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 Céline 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 Smiths From a Basement on the Hill a great album by a great man; and CHRIS MARTINS on Earlimarts community values.
I dont really feel like that very much, he explained. I guess some people think of me that way, but thats just their opinion. I cant think that way. Because what Im doing is a sonic thing that has no real face. Its a sound. And thats 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?
Its about the same, he said. It seems like anybody whos going to come up and talk to me probably knows that Im not really like a rock star. So I dont get a lot of that weird stuff from people that I cant 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 hed 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 are different than normal people. And then you have to start acting that way so you dont disappoint the expectation. I dont buy into this, but fame is equated with some sort of superhumanness, and its bad. Its not that you have to be different from everybody else to be good at something. If you feel really different from everybody else, well, theres 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 Smiths music rocked.
Still, Elliott was gracious when the waiter was out of earshot. Its 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 Smiths 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 Coroners 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 artists passing and the cottage industry created to exploit him.