The Story: The Figure 8 mural is on the side of the Solutions! Audio-Video Repair at the corner of Fountain and Sunset in the Silver Lake neighborhood. Originally a simple mural, it was immortalized after a photo taken there by Autumn de Wilde, which ended up as the cover for Elliott Smith's 2000 album, Figure 8. Made during his time in Los Angeles, it's one of his more approachable albums, amid a catalog of deep, dark songs, that to the casual listener can come off heavy and painful. Since his death in Los Angeles in 2003, the mural became a memorial, still standing today. The wall is covered in messages to Elliott from fans, mixed with some graffiti, street art, and a wheat paste of Smith as he appears in the legendary photograph.
The Message: Smith was born and raised in the South, started his music career in Portland/Seattle, and eventually ended up in Los Angeles around the turn of the century. These were some of the toughest times of a life full of heartache and pain. Whether Los Angeles contributed to or simply enhanced his struggles is seen in many songs written and recorded after he moved to the city. Songs like "LA" (example lyric: "cars parked in the sun, living in the day / but last night I was about to throw it all away"), "Pretty (Ugly Before)" ("sunshine, been keeping me up for days") "Memory Lane" ("isolation pushes you til every muscle aches") and "A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free" ("sun rising on a chopping glare, rain dropping acid blotter in the air") reflect the effects Los Angeles can have on your psyche. Themes of being alone, eternal sunshine, and fake people bending you to their will come through in songs on Figure 8 as well as his posthumous release From A Basement on a Hill and some studio rarities unearthed after his death. Not only do his songs play with Angelino themes, but names and places are dispersed all over, with song titles like "Alameda" and "Angeles," plus his cover of Bob Marley's "Concrete Jungle."
The Activity: Head east on Sunset Blvd from Vine Street, towards Silver Lake. When Sunset bends right at Fountain, look for the mural on your right. There's metered parking around, but you'll only need to be there for a few minutes. Check out the mural, and corresponding memorial messages and artwork. You can see the profound effect his music has had on people's lives, and feel free to add your own piece in his honor. Elliott's connection with the Figure 8 theme in general is best considered while staring at the mural. Smith said that he "liked the idea of a self-contained, endless pursuit of perfection. But I have a problem with perfection. I don't think perfection is very artful. But there's something I liked about the image of a skater going in this endless twisted circle that doesn't have any endpoint. So the object is not to stop or arrive anywhere; it's just to make this thing as beautiful as they can." Smith's thoughts come through in the song "Figure 8," which actually isn't on the album itself, but found on the Grand Mal Studio Rarities collection (bonus trivia: it's a cover of a School House Rock song). Living in Los Angeles can feel like a figure 8 sometimes, going around and around, trying to get somewhere better but never actually getting anywhere. But Smith actually adopts the song's optimistic view, to focus on the beauty of the figure itself. To survive in LA, maybe you need to share the song's positive outlook.