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
It’s not enough to say that Elliott Smith had a gift. Elliott had the gift, an ability to create music so enrapturing it seemed to infect your ear at the cellular level and metastasize throughout your body, affecting heart and mind in equal measure. Like his idols, Lennon and McCartney, Elliott wrote melodies so perfect, so natural, they seemed to creep into the marrow of your bones and permanently etch themselves onto your DNA. As soon as he completed a song, it just rang out as though it had existed forever.
His lyrics were on an astonishing par with that flawless songcraft, the product of great intellect and limitless imagination. If Elliott never sang a note, he would still have been in the running for poet laureate of his generation. Like Dylan, his words always painted a complete portrait, not simply tailored to his lush melodies but interwoven with them as if they’d been born conjoined twins. Sometimes nakedly confessional, sometimes steeped in metaphor, Elliott’s songs were never works of fiction. Though he exploited artistic license to great effect, it was obvious he knew exactly what he was talking about. His fragile singing embodied those lyrics with a conviction so real it was almost frightening. His voice haunted your speakers, leaving the air around them thick with the unfiltered essence of pure soul.
"Mr. Misery," they called him, and he despised the simplistic tag, but there was some truth to it. As all things in the universe have a resonating frequency, so did Elliott. As a man he was capable of experiencing the full gamut of emotions, including great joy, but as a songwriter Elliott was a sounding board for sorrow and pain. Not that he burdened you with his problems. He confided in you his most personal thoughts, with a sublime generosity. You could commiserate with Elliott. He understood you. If you needed a soul mate when you were upset, he was there for you.
I knew Elliott. I don’t pretend that I knew Elliott. Ours was a recent acquaintance, but it was no less treasured. I met him about a year ago, at the beginning of what appeared for him to be a slow rebirth following years of self-destructive behavior. He was a strange guy, acutely sensitive, but totally sweet. He didn’t say much, but when he did, you held your breath in anticipation of his thoughts, always profound and often witty. He was unflinchingly honest. His brain seemed to operate like a computer designed to accept only truth and produce only beauty. He recognized falsehood instantly, but he rejected it awkwardly, as if it threatened to crash his system. He seemed utterly unaware of his own genius and processed every compliment with total humility.
The last time I saw him was at his birthday party at the Roost. I sat across from him at the table with a handful of his closest friends, feeling incredibly privileged to share his special day with them. We talked about Dallas, the town we’d both grown up in, about trends in the music industry and about the new double album he was working on. He was shy and soft-spoken as always, but looked healthier and more upbeat than he’d been in years. I had brought a present for him, a pintsize music box. He took my gift with great care and held it to his ear, turning the tiny crank to the tune that carried my unspoken message of love for him: "Hey Jude, don’t make it bad. Take a sad song and make it better." Elliott didn’t say a word. He just looked at me, grinning like a little kid.
You were my hero, Elliott. I’ll miss you.—Liam Gowing
"Did you hear, elliott smith suicide 10:56AM 10/21/2003." The terse text message, received via cell phone, was the first of many calls and e-mails I received from friends last Wednesday about the singer’s death. My first reaction was an audible gasp — a brief, sharp exhalation of breath. Like many who loved his five solo albums of melancholia, it struck me more like a death in the family than the suicide of a pop star.
I can imagine Elliott, sitting in the kitchen of his Echo Park apartment early last week, enmeshed in dark and romantic thoughts. How impossible it was to be gentle in this world. All the cruelties and failures and self-hatred this world bestows on those who just want to be kind. There’s one snatch of lyrics, from his first album, that roil in my mind:
Go home and live with your painLeave aloneLeave alone ’cause you know you don’t belongYou don’t belong hereAnd when I goDon’t you follow
Because his songs implied so much love for musicians that had come before, it’s hard not to think he considered his predecessors. John Lennon shot dead on his front doorstep. Nick Drake overdosing on antidepressants. And poets, too: the French decadents — Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud. Thoughts long teetering in his mind lock in. He takes up a kitchen knife and plunges it into his own heart. Because that’s where the pain lies, and he wants us to remember his life as something at a piece with his music; to remember that few ever make art so fragile, lucid and clear of purpose.