By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Soon after the album's release, the void transformed into untrammeled opportunity. In the midst of recording what was supposed to be its major-label debut, Smith's band, Heatmiser, split, but the 1997 release of his second KRS album, either/or, garnered exponentially more attention than the last, enough that he was one of the first signings to the newly formed DreamWorks Records, part of the entertainment company founded by David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Smith was in the process of recording his DreamWorks debut when six of his songs were selected by friend and fellow Portland resident Gus Van Sant for his film Good Will Hunting.
The beginning of 1998 offered the most indelible image of Smith yet, performing during the Oscar telecast, encased in a white tux. It was a bit incongruous, yes, but the way the moment unfolded couldn't have been more appropriate. As he began to sing, it was as if he were asking himself:
Do you miss me
Like you say you do?
Speaking so plainly compared to the divas who surrounded him, his words encapsulated what only a guy like Smith would think at a moment that so clearly signified success.
"Miss Misery" pulled the same trick Smith did on that first album, only on a far grander level, revealing the fine line between a taunt and a self-exhortation. But then again, maybe it was just a question: Smith wondering if he could maybe stop hurting now after all. You couldn't be sure of anything, even the song's title, which might be a coded woman's name but could just as easily reveal the narrator's upset at being denied his share of anguish.
As the year wore on, that moment made progressively more sense, and in retrospect it seems like just one tiny step in the kind of inevitable ascent we like our stars to go through. It was a bit like Ricky Martin's post-Grammy explosion in '99, only on a smaller scale, with more reverential fans and without the tinny aftertaste that usually follows such pop coronations. For the rapidly declining indie-rock scene, Smith was the chosen one. Later in the year, Smith released XO. It sold strong for a cult artist -- 150,000 copies -- and Smith capped this cycle by topping the well-respected critics' polls in Spinand The Village Voice.
OF COURSE, THIS WAS WHERE THINGS SPIRALED terribly out of control for a while. Perhaps because Smith is not exactly the kind of perky, quick-talking personality the press is used to, the media fixated on his less than simple outlook on life. Reports surfaced that Slim Moon -- whose personal relationship with Smith is currently strained to nonexistent -- led an intervention to head off Smith's drinking.
When asked, in retrospect, what he thinks about his brush with, like, serious fame, Smith takes the interesting tack of denying that he's a public figure. "I guess some people think of me that way, but that's just their opinion. I can't think that way. Because what I'm doing is a sonic thing that has no real face. It's a sound. And that's 99 percent of what it is. To sell records, people have to circulate pictures of themselves, but if I felt like a public figure, that would just get in my way.
"I think that a certain level of constant attention makes people very crazy in a way," he continues. "Then they act different than normal people, and then that behavior gets interpreted as some indication that they aredifferent than normal people. And then you have to start acting that way so you don't disappoint the expectation. I don't buy into this, but fame is equated with some sort of superhumanness, and it's bad. It's not that you have to be different from everybody else to be good at something. If you feel really different from everybody else, well, there's a lot of people in the mental hospital who feel really different, you know?
"I now have mass defenses against really remembering what anybody actually tells me," he says. "You're supposed to let compliments in because they're good, whereas you're supposed to leave criticism out because it's bad, but I've found that if either one of them goes in, it invites the other one, so I generally keep both of them out, and I constantly forget that people actually listen to my records, or some people do anyway."
At the height of all his Hollywood activities, Smith moved from Brooklyn, where he lived after Heatmiser broke up, to Silver Lake, which has shaped itself into an outpost of sorts for various post-indie and alternative-rock musicians, producers and managers, including Margaret Mittleman, Smith's longtime manager, and her husband, Rob Schnapf, who's produced Smith's last three albums with his partner, Tom Rothrock.
A short walk from Mittleman's home, Luke Wood, one of the A&R executives at DreamWorks who signed Smith, provides a map of the neighborhood. "Mike D from the Beastie Boys lives across the street two houses down. Beck's up the street. Lou Barlow [from Sebadoh and the Folk Implosion] is around the corner," Wood says. "At first it seemed so bogus. I could imagine people saying, 'Why are they doing that? Why are they living in L.A.?' But when Elliott was here doing demos in my house, it began to make sense, because he lives so close to everyone. He's happy here, he's productive, and there's great studios. It's the perfect neighborhood."