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Elliott Smith, 1969-2003.
by Jonathan Valania
Near the end of The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson’s storybook cinematic fable of wasted potential, the character of Richie, a disgraced world-class tennis player with a dark secret, looks soulfully into the bathroom mirror. It’s impossible to say what he’s thinking–he looks scared, confused, angry, on the verge. A tensely strummed acoustic guitar spirals in the background, accompanying a hushed,
faintly ominous vocal. It’s Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay.” Richie picks up a scissors and methodically, if crudely, crops his shoulder-length tresses down to the scalp. He lathers up his lumberjack beard and shaves it clean. He stares hard in the mirror, unblinking, trying to recognize the face he sees.
The music swells, whispery and unnerving. He nods slightly, pops the blade out of the razor and slashes his wrists. In the end, Richie Tenenbaum is saved. Elliott Smith was not. Last week he was found in his apartment in Los Angeles, dead from a self- inflicted knife wound to the chest. Sad to say, deep down nobody who knew him is really all that surprised. He lived in an orbit of despair, and he bore all the usual scars: inconsolable depression, unshakeable addictions, suicidal tendencies.
He was not a pretty man, but his music could win beauty contests. Over the course of five albums, he managed to channel a profound sadness into aching, velveteen folk-rock carols. The best of them sound like mercy itself. Eerily, his entire songbook sounds like a cry for help: harrowing, deeply wounded lyricism wrapped in gorgeous lullaby melodies. That phrase–“a cry for help”–seems so obvious and cliched I’m embarrassed to type it. But that doesn’t diminish its tragic license for truth. What makes a man plunge a knife into his chest? What makes a man jump off a bridge? Or stick a needle in his arm?
The short answer is as obvious as it is cliched: to relieve unbearable pain. That much is undeniable, and yet it explains almost nothing. As old as life itself, suicide remains the cruelest existential riddle. A surrender to the void, a fuck-you to the world. A desperate peace wrested from ordinary horror.
I don’t pretend to know Elliott Smith, but I spent a week with him on tour and at his home back in 2000 when I was profiling him for Magnet magazine. From the outside he looked like the same badly drawn boy you saw peeking shyly out of the scores of high-profile magazine portraits that ran around the time he was nominated for an Academy Award for his song “Miss Misery” from Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting. He was wearing that same brown ski cap he always wore–the one that cocooned him from the world’s harsher frequencies.
At the tail end of a months-long tour in support of his last album, Figure 8, he looked tired and thin. His long hair, unwashed for days, framed his ravaged face. I wrote that he looked like “Christ after three days on the cross.” A bit dramatic, perhaps, but no less accurate.
He played me a new song he’d just recorded. In retrospect, the irony of the title is tragic bordering on the grotesque. It was called “A Dying Man in a Living Room.” So much of his art–bits of lyrics, album cover imagery–was a muted blare of distress.
The cover of his second album, simply titled Elliott Smith, featured two people jumping off the roof of a building. Elliot Smith was a very damaged soul. His childhood was rough, a fact underscored by his unwillingness to talk about it.
“There’s not much I could say about that time that I would like to see in print,” he said when I asked him about growing up. “I wouldn’t want to remind any of the people involved of that time.”
By his early 20s, during the flannel glory days of the early ’90s Pacific Northwest, he was playing guitar in a Portland grunge outfit called Heatmiser. After three albums he quit the band, because, he told an interviewer, when you grow up around a lot of yelling and screaming, the last thing you want to do is be in a band where everyone’s yelling and screaming.
He struck out on his own, making music that was the polar opposite of grunge: delicately acoustic, painfully introspective, full of flickering-candle reverie and blurred visions of personal disintegration. With each album, his audience grew–swelling with legions of crushed romantics, the desperately lonely and the clinically sad. Some listened to remember, some listened to forget.
By the time Gus Van Sant showed up, Smith had been crowned indie’s sun king of rainy mood-pop. And yet even as his profile rose, he was collapsing inside. He seesawed up and down between heroin and alcoholism, full-blown depression and tenuous recovery.
“Shoot me up/ It’s my life,” he sang with brutal honesty. Friends staged interventions. There were hospitalizations. At some point, he told me, aided by Paxil, he simply willed himself back into the light with this personal mantra: Things are going to work out and I am never going to stop insisting that things are going to work out. On the last day I spent with Smith, we sat outside his bungalow, tucked away in a leafy section of Silver Lake. I asked him a lot of pretentious big-picture questions about love and death and God. At one point, I asked him if he thought suicide was courageous or cowardly.
“It’s ugly and cruel and I really need my friends to stick around, but dying people should have that right,” he said. “I was hospitalized for a while and I didn’t have that option and it made me feel even crazier.
But I prefer not to appear as some sort of disturbed person. I think a lot of people try to get a lot of mileage out of it, like, ‘I’m a tortured artist’ or something. I’m not a tortured artist, and there’s nothing really wrong with me. I just had a bad time for a while.”
Even then, I could tell he didn’t really believe that. It sounded like whistling past the graveyard.
In the two years since I spent time with Smith, I’d heard discouraging things: that he had fallen off the wagon–hard. That his manager–widely seen as one of the pillars of his sobriety–had given up on him and moved on. That his record company passed on his new album, supposedly titled From a Basement on the Hill. His people still loved him, though. He sold out the Trocadero back in June without
having released an album in three years. A few weeks ago he released a limited-edition 7- inch on the Seattle-based Suicide Squeeze label which contained two songs: “Pretty
(Ugly Before)” and–again, in retrospect, this is about as subtle as writing “redrum” on the mirror in lipstick–“A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free.” That’s a long way from “things are going to work out and I am never going to stop insisting that they are going to work out.”
