slightly longer version with Smith introducing the tune saying “can I like warm up and play a song before we tape?”) The reality of the performance is quite different.
“It’s kind of a sad thing to listen to,” Kropp says. Some on-air sets can be rough around the edges, but Smith’s stripped-down show is messy to the core. He stumbled through the rest of the session after playing “Misery Let Me Down”: He made two more attempts of “Division Day,” a couple takes of “Say Yes,” and also performed “Thirteen,” “2:45 AM,” and “Alameda.” Along the way, you can hear him break-off mid-song, pause to fix his headphones, mumble, profusely apologize, and anxiously pick at his guitar. On Click Track, Third Rail Radio creator Eric Speck relates his impression of Smith, saying “He was SHOCKINGLY shy and it became clear he had on air jitters. He pretty much locked himself in the promotion office—-alone—-to tune and practice. He was super nice, but very sullen and soft spoken.”
“I think he was wasted on cough syrup, this is how the story is told,” Kropp says. In fact, between his first try at “Division Day” and “Misery Let Me Down,” Smith mutters, “I just need to wake up. I took some Nyquil.” That could also partly explain his erratic behavior during the session, and why “Misery Let Me Down” abruptly ends seemingly mid-song. Looking back on it, it’s hard not to re-contextualize the event in regards to the painful personal issues Smith grappled with and his early death in 2003.
Needless to say, it’s an interesting document, and perhaps one of many waiting to be dug up at WMUC. Muppala says there are plenty of recordings from now-legendary bands like Q And Not U sitting in the station, and he’s heard rumors of a Fugazi MiniDisc floating around. “There’s definitely more shocking MiniDiscs to be found,” he says. And finds like the Elliott Smith session remind old WMUC members the joys of their own musical treasure hunts. “It’s fun to see that happen, because everyone gets to relive that discovery,” Kropp says. For Kropp, it’s stories like these that help build a special mythos around the station. “It’s like Hogwarts with music,” he says.