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 only one problem. As I’ve dug back into my own notes from four years ago, I found that his closest business associates shared a yearning inability to connect. When asked, “What’s so special about Elliott Smith? What should people understand about him?” the answers I got were nearly interchangeable. “There are several things about [Elliott] that are so reminiscent of Kurt Cobain to me,” one source said, “like as a person, just like . . . If you go to a party and hang out with him, or when you’re stuck in a van with him on a four-hour ride, the same kind of dry wit and deep cynicism. Like, I don’t think that he knows that he can read people really well, but he’s actually sort of brilliant at reading people and that I think that plays a huge part of his talent as a songwriter.” A fatigued exhale of breath punctuated the comment.
Another source responded less with exasperation than with the type of parental concern directed at a troubled adolescent. He said Elliott elicited a very particular reaction, that he had a softness that made you want to help and protect him, but he also had an edginess that indicated he wasn’t interested in taking solace from anyone. You wanted to comfort him anyway, this person explained.
At the time, both sources asked that these particular quotes remain off the record, but they gave me this information readily. Why would they share such things with a reporter whom they’d just met, and had no particular reason to trust? For some reason they wanted me to know. I think they had such a willingness to open up because even the people who worked with Smith — by definition, some of his closest friends — were searching for answers about him, too.
Smith touched everyone who came through his life in roughly the same order: First they were amazed by his talent, then they began to care for the man behind the songs, then they became concerned about the troubled person they came to know, then they grew frustrated with his refusal to be helped. It was typical of Smith to have fallings-out with his closest friends right after they began to truly know him.
I’ve finally come to a conclusion that’s helped me explain all of this: Smith was a man who, for the most part, was unfamiliar with himself.
A FortuneTeller of His Own Future So sick and tired of all these pictures of me completely wrong totally wrong
—“Pictures of Me” by Elliott Smith
So far, I’ve laid out the standard line on Smith — that he was a consummate musician, one who wished to erase himself to better create a sonic thing; that he was a martyr, a victim who absorbed the world’s crassest tendencies; that he was an empath, a sponge for other people’s emotions. But the truth is much weirder than that. Elliott Smith was primarily a fortuneteller who crafted stories about his own future.
If Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing has any merit, it’s that the book offers one major revelation. Both his friend Bill Santen and Pete Krebs, a musician whom he toured with in the mid-’90s, are quoted as saying the songwriter hadn’t used heroin even once back when he recorded his second, self-titled album for Kill Rock Stars. This despite song titles like “Needle in the Hay” and “The White Lady Loves You More” and despite the fact the record is perceived, in many circles, as one of pop’s greatest depictions of the drug’s perilously dreamy emotional effects. All of Nugent’s sources claim Smith hadn’t so much as touchedheroin before he moved to L.A. in 2000. Rather, they say he used his imagination to summon the drug as a metaphor to describe a person strung out on day-to-day existence, on relationships, on life itself. He would only become the wasted junkie portrayed in his second album five years after he sung about it; just as he tried to will himself to become the happy, successful, parent-pleasing figure portrayed in Figure 8; and just as he would write From a Basement on the Hill in preparation for his slow suicide.
This is amazing, at first, because it paints Smith as an artist capable of the greatest kind of creativity, what the poet John Keats termed negative capability — “that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats thought writers like Shakespeare could eliminate their own personalities and take on the qualities of others in order to write about people more effectively. His definition finished with a flourish: “With a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”
“I have a death thing, I know. I have a suicidal thing, I know . . . I haven’t explained a lot of those things I said against myself . . . A lot of people think that I shoot heroin. But that’s baby talk . . . I do a lot of things. Hey, I’m not going to sit here and lie to you . . . and make you wonder about all the things I do. I do a lot of things, man, which help me . . . And I’m smart enough to know that I don’t depend on them for my existence, you know, and that’s all.”