Daniel Dylan Wray travelled to Portland on the anniversary of Elliott Smith’s tragic death


10 years on after his tragic passing, the presence of Elliott Smith in the Pacific Northwest is still omnipresent. His albums adorn the walls of record stores all the way from Portland up to Vancouver. In Seattle you can even order a ‘Figure 8’ pizza (the name of his 2000 album). Posters still hang onto lampposts and bar-room walls advertising the recent tribute show to Elliott that took place in Portland, featuring Gus van Sant and Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle among others, to celebrate what would have been his 44th birthday. Even walking the streets of Portland, one can’t avoid the presence of Smith. Walking a few blocks and reaching the city’s infamous Powell Books, I’m instantly reminded of the lyrics to ‘Needle in the Hay’ – “Now on the bus / Nearly touching this dirty retreat / Falling out 6th and Powell / A dead sweat in my teeth…” But a decade on, what still hangs around even more, like a foul stench, is the rumours: for every album anniversary, birthday, or whatever other landmark that can be justified for an article on Elliott Smith, the rumour mill churns out more articles filled with regurgitated myths and stories, and in doing so throws accusations at someone who cannot defend themself and also at his friends and colleagues who are exasperated trying to respond to them. Even the hotel I am staying in, The Crystal, is riddled. Below the hotel lies the Crystal Ballroom, a venue in which Elliott played his last ever Portland show, a show which the Willamette Week described – in a tribute piece only days after his death – thus: “With strands of uncharacteristically long hair matted on his gaunt face, Smith exhibited the signs of the memory loss and butterfingers that alarmed his fans in his final two years”.

The more research I did for this article, the less I wanted to write it, all aware of the irony – or flat-out hypocrisy – of writing an introduction like this to yet another article on the very subject I am chastising; fearing all I was doing was insensitively adding to this pile and being yet another unqualified person to talk about the life and death of a person whom I never knew or met. Article after contradictory article I read, an overwhelming strand often found tying these together – aside from the more canonizing, unctuous pieces – is the removal of compassion, treating Elliott as though he was nothing but a story, an object, a subject for copy.

Not a human being or a person or a remarkable artist. Even The Guardian wrote in 2004: “No one was too surprised when Elliott Smith – a boozy, druggy Oscar-nominated folk singer who had talked openly about killing himself – was found dead.” Well, actually, I suspect quite a lot of people were, especially his friends and family who had seen him get clean from illegal drugs (he was still on prescription drugs for anxiety when he died) and working on making new music; and naming his primary attributes as simply being ‘boozy’ and ‘druggy’ and a ‘folk singer’ slides into territory that teeters closer to tastelessness than it simply does objectification.

Part of the problem is the ambiguity surrounding Smith’s death – Coroner’s officials couldn’t determine whether he committed suicide or was murdered. Even more so, website The Smoking Gun released publicly the official coroner’s report for all to witness in full at the click of a button, and by doing so, arming anyone who can read with an opinion to offer on the horrendous death of someone, creating something of a never ending discourse, instead of allowing a sense of closure and finality to take place. It still goes on: as I write this very sentence I see that another book on Elliott was published just yesterday (Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith) while a 2009 documentary called Searching for Elliott Smith made in collaboration with Jennifer Chiba (Smith’s girlfriend at the time of his death, whom many believe was responsible for putting the knife into Smith’s chest) is still doing the rounds, being screened, while a second documentary Heaven Adores You is also in motion after successfully meeting its goal on Kickstarter in 2011.

The allure towards sensationalism can be somewhat understood however. Smith has been through it all: purported sexual abuse as a child, drug addiction, alcoholism, rehab, mental hospital incarceration, run-in’s with the law, depression and suicide attempts. His penchant for drug-use metaphors and allusions to taking his own life in his music has certainly not aided his posthumous reputation as the dark, tormented, drug-addled, reclusive songwriter. One such example is a rumour that likes to be passed round is Smith being found passed out in the toilet cubicle of a Silver Lake club in L.A with a needle stuck in his arm. Even the original source of this claim states it’s a ‘rumour’ yet it’s printed over and over, again and again. Yet, speak to David McConnell who worked with Elliott through much of his heaviest drug abuse period and also joined Smith in huge drug binges himself, attests that Elliott never injected, only snorted. Cutting through the bullshit and the hearsay is a constant slog. But it’s not all gossip and lurid melodrama. Smith still attracts so much intrigue and attention because of his music, which – now nearly 20 years on since his debut album – still resonates powerfully and emotionally with many people today, myself included. So, in the spirit of celebration and remembrance of the talent and life of Elliott Smith, I spoke to some people (many, many friends and associates turned down interviews for this article, understandably fed-up with a decades-worth of what I have tried to point out above) about the music of Elliott Smith, trying to gain some truth and rationality, remembering his music, maybe offering a glimpse of the untold Smith and, with genuine and sincere intention, to leave his personal life where it belongs. Maybe it’s time to stop remembering, extending and falsifying the tragedy of Elliott Smith and instead revel in the beauty of the body of work he left behind. Or, perhaps it’s better summed up in the words of Smith himself, from ‘XO’’s ‘Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands’