Last week things did not work out. I don’t know if he stopped insisting that they would, or he stopped believing what he was saying. Either way, 34 years was all he could stand and he couldn’t take any more. We have to respect that. After all, he made it clear from the very beginning: Sooner or later the world will break your heart.
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EXCERPTS FROM: Elliott Smith: ‘Mr. Misery’ Revisited, 10 Years After the Singer-Songwriter’s Controversial Death
WRITTEN BY Liam Gowing
Things did not look good for Elliott Smith in August 2001. If you were in the crowd the night that the acclaimed singer/songwriter headlined Los Angeles’ Sunset Junction Street Fair and didn’t know any better, you might have thought he was an indigent blind man who had wandered up the steps to the stage. He was pale and thin and so stooped over, it looked as though he’d just landed on some distant planet where the gravity was so intense that it required a Herculean effort to simply stand erect. As he sat down and cradled his guitar in his lap, Smith raised his right hand to strike the strings, then dropped it onto the instrument as if he had, at that very moment, fallen asleep.
“I’m sorry,” he called out after train-wrecking most of the first half of his set. “I can’t remember the words. I’m so fucked-up.”
Smith, who by then had progressed from heroin to crack, was not interested in discussing market trends or corporate finance. He demanded to be released from the label; and then, in a message relayed by his lawyer to Waronker and Wood, Smith said that if they refused to break his contract, he would opt out of his obligations to DreamWorks by taking his own life. At Smith’s home in Los Angeles’ Los Feliz neighborhood, above a floor littered with crack pipes and heroin-scalded tinfoil, he had hung a noose, just in case.
But Smith did not commit suicide while in the throes of addiction. Instead, in the months that followed, he threw himself into recording with renewed vigor, first at a friend’s home studio and later at his own New Monkey Studio in nearby Van Nuys. And after successfully kicking his addictions to both heroin and crack in fall 2002, he began playing shows and discussing plans to assemble 30 of his new songs into a double album; he wanted to pour the profits from its sale into the Elliott Smith Foundation, which he had established with drug counselor Jerry Schoenkopf and then-girlfriend Valerie Deerin to benefit abused children. After an optimistic birthday celebration in August 2003, Smith even got sober, giving up alcohol as well as red meat, refined sugar, and caffeine. He also began to phase out most of his prescription medications.
Then, on October 21, 2003, everything fell apart again. After a frantic 911 call from his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, an ambulance was dispatched to her home in Echo Park, where Smith lay bleeding to death from two stab wounds to the chest.
Was it a suicide? A murder? A freak accident? Nobody seemed to know what had happened. Then came the bombshell. On January 6, the Los Angeles County Department of the Coroner completed its report on Smith’s death. First, toxicology tests confirmed that Smith, widely assumed to be using street drugs again, was clean at the time of his death; all prescribed medications present in his system were at “therapeutic or sub-therapeutic” levels. In her report, deputy medical examiner Lisa Scheinen concluded: “While his history of depression is compatible with suicide, and the location and direction of the stab wounds are consistent with self-infliction, several aspects of the circumstances (as are known at this time) are atypical of suicide and raise the possibility of homicide,” including “stabbing through clothing,” the presence of “incisive wounds…possible defensive wounds” on one arm and one hand, and an unusual “absence of hesitation wounds” around the fatal injury. The report added, “The girlfriend’s reported removal of the knife and subsequent refusal to speak with detectives are all of concern.”
Possibly, according to Smith’s friends who lost touch with him after he began using heroin and crack heavily in Los Angeles, and to those who knew Chiba from her bleakest days, when she played bass with the notoriously drugged-out psychedelic rockers the Warlocks. These people blame her for enabling Smith’s romance with heroin. But to most of those who maintained a relationship with Smith through his recovery and were close to him when he died, Chiba “wouldn’t hurt a fly,” was “sweet and watchful and affirming” with Smith, and “helped in his rehabilitation.” Of the first group of friends, Chiba says, “I was the scapegoat, the easy target. Nobody wants to blame a beautiful, intelligent, talented guy like Elliott for his own problems. So let’s blame this girl that he likes.”
Regarding Smith’s final year with her, (Chiba) says, “I hope that someday people will see that he had cleaned up. The toxicology report shows that he was clean of any illicit substances. That had been true of the whole last year. That’s not to say he hadn’t been abusing some of his prescription drugs, but in the last two months, I can honestly say that we were in the healthiest shape that either of us had ever been. I hope that people will see that he died in a valiant attempt to live a healthy life.”
Even after quitting heroin and crack, however, getting completely clean would not be easy for Elliott Smith. For several years, he had been taking liberal mixtures of antipsychotics, antidepressants, anti-anxiety agents, anti-seizure medication, amphetamine-based attention-deficit-disorder medication, antidepressant-based ADD medication, and narcotic painkillers. He had reduced his prescription intake to five drugs: Klonopin, an anti-convulsant tranquilizer; Remeron, a semi-sedative antidepressant; Strattera, a non-stimulant ADD treatment; Neurontin, which treats partial seizures; and Adderall, a nice way of saying “speed.”