by Elliott Smith
"I'll fake it through the day / With some help from Johnny Walker Red"
Johnny Walker Red is a brand of Scottish whiskey.Deep Thought
It's hard to talk about Elliott Smith without mentioning the troubles he had with substance abuse and depression, and, though this song was written for a movie, this lyric strongly relates to the songwriter's own life.
Smith's problems may have had an early beginning. According to one of his friends, "He battled a lot of inner torment…A lot of stuff from his childhood that he never went into in detail. A lot of stuff that was traumatic." Possibly as a result of this childhood trauma, Smith abused both alcohol and harder drugs. This self-destructive behavior culminated in a run-in with the law at a Beck/Flaming Lips concert in 2002. After this episode, Smith went to rehab, cleaned up, and began to work in earnest on a new album. Unfortunately, it seems he was not able to overcome all of his problems, and after an argument with his girlfriend, he took his own life in 2003. (Some dispute that it was suicide, and you can read all about that in a very thorough Spin magazine article about Smith's death.)
The artist's legacy does include an organization to help youths with a similar background find support and community, and you can read more about The Elliott Smith Memorial Fund, which helps abused children gain access to the arts, here.
"A man in the park / Read the lines in my hand / Told me I'm strong and / Hardly ever wrong"
Palm reading is a centuries-old practice that still thrives today.Deep Thought
The practice of palm reading can be traced back to India three to five thousand years ago; it was later popularized in the West by the Roma (who are more commonly, though less politically correctly, referred to as gypsies). These facts seem to be some of the few that researchers can agree on. Though the lack of hard evidence about the significance of palm reading may be frustrating for modern researchers, it helps add meaning to "Miss Misery."
The speaker in this song seems to be searching for an answer to his problems, and this might be why he stops in the park to have his palm read. He might be thinking that this ancient, mystic art can give him some information he could use to feel more stable. The problem is that the man tells the speaker he's "strong and hardly ever wrong," and we can by tell the lyrics in the rest of "Miss Misery" that the speaker is experiencing feelings of weakness and confusion. So, just like when you try to take a closer look at the story behind palm reading and it seems to dissolve into historical rumors, when the speaker tries to discover the path of his life from this guy in the park, he finds answers that appear to be fabrications and mystical mumbo-jumbo.
"It's a comedy of errors, you see"
The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare's early plays.Deep Thought
Though Shakespeare's play is a comedy, it shares a few themes with "Miss Misery." Just like the speaker in the song is separated from the person he loves, most of the characters in the play are separated from family. Even at the very beginning of the play, a father who has been searching far and wide for his sons is caught trespassing on hostile soil and is so lonely that he's pretty happy about the death sentence he receives as a result of his crime. Along with his troubles, the play as a whole centers on the separation of two sets of infant twins and the strange things that happen as they come closer to finding each other as adults. The characters in the play stumble forward as forces they don't quite understand shape their fates.
Of course, there's still a huge difference between these works: Shakespeare (in the tradition of comedies of error in general) gives his audience a happy conclusion to his tale of temporary loss and family distance, while Smith allows his listeners no similarly heartwarming sentiments in his song.
"To vanish into oblivion / Is easy to do / And I try to be / But, you know me / I come back when you want me to"
Oblivion? That sounds like that spell from Harry Potter…Deep Thought
Maybe you're not a fan of the enormously popular world of Harry Potter, but, quite often the spells in the series are based on classical word roots. For example, the incantation "obliviate" is one that makes someone forget whatever events the spell-caster wants. The word "oblivion" comes from that same root, and technically means a "state or fact of forgetting."
If you take that meaning into account in the lyrics of "Miss Misery," the speaker seems to be saying that to escape from his problems by forgetting about them is pretty simple. However, in the very next lines he tells the girl he is referring to that "I come back when you want me to." Those words appear to be the speaker acknowledging that this girl he loves is not quite as easy to forget as he tries to make her out to be. It seems this is an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind situation, where a person tries to forget all about someone he loves, but, once reminded of her, can't help himself from becoming obsessed all over again.