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 Washington Post Sunday - - MUSIC - BY AL­LI­SON STE­WART IN LOS AN­GE­LES

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.”


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