A tragic glamour lingers beyond the grave
Elliott Smith’s sad yet comforting melodies gain a new following more than 13 years after the singer took his own life
The “S”-shaped mural on the side of a building in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles used to be known as the Elliott Smith wall. The beloved singer-songwriter had posed in front of the mural for the cover of his 2000 album “Figure 8,” and the site has doubled as an unofficial memorial since his death in 2003, at 34.
Smith’s fans take the wall seriously: Former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters covered it with wheat paste in 2010 as part of a promotional stunt, and he had to issue a public apology. The owners of newish gastropub Bar Angeles incurred similar wrath when they removed part of the wall (though not, they point out, the part from the cover photo) during construction. “It’s all been done with very good intentions,” says co-owner Wade McElroy. The owners have installed the missing section inside the restaurant, which they named in part after Smith’s song “Angeles.”
Fans were not pacified and exacted revenge through negative Yelp reviews. “It’s still there, it hasn’t been taken away, but we’re there now, too,” says McElroy, who still sounds surprised at the intense reaction. “He was a great musician, and all his records are still there to be listened to.”
Twenty years after the release of his career-making album “Either/ Or” and more than 13 years since his still-disputed suicide, Smith is being rediscovered by a new generation of fans, attracted by the comforting sadness of his music and the inexpressibly tragic glamour of his death.
There are signs of him everywhere: On Frank Ocean’s “Blonde,” which pays him overt tribute and interpolates one of his songs; in the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why”; in the Adult Swim cartoon “Rick and Morty,” which used Smith as the embodiment of angst; as the subject of a biography, a documentary film, and a podcast.
Joanna Bolme, Smith’s former girlfriend and longtime bassist for Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, is still managing the spillover from the Cult of Elliott. “People kind of geek out on me and I didn’t really realize why,” she says. “Then they’d tell me, ‘I grew up listening to Elliott Smith,’ and I’d be like, ‘Okay, that’s why you’re so weird around me.’ ”
“Either/Or,” which was rereleased in March in an expanded form with previously unheard tracks, is Smith’s best-selling album, and a repository for many of his most enduring songs. Before “Either/Or,” Smith had released two quiet, mournfully beautiful folk albums just as grunge was reaching its commercial peak. (He had already released three albums with the alt-rock band Heatmiser, which broke up in 1996.) “People that were sort of damaged recognized that in him right away,” Bolme says. “People that were struggling saw a kindred spirit right away, writing about personal pain in sort of a beautiful fashion.”
The recording of “Either/Or” was brief and mostly unremarkable. Bolme doesn’t remember much about the sessions, some of which happened in her house. It was mostly after recording was finished that everybody realized what had been created. “I knew it was really good, but the two records before it were really good, too,” Bolme says. “This seems to be the favorite with people.” Bolme prefers Smith’s self-titled 1995 release, which he was working on just as the two were becoming close. “I felt more invested. He was talking to me about the songs, it was just the ‘getting to know each other’ phase.”
Engineer Larry Crane, a friend of Smith’s and the owner of Portland’s Jackpot studio, where Smith was a constant presence, recorded the now-classic “Either/Or” track “Pictures of Me,” but he hadn’t heard the whole album until Smith gave him a pre-release cassette. “That was when I realized,” Crane says. “I didn’t know that he was on that level. I just had this feeling things were going to get bigger for him.”
“Either/Or” straddled the line between Smith’s minimalist, ultra-lo-fi past and the more elaborately fleshed-out pop of “XO,” released the following year. “It definitely was the transition from the basement to Elliott being able to chase down whatever vision he might have in mind,” says Rob Schnapf, who co-produced “Either/ Or.” “There were definitely times when we could’ve done more, production-wise, but he just wasn’t ready to do that yet. And that’s ‘XO.’ ”
After “Either/Or” came out, Smith found unexpected fame — “kind of stupid fame,” says Crane — when Portland filmmaker Gus Van Sant asked to use several of his songs in the film “Good Will Hunting.” One of them, “Miss Misery,” would be nominated for an Academy Award for best original song in 1997, eventually losing to Celine Dion’s “Titanic” theme “My Heart Will Go On.” “‘Miss Misery’ changed both our lives in a huge way,” says Crane. “Maybe sometimes it’s my most hated song, because maybe it took him away. He kind of hated it.”
To the Hollywood types with whom he would tussle over the logistics of his Oscar-night performance, Smith was a nuisance. “It wasn’t always very respectful,” recalls Schnapf, whose wife, Margaret Mittleman, was Smith’s manager. “It was like, ‘Well, you’re just this little guy.’ ”
To the mainstream press, he was a novelty. “He’d be on the phone to all these different journalists, and I’d hear him be exasperated: ‘No, Gus didn’t discover me in a coffee shop,’ ” Crane says. “He told me once, ‘I want to write songs, I want to record. The interviews and the tours are things I have to do in order to do the first two.’ ”
Smith had also been reluctant to perform at the Academy Awards; he later told interviewers that he agreed to appear only after the show’s producers threatened to use Richard Marx instead. He performed a whispery, abbreviated acoustic version of “Miss Misery” alone onstage, backed by an unseen orchestra, and sandwiched in between more bombastic performances by Trisha Yearwood and Dion, who had fog machines. The three held hands onstage at the end.
“Miss Misery” made him “a smaller version of a superstar,” says Nickolas Rossi, the director of “Heaven Adores You,” a 2014 documentary about Smith. His friends consider that a victory for everyone. “The best part was, we won,” Schnapf says. “I mean, not us, the closed circle. I mean, we the people who do this for art, not commerce, the people who are connected and moved by music. We won. He represented that.”
