By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photo by Autumn DeWilde
Q: “It seems as if there was a time when people were worried about Elliott Smith. Do you think that time is passed?”
Elliott Smith: “Yeah, that time is passed.”
—2000 interview transcript
A Sonic Thing That Has No Real Face
In 2000, I met Elliott Smith several times over a three-day span for a profile in this paper. But the first time we really spoke was in the back yard of the Silver Lake home owned by his then manager, Margaret Mittleman. It was little more than a year after he performed on the Grammys beside CĂ©line Dion and Trisha Yearwood. Soon, DreamWorks would release his second major-label record, Figure 8. Yet when asked about his newfound role as a public figure, he offered a curious response.Also in this issue JOHN PAYNE on Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill — a great album by a great man; and CHRIS MARTINS on Earlimart’s community values.
“I don’t really feel like that very much,” he explained. “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.”
How, then, did he explain his move from an anonymity-preserving city like New York to a celebrity-crazed one like Los Angeles?
“It’s about the same,” he said. “It seems like anybody who’s going to come up and talk to me probably knows that I’m not really like a rock star. So I don’t get a lot of that weird stuff from people that I can’t relate to at all coming up and being like, ‘Dude, your album rocks.’”
Two days later, we ate at Palermo, an Italian restaurant in Los Feliz. The food was bad in a good way — too much olive oil in the sauce, too much cheese on the pizza. Elliott wore a blaring red T-shirt decorated with two foreshortened hounds and the slogan “Dog Racing Now,” the same one he’d worn all weekend. This, I thought, was Smith in a nutshell — on the brink of his greatest shot at mainstream success, he was at a crappy restaurant, in an unremarkable neighborhood, wearing an old T-shirt, and not making a big deal of it. I asked him what he thought of celebrities who ceased to interact with the world at large, who stopped acting like normal people.
“I think that a certain level of constant attention makes people very crazy in a way,” he said. “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?”
Some of this appeared in the article, but other bits were left out. Like how a few moments later, a waiter at the restaurant recognized Smith and — being a fan — offered a glass of wine on the house.
He thought Elliott Smith’s music rocked.
Still, Elliott was gracious when the waiter was out of earshot. “It’s nice when things like this happen,” he said. Again, I thought, here was Elliott Smith in a nutshell: a public figure in spite of himself — still uncomfortable in the spotlight, borderline reclusive — yet kind to those who pierced the veil.
The thing is, Elliott Smith’s personality could not be contained in a nutshell, and soon enough he stopped behaving like “normal people” do.
A Rock & Roll Martyr
In the four years following this encounter, Smith went into a nasty slide — junkie rumors, abbreviated shows, a one-album hiatus from his contract with DreamWorks, run-ins with police. In a series of photographs released in early 2003, the words “Kali the Destroyer” were scrawled on his arm in permanent ink. [www.justinwagner.com/elliottsmith.html]
As anyone likely to read this already knows, Smith died on October 21, 2003, of what most think was a self-inflicted stab wound to the heart. (For the record, I consider it a suicide — closed case — whatever the L.A. County Coroner’s Office may or may not decide.) Now, thanks to decades of innovation in just-in-time inventory, the entertainment industry has set a new world record: shortest period between an artist’s passing and the cottage industry created to exploit him.
The final months of 2004 will see a steady flow of goods. This week Anti, a division of Epitaph, will release a fine new album called From a Basement on the Hill; one week later, Da Capo publishes a biography, Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing;and a month after that comes Olympia, Washington, a 40-minute concert DVD filmed at the closing night of 1999’s Yo Yo A Go Go festival, during which Smith reportedly wears a Grim Reaper T-shirt. [www.citypages.com/ filmreviews/detail.asp?MID=6039] To put a pretty bow on this ugly package, Spinmagazine will publish a harrowing and tender account of his last days written by Los Angeles music writer Liam Gowing. In it, Jennifer Chiba — Smith’s girlfriend at the time of his passing — will break her media silence. Apparently Barbara Walters was already booked.
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