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 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 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 are different 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, Spin magazine 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.
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.
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
—“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 touched heroin 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.”
It’s something present in a very select group of songwriters. In his Bob Dylan biography, No Direction Home, Robert Shelton quotes Dylan explaining this state in his typically convoluted fashion:
“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.”
Here’s the rub: If what Nugent says is true — and it’s worth doubting all his conclusions — it means Elliott Smith wasn’t like Dylan at all. He didn’t temporarily inhabit other people’s experience; he didn’t live life on the edge so he could report back on what it felt like; rather, he was painting portraits so alluring that he felt the need to live the life he created in his songs. It’s a weirdly postmodern move. Smith viewed his albums as precognitive signs that justified his behavior in advance.
It’s for this reason — I’m sad to report — that Smith’s death has made his entire discography ring a bit hollow for me in the postmortem. It turns out his music had nothing to do with our lives; it wasn’t an attempt at transmuting life into art; it wasn’t at all the ambiguous thing he made it out to be. It was just an unsavory road map he would follow, gleefully, to the end of the road. Smith, the man, had a death thing, a suicide thing, and he did depend on those aspects for his existence.
Back in 2000, before my brief time with Elliott Smith was over, I asked him about the keys to his songwriting process. He returned, again and again, to two concepts.
“I hate to keep using the same metaphor, but it’s really just like dreaming,” he said. But technically speaking, how did he attain his otherworldly effects? His answer was that he focused on “the parts of songs where they change, where the verse goes into the chorus or when it comes back to the verse. A part of the song will make a certain feeling, and then when it goes into the next part it sort of changes.” This is the reason Smith’s songs flow so naturally, why Smith’s music is often called Beatlesque.
The question that should haunt us, then, is this: Elliott was so good at dreaming. He was so impressed with the way things changed. Why, then, if he had those talents, did he dream himself into becoming the person he became?