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October 13th, 2004 MARK BAUMGARTEN | Music Stories
 

A Year in the Death of Elliott Smith

Unpacking the life of indie rock's poet laureate.

     
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Elliot Smith
Oct. 23, 2003, The New York Times:

"Mr. Smith often insisted he was not a confessional songwriter, but he had struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism and had spent a short time in a psychiatric hospital. 'Miss Misery' begins, "I will fake it through the day with some help from Johnnie Walker Red/Send the poison brain down the drain/To put bad thoughts in my head.'"

Elliott Smith's heart may have stopped beating last October, but his life has gone on.

After the singer-songwriter's death on Oct. 21, 2003, police labeled the incident--Smith was found in the kitchen of his Los Angeles home stabbed through the heart with a knife--a "probable suicide." In countless obituaries, including the one published in The New York Times, writers mined the disturbed imagery of Smith's songs, as did music critics and fans, all trying to make sense of the singer's life in order to better understand the reasons for his death.

A year later, the quest for meaning continues. On Oct. 12, Benjamin Nugent's biography of Smith, titled Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing, hit the shelves, while this Tuesday the singer's sixth full-length recording will be released. From a Basement on the Hill, a collection of songs recorded in the last years of Smith's life, isn't likely to be the album many of his fans hoped for.

In these songs, Smith turned away from the polished pop productions of his last two releases, XO and Figure 8, but didn't return to the simpler sound of his early albums as a mostly solo acoustic performer. Instead, Smith went into the studio, de-tuned his guitars, and recorded music that is disorienting at times as it is beautiful at others.

But for the listeners, the biggest difference about this album is that the man who wrote and performed these songs, tragically, is dead.

Jan. 6, 2004, Los Angeles County autopsy report:

"The mode of death is undetermined at this time. While his history of depression is compatible with suicide, and location and direction 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."

The coroner's report was expected to affirm the cause of death as suicide. The idea of Smith taking his own life was, whether fans and critics were willing to come out and say it or not, an unsurprising end for a troubled soul.

Questions regarding Smith's death didn't stop the flood of attention he had received since his death. Fans still staged memorial concerts and circulated petitions to develop official memorials. Music magazines continued to run essays by exasperated writers and letters from loyal fans, everyone adding their own touching words and poetic reasoning to Smith's legacy.

The coroner's report, in its passive officialese, mentioned "the possibility of homicide," as well as the fact that Smith and his girlfriend were fighting before his death. Those facts added up to a reminder of the suspicions surrounding the suicide of another indie-rock pioneer, Kurt Cobain--a death that has been met with skepticism and accusations directed at Cobain's wife, Courtney Love.

Cobain and Smith shared in their songwriting the sense of alienation that defined the early-'90s indie-rock movement, but they were very different artists. Cobain's songs were angry screeds against forces outside of his control, while Smith sang songs with an internalized ambiguity that was rooted, it seemed, in personal guilt. This might be why Cobain's death, which was ruled a suicide, is under constant investigation by fans, while Elliott Smith's death, which has yet to be solved, is still talked about in the language of self-destruction.

Elliott Smith created, in his recording career, a mythology that was difficult to shake. This is captured in Nugent's biography of Smith, which describes how the singer incorporated realistic portraits of drug addiction into his albums--most prominently his second, self-titled album--to convey a sense of emotional pain.

As his fan base and press coverage grew, Smith was faced with questions about his drug use, which he and his friends claimed was minimal at the time, according to Nugent. But later, when fame pulled Smith away from his support system, he began to live his myth, constantly using or trying to quit crack, heroin and amphetamines. In 2002, Smith began forgetting entire parts to his beautiful and tragic songs, resulting in performances that other musicians described as "sad and brutal to watch."

Feb. 15, 2004, Los Angeles Times:

"A cult musician in life, he seems, like English folkie Nick Drake, Joy Division singer Ian Curtis and alt-country pioneer Gram Parsons, to exert fascination in death as well."