“You say you mean well, you don’t know what you mean/fucking ought to stay the hell away from things you know nothing about”

Speaking to Matt LeMay, author of the ‘XO’ title of the 33 1/3 series, he immediately concurs from his research to the perpetuated myths that circulate endlessly. “The biggest misconception, I think, is that Elliott was a sad-sack folk artist whose work was a direct extension of the darker parts of his life,” he says. “Even a cursory listen to an album like ‘XO’ should roundly disprove that notion, but I think there are a lot of reasons we’ve collectively bought into the romantic myth of the suffering artist.” In fact, some of these misconceptions actually proved the impetus for LeMay to write his book. He says: “I don’t think it had as much to do with the strength of my relationship to Elliott’s music as it did with the sudden, overwhelming sense that Elliott’s work was broadly and sadly misunderstood.

This isn’t just retrospective allocation; Elliott fought this image and misunderstanding throughout his career, stating: “I think the suggestion that all my songs are personal is insulting because that assumes that I have a bunch of issues that I feel the need to unload on strangers. That is not the case. It also assumes that I just talk about myself the whole time which, again, is not true.” Or, as he told NME in a response to a reader’s question of ‘What makes you so sad?’ – “I’m not ‘so sad’. There has to be a certain amount of darkness in my songs for the happiness to matter. Just ’cause I’m not singing about sex and sports doesn’t mean I’m sad.”
He would elaborate even further to UNCUT, telling the monthly title: “Sometimes it seems that the simple fact that I’ve played acoustic music equals that I’m some sort of hermit, a very depressed hermit who can’t do anything but sit on the edge of his bed and look at his shoes writing songs and it’s not like that at all. I dunno, it’s a strange thing. I can talk to people, but sometimes I don’t want to.”

David McConnell, who worked with Smith on and off for two years, producing, engineering and collaborating on ‘From a Basement on a Hill’ (completed and released after Smith’s death) offers an insight to this period working with Elliott. “He was upset with the experience with Jon… [Smith had just had recording sessions severed with Jon Brion – apparently Brion struggled to deal with the level of drug abuse taking place – Ed]… but he was upset with so much in life at that time. We saw revitalisation and positive outcomes in the new approach but of course there were hiccups along the way. Usually it was something like a disagreement on something meaningless and we wouldn’t speak for three days, then it would be back to work. He was definitely self aware and wanted to reach for the positive outcome but it was such a challenge for him.

“He was meticulous with the music,” McConnell elaborates, “not so much with communication, although he had his bright moments. He was shy if you weren’t close to him. After we got close he basically talked my ear off sometimes and I would have to leave the room to get some space. He also had a great sense of humour. Super silly sometimes which I liked because I could join right in with that. We even had little late night skit kind of things where we would do impersonations and stuff for laughs.”

The emphasis on Smith’s humour is one that reappears over and over again whenever I speak with people. His wry, quiet smirks and softly spoken cracks lie in stark contrast to the doom and gloom often on offer. Russell Simins from the John Spencer Blues Explosion was a friend and collaborator and remembers a playful, animated side to their introduction. “Our tour manager was a really good friend of Elliott’s and she brought him around to a few shows of ours when we were out in the Pacific Northwest and there was Elliott on the side of the stage grooving to our music, moving, bopping, pretty much dancing unabashedly throughout our set. The first of these shows he came to and danced on the side he introduced himself to me and said he was a huge fan of our band and my drumming. He said on more than one occasion that I was one of his two favourite drummers, the other being Steven Drozd (who appeared on ‘From a Basement on a Hill). Man, that was something else to hear that from someone I admired so much. And he would follow that up with one of the reasons he loved our band was because it always made him wanna dance. It was both really touching and just funny coming from someone like Elliott. His honesty and brashness was something else.”.