But Smith was starting to disconnect from his old life. He moved from revered Pacific Northwest indie label Kill Rock Stars to a major label, DreamWorks. He moved to Brooklyn and eventually to Los Angeles. Crane remembers having phone conversations with Smith around the time of his 2000 album “Figure 8,” but “he wasn’t one to keep in touch.”
It was around this time that Schnapf, who co-produced “Figure 8,” says he began to worry about Smith. Bolme worried, too. “I think people assume he was using drugs this whole time, but he didn’t really start using drugs seriously until probably 1999, 2000,” she says. “He was always a really heavy drinker, and he wrote songs where he implied drugs were part of his life, but it was more metaphorical. Drug use was the main reason we lost touch.”
In the last year of his life, Smith “was on psychiatric drugs that in my view were irresponsibly prescribed,” says William Todd Schultz, the author of “Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith.” “When you see some of his last performances, he looks out of it.” On Oct. 21, 2003, Smith reportedly stabbed himself in the chest after an argument with his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba. He had long flirted with the idea of suicide, had written and sung about it, and, according to a police report obtained by the Smoking Gun, may have made at least one previous attempt. “He would tell a lot of his girlfriends, ‘Don’t get attached to me, because I don’t know how long I’m going to be around,’ ” says Schultz.
According to the coroner’s report, which found no illegal drugs in his system, homicide was a “possibility.” The report made no determination as to mode of death. Conspiracy theories still abound on the Internet, and even Smith’s friends seem split; Crane uses the word “allegedly” when discussing Smith’s possible suicide.
After his death, the mythmaking began in earnest. The gulf between the Elliott Smith his friends remember, and the sad, sainted Elliott Smith that never was, began to widen. “I briefly met Kurt Cobain, and as soon as he passed away, I was like, oh God, here it goes. They’re not going to paint him the right way,” Crane says. “Same with Elliott. I feel like a lot of times you see these headlines: ‘Tormented.’ ‘Mr. Misery.’ And you’re like, Jesus Christ, if you’d gone out drinking with the guy, you’d know that wasn’t the right way to put it.”
His many chroniclers seek to reconcile the iconic Elliott — the mopey and tragic guy in the rumpled white Oscar night suit — with the slightly more genial figure described by his friends. “I think he struggled with that label for all his career,” says Rossi. “He was that guy, who did the sad songs. But then we talked to his friends, and they would say all these things about how funny he was, and he was always pulling practical jokes, and we uncovered all these photographs where he was smiling. We thought, there’s got to be more to Elliott Smith than just this sad guy. He couldn’t have had such a horrible time being a famous musician. There’s an interest in looking at the mythology of Elliott Smith, and seeing if there was a way to include the happy times as well.”
But the author Schultz says Smith had a “black knot in the center of (his) being,” and a well-deserved reputation for mournfulness that draws in the like-minded, even as it was sometimes out of his control: His 1995 song “Needle in the Hay” was used in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” in a notorious scene featuring a suicide attempt.
“Everyone experiences Elliott Smith at a time in their life when they need Elliott Smith,” says Rossi, though not everyone experiences him in the same way. Fans who discover him now can consume his entire catalogue at once, points out Sean Cannon, host of the weekly public radio show “The Guestlist,” and the limited-run Smith-based podcast “Say Yes.” “People are coming of age who didn’t think of him as the guy from ‘Good Will Hunting’ or ‘The Royal Tenenbaums.’ They think of him as Elliott Smith, the musician, and here’s his entire discography in front of me. It didn’t unfold, it was there.”
It’s these younger fans who will help keep him relevant. They’ve never known a time when tragedy wasn’t the central fact of his existence, when he wasn’t the embodiment of poetic suffering.
Smith’s cover of the Big Star song “Thirteen” was recently included in the controversial teen suicide drama “13 Reasons Why.” Schultz isn’t sure this was helpful. “I don’t know if it is good,” he says. “I think for most people, (Smith’s music) is consoling and it makes people feel better, but for a small fraction, it provides some glamour that would increase their risk for maybe doing something. But you can say that about any great sad art. There’s gonna be a small fraction of people who listen to it and it takes them deeper down into darkness, where other people are going to listen to it and be inspired by it, and it makes them feel better.”
Smith’s songwriting was often more observational than biographical, his friends say, but there’s an intimacy to his work that appears at odds with the mystery of his cultural afterlife. Few artists have ever bared so much in their work and still seemed so unknowable. Fame, a condition for which Smith appeared uniquely unsuited, amplified this divide. “I think it was jarring for him to be adored,” Schultz says. “I think he (seems) a little more mysterious because he was very private. He withheld a lot, except from his close friends.”
After Smith’s death, his family asked Crane to be his archivist. Smith’s vaults took years to catalogue, and contain thousands of songs, most of them still unreleased. Several tape reels are missing (“Elliott was not one of the most organized people,” Crane says) and are unlikely to ever surface. Smith’s family has been careful not to flood the marketplace: Bolme and Schnapf completed his unfinished album, “From a Basement on the Hill,” at the family’s request and an odds-and-ends collection mixed by Crane, “New Moon,” was released in 2007.
Had Smith made it through the last, difficult year of his life, “who knows, he probably would have found his way again, it doesn’t matter,” says Schnapf. Smith might have thrived away from the pressures of a major label deal. “I think he would be very successful in a business like Wilco, where he doesn’t need anybody,” Schnapf says. “And he could make whatever kind of record he wanted to make.”
After the album “Either/Or,” left, came out in 1997, singer-songwriter Elliott Smith found unexpected fame, including an Oscarnominated song in the film “Good Will Hunting.” Fans still revere the Los Angeles mural seen on the cover of Smith’s “Figure 8.”