When some artists die, fans lose more than the life of a brilliant mind and the possibility of future creativity. When Smith died, his fans lost a confidant, one they had come to know through his music. Those songs, those intimate songs, were the main reason, besides his unique musical talent and his inventive production techniques, Smith had built such a devoted cult of fans.

The people who latched onto Smith's music chose to recognize a very dark part of life, including drug use, depression and thoughts of suicide; many found Smith's music in difficult times of their own lives. Even now, a year later, confessionals abound on message boards at sweetadeline.net and other places Smith fans congregate.

To be a Smith fan, you realized that there were two options in life: self-destruction and hope. Smith may have sung about the former, but the fact that he continued to make beautiful music, tour and live sent a message of hope to an audience that is likely to look at such messages with a discerning eye.

When Smith died--however he died--that element of hope-despite-everything that infused his music also died. It's hard to listen to any of Smith's albums following his death, including From a Basement on the Hill, and hear anything more than beautiful sad songs. The next logical step for those who loved Smith's music is to try and find that hope by exploring and chronicling the artist's life.

October 2004, Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing:

"I'm a typical Elliott Smith fan, meaning that I fell in love with his music at a time when I wanted to fashion a noose out of my vintage t-shirt collection."

Benjamin Nugent's book, researched and written after Smith's death, is the first attempt to chronicle the musician as a person. It will likely be followed by a deluge of recordings and personal notebooks, such as those that have been released since Cobain's death. In his introduction, Nugent is forthright with his intent, claiming that his biography will help "provide clues to how it happened."

Nugent is an author driven by a passion to understand a hero (or antihero), and his book is fascinating for its depth of reporting and detail. But when the author tries to make sense of Smith's psyche and, ultimately, the singer's death, Nugent's words smack of desperation. For example, Nugent attempts to analyze a dream Smith detailed in the last year of his life: "The vision of the ship stretched to the breaking point mirrors the vision of a Smith divided between an old self and a new one, the former threatening violence to the latter."

As heartfelt as Nugent's words might be, they seem all too simple. The reason for Smith's self-destruction will never be discovered, but the biggest clue in unraveling the meaning of his loss can be found by listening to Smith's posthumous release.

October 2004, Elliott Smith, "King's Crossing," From a Basement on the Hill:

"I can't prepare for death any more than I already have."

Smith went to great lengths to turn the recordings that became From a Basement on the Hill into an album that would incorporate the multi-instrumental aspects of his later albums, while also introducing a more gritty, flawed sound. Those working with Smith said he wanted to make something that sounded different than anything he had ever done. The album, produced after his death by Smith's longtime producer Rob Schnapf and friend Joanna Bolme, succeeds in doing just that.

With some disorienting, beefed-up guitar lines and ethereal samples throughout, the music at times rubs on the ears like an alkaline battery to the tongue. But the album also includes many stirring, distinctive songs that reveal Smith's trademark talent for powerful metaphor, clever wordplay and inventive arrangements. A handful of songs, like "Pretty (Ugly Before)," "Twilight" and "A Fond Farewell," could be included on a compilation of Smith's greatest works.

One of the most striking moments on the album is the lyrical admission in "King's Crossing." The line itself isn't remarkable, considering the litany of woeful admissions throughout Smith's catalog, but the fact that those words have come to life in a world without Smith makes them more difficult to hear.

That line--I can't prepare for death any more than I already have--can never sound the same as when Smith sang it in concert. Or as it would sound to a listener who knows that the man singing might be prepared to die but is still fighting to stay alive.

This is the only meaning to be pulled from Elliott Smith's death: Before it, the singer gave people hope. Now the world is left only with a musician's puzzling artifacts and his beautiful, sad songs.


From a Basement on a Hill Elliott Smith (Anti Records, Oct. 19 release date)

Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing by Benjamin Nugent (De Capo Press, 224 pages, $23.95)

Elliott Smith--Olympia, Washington Live DVD (Nov. 30 release date)

 
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