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
There’s little doubt why all this stuff is arriving in stores at this particular moment. First, it is to mark the anniversary of his death. Second, to exploit his newfound fame, far greater now than it was in life. And there’s a third reason, one that’s both more crass and more poetic: The timing means he’ll probably post his best holiday sales figures to date.
That’s the crass part; the oddly poetic thing is that there’s only one well-orchestrated, cross-format product rollout this Christmas that compares — the DVD, picture book and “inspired by” album begat by The Passion of the Christ.Just as Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob, and Jacob begat Judas, Jesus begat a merchandising phenomenon in 2004. And what an appropriate coincidence. In the West we tend to draw our martyrs either from rock or religion, and by the time the new year rolls around, Elliott Smith’s suicide will be comfortably ensconced in the annals of rock death, alongside Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis and Nick Drake. You see, he doesn’t belong to his old fans anymore but to future generations of angst-ridden mourners.
This doesn’t mean old fans can’t demand a certain level of quality from all of this product. It’s still not okay for slapdash efforts to be released in the rush to market. Without having seen the lot of it, there’s little doubt Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing,the biography by former Time reporter Benjamin Nugent, will be the number-one offender. It’s a quickie, and like all quickies the book is not only shallow but sloppy. It’s difficult to get across how heavily Nugent relies on second-degree friends and third-party accounts; it’s easier to prove that his fact-checking didn’t extend far beyond Google.
A typically damning instance occurs when Nugent describes a night in 2003 that Smith spent on the Lower East Side with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion: And their two days of shows turned into an ongoing party, with the Explosion’s posse swelling to include Russell Simmons, she remembers. (“She” being Smith’s friend and publicist, Dorien Garry.) Nugent doesn’t explain how or why these bar-hopping indie rockers hooked up with Simmons, the rap impresario and entrepreneur responsible for the Phat Farm clothing label and Def Jam Records. My guess is he failed to realize the Blues Explosion’s drummer happens to be named Russell Simins, a profoundly inconvenient homonym for a writer hurriedly transcribing interviews and rushing a book into print. The biography is filled with many such errors and approximations. Fifteen pages earlier, Chiba is introduced as a “slender Asian or half-Asian woman,” as if that were a hard thing to determine. And, in the final chapter, Nugent writes that Bright Eyes performed at last November’s tribute show at the Henry Fonda, though they were only listed in an early announcement and didn’t actually show up.
These nattering details are the best way to explain why this book — part oral history, part clip job — is so shoddy, patched together on the fly by an author with only cursory knowledge of his subject matter and little access to good sources. (Full disclosure: I am thanked in the book’s acknowledgments for leading Nugent to “two crucial interviews” which, in retrospect, I both regret and don’t understand because clearly the book contains no crucial interviews.) Nugent acknowledges his failings in an earnest but unflattering epilogue:
“Dear friends of Smith’s who might have been his staunchest defenders are absent from this book, because they don’t talk to the press about him and they wouldn’t make an exception for me. This isn’t surprising, because while as a college kid I moped around Portland talking about how influential they were, I never met Portlanders Neil Gust, Joanna Bolme, Janet Weiss and Sam Coomes . . . The same applies to Smith’s family. If one of those four musicians or any member of Smith’s family decides to talk one day, I bet it’ll change the way people look at Elliott Smith. That would be a palliative to much of the posthumous press about Smith, in which reporters were obliged to use quotes from people who barely knew him and people who wouldn’t give their names.”
Gee, thanks for sharing. I wish he’d thought of this beforehand, because I doubt future royalties or any part of this book’s $23.95 purchase price will go toward such a project.
A Mysterious Window on the Human Condition
Part of me wants not to fault Nugent. I feel for him because he was so obviously swimming in dark, dark waters while writing it — a land of brutal deadlines, with nary a key source to serve as a life raft. Even the advance he got for creating it couldn’t have allayed the pain of a journalist with a guilty conscience writing under duress.
Perhaps Nugent imagined that he was struggling with a great work that might never be truly finished, just as Elliott desperately tried to complete From a Basement on the Hill. Perhaps it’s more than speculation, because Smith was exactly the type of artist who demanded such empathy. Why? Well, because his understanding of the human condition was right there in his songs, right? It was seemingly Smith’s gift, this ability to blur the line between the unquenchable pain that he felt and the melancholy we all experience at times.