Elliott Smith, 1969–2003

Photo by Ted Soqui

When singer-songwriter Elliott Smith departed on October 21, he took with him the hearts of many. Some of those privileged to know him share a few thoughts:

Well, I’m sitting in Portland, Oregon, right now, after postponing part of our tour. Here to spend time with loved ones and attend memorial services for our beloved friend. Portland is where I first met Elliott, but I really came to know him in L.A. I feel very lucky to have been a part of his life and he a part of mine. He was so warm and generous. I learned so much from him, not just musically, but in life as a whole. He was inspiring, hilarious, hyperintelligent and completely frustrating.

But there was always a lesson to be learned from his positives and negatives. I went over to his house so that he could help me out with a song I was stuck on. I needed some chord changes and some help with a melody (so why not ask the best, right?). We sit down at the piano together, go through the tune a couple of times, and began to work on some chords and different melodies. He comes up with 10 different versions almost immediately. I asked him to show me again. And again. I was trying to keep up. He’s a far better piano player than I. Finally he gets frustrated and says, "You know, Aaron, maybe you should go home and work on this some more." I left. I was pissed off. I was pissed at him for not having patience, and I was pissed at myself for not being able to hang. I picked up a six-pack and drove straight to the studio, where I sat at that piano determined to finish the tune. It was great, not only did I finish it, but I used his ideas, embellished upon them and made them my own. The song has become one of my proudest achievements.

But that was his plan all along. He wanted me to get knocked down. He wanted me to get up. He wanted me to do it myself. I learned a lot that day. I miss him very much. And he will be missed by many others. It’s like my friend Scott said, "He belonged to so many people." I think that is a great thing. This was just one story. There’s a million more out there.

—Aaron Espinoza (Earlimart)

Elliott’s passing is a terrible loss for myself and many of my friends, who knew, worked and hung out with him. Needless to say, he was one of the best songwriters of our day and a formidable musician. He was also soft-spoken, intelligent and extremely humble. He had an acute sense of justice. At one of my shows last year he tried to intervene with security who were harassing a kid, and was in turn beaten and handcuffed by them. We knew he’d had his struggles over the years, but I was heartened by word that he was on an upswing and preparing a new album. We had recently talked a few times about getting together and making some music. Nobody could have known what was going to happen, but I am grateful for the times we got to tour and hang out together. He will be missed, and the ramifications of his absence will long be felt.

—Beck

Elliott was very encouraging to me about my songs, and that meant a lot to me. He was a really sweet guy who wasn’t equipped to deal with some of the cards that life dealt him. I’ll always remember walking offstage one night after playing "It’s a Motherfucker" and Elliott walking up behind me in the dark and patting me on the back. That’s how I will remember him.

—E (Eels)

Elliott Smith’s contribution to music will never fade. He was a truly gifted songwriter and musician, steadfast in his "orphan at the banquet" ideals. He was one of the more complex people I had ever met, harsh, funny, fucked-up, jock-hating, fast-picking, paranoid, abused and abusive, worldly, intelligent and insanely generous. One of my best memories of him was from the tour that he took us on in 2001. We were all backstage at the Showbox in Seattle. Russ and I were rehearsing a song, and Elliott started singing along and said, "What’s that one called?" I said, "‘The Western Shore.’" He turned away and said, "I like that one."

In that second he made me feel fucking great. I wish I could have returned the feeling. I wish I’d told him how much some of his songs meant to me . . . I wish he wouldn’t have turned away.

 

—Imaad Wasif (alaska! and New Folk Implosion)

I had an old boyfriend who knew Elliott, and he had an album of his early songs, Roman Candle, I believe, and I got to be a big fan of this local Portland album and would listen to it when we were shooting Good Will Hunting, to the point that during breaks I would put on Elliott’s music, and by that time two other solo records of Elliott’s work as well as Roman Candle. When we edited the movie, we put all of the songs into it, so the spirit and sound of the movie is largely Elliott Smith. We edited in Portland, so I finally called up Elliott, through the old boyfriend, and we had coffee and talked, then I showed him the movie on a VHS tape at my house, which was also the editing room. I said, Now, don’t be shocked too much, because we’ve put a lot of your songs in there. And normally I wouldn’t show you the movie with your songs in it, but they work so well that I want to. And Elliott seemed to be pleased with what he saw and gave us the permission to use the songs in the movie. He said after everything was over that he was happy with the experience, because his mom had something tangible to say to her friends about her son. That he was on the Academy Awards playing a song that he wrote for a movie.

—Gus Van Sant

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.

Was it a surprise? Puzzle over his legacy all you want, but any interpretation would be bleak. Recent, unreleased songs included "Let’s Get Lost," "A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity To Be Free," "Strung Out Again," "Shooting Star" and "Fond Farewell." His most popular early record, Either/Or, was named after a book by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, in which Kierkegaard posited that the aesthete would eventually find himself in a state of despair, brought on by a recognition of the limits of an aesthetic approach to life.

It was a despair Elliott could not get past.

***

I met Elliott Smith once, over two days’ time, for a profile in this newspaper. It was my first cover story, my big break. We met one night at Largo, where he played joyful Ringo-style drums with Jon Brion. The next day we played croquet in the Silver Lake back yard of his then-manager, and ate pizza at an unpretentious Italian restaurant on Vermont Street.

We talked a bit about the word melancholy. He had his own definition. To him it didn’t mean depression. "That word has a huge stigma," he said. "It is essentially used to mean dark, when I think what it’s actually supposed to mean is a combination of happy and sad." Over the next few years, I’d spot him in crowds at various bars and shows in Silver Lake and Los Feliz, but he wore an intense shyness, a cloud of privacy I thought it’d be mean to interrupt.

But now I wish I’d said some things. That our cruelties are ours to pay for, not yours. That the existentialists are a bad source of romantic notions. And that while you thought you had to die for our sins and errors and fumblings, all we wanted was for you to sing about them a thousand more times.

And when I go

Don’t you follow

—Alec Hanley Bemis

A memorial benefit for Elliott Smith will be held at the Henry Fonda Theater on Monday, November 3; doors open at 6 p.m. Beck, Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), Grandaddy, Beth Orton and others are confirmed to perform, and Steve Hanft will premiere his film Strange Parallel, which features Elliott Smith. All proceeds benefit the Elliott Smith Foundation for Abused Children; $20; tickets available at www.ticketweb.com. Info: (323) 464-0808.

Read other L.A. Weekly pieces about Elliott Smith:

Elliott Smith, 1969-2003, by Liam Gowing, October 24-30, 2003.

Anonymity, Misery, Softness: Can Elliott Smith save pop music?, by Alec Hanley Bemis, May 5–11, 2000.

Elliott Smith at the Henry Fonda Theater, February 1, 2003, Live in L.A. review by Liam Gowing, February 7–13, 2003.


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