Benjamin Nugent, author of Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing also had his viewpoint changed during the process of researching and writing his book. “I think I started with an image in my head of a guy in a bar in Portland falling off his stool and crying,” he tells me, “which was a side of Elliott Smith you hear in his music, but not the centre of who he was.” While friend and collaborator Pete Kreb says, “My memory of Elliott isn’t of a stupid junkie shadow of his former self. I remember the guy who was always cracking jokes.”

Luke Wood, who worked with Elliott at Dreamworks (The label he moved to after Kill Rock Stars, the indie that launched him) once offered, quite astutely, “To Elliott, life was a very beautiful and brutal place, and his songs were that ground in between.”

Smith released five LP’s in his career – ‘Roman Candle’, ‘Elliott Smith’, ‘Either/Or’, ‘XO’ and ‘Figure 8’ – and on those records he moved from the early-day rudimentary – almost entirely acoustic – musings that held an eerie, forceful power, tantamount to listening to the gust and roar of an orchestra filtered through one singular voice and gliding guitar pick to bolder, occasionally sweeping, full-band productions that swung between full-on pop realisations in homage to his childhood heroes The Beatles and ones that almost seemed set out to undermine those same artistic inclinations. “Playing things too safe is the most popular way to fail,” he said.

Perhaps it’s the fragility in his voice that leads to so much presumptuous despair about his music. It’s simultaneously softer and harder than a whisper. It sails like the wind, but wobbles like a tree shaking in the power of a gale. Did Elliott Smith spend evenings sat alone, propped up at bars, crying into whiskey glasses while filling up his notebook? Supposedly, yes, he did. But was he also someone who would pop off his shirt and sing drunkenly along to the Stooges? Also, apparently so. Lou Barlow of Dinosaur Jr and Sebadoh remembered Smith touchingly in 2003, offering a first-hand glimpse into the misplaced complexity and charm of the man. Said Barlow: “I was in Reykjavik when I called home and Kath told me what had happened. One of his songs had played in the club not 15 minutes before. I responded with tears ‘why’d he have to go do that?’, but I knew why, he’d been suffering for a long time.

“I first met Elliott on my birthday in Boston years ago, mid ’90s, he was playing in town that night. I had heard a record, the self-titled one; I was captivated, intrigued and jealous. Someone had come along with songs so sad and beautiful – the nervous guitar, the whisper voice, it sounded like what I was after but never quite reached. My friend Ramona dragged me backstage; he and I talked and got on well. He liked my music too and there was just an easy flow to the conversation. Soon enough Elliott Smith was opening for Sebadoh – the ‘Harmacy’ tour. Lots of people heard him for the first time then and lots of people talked right over him. Funny thing is, he preferred it that way, when the crowds were quiet it made him uneasy. I related to that back then. We did a drive from Phoenix to San Diego, the two of us in his rental car; we talked the whole way. I was beginning to reach the uneasy conclusion that Sebadoh needed a new drummer, he talked about leaving Heatmiser and continuing alone, the difficult decisions we were making and the reality of hurting friends, the implications of changing. Elliott had a lot of insights that helped me gain perspective; he was a very intelligent guy. There was a darkness to him as well, but beautiful.

“I saw him off and on after that at shows, he moved to LA a little while after I did. He had become famous, was under incredible pressure, touring and recording constantly – he fell back into drugs. I went to a small get together for his birthday this summer at a local bar, I talked to him a little, he seemed younger, softer, more childlike. It was a change from the person I had met. I had noticed it before but now it really struck me, everything had taken a toll on him. I wasn’t surprised when I got the news, he did seem happier lately but you never know. I’m sad he didn’t make it, I’m sad for the people that loved him. I’ve been remembering things about him: he taught me to play croquet, he was fucking good at it too; we didn’t know each other at the time but we both lived in Northampton, circa ’89 and he worked in our favourite supermarket – we loved the bakery, turns out he worked in the bakery. Elliott Smith made delicious blueberry muffins; he did ‘13’, a Big Star song during a sound check on the Sebadoh tour and brought me to tears, the first time a peer’s voice made me cry; I watched him sing along with ‘Raw Power’ (by the Stooges). I believe he took his shirt off, we had drunken, excited plans for a ‘Raw Power’ tribute band. Elliott on vocals, of course.”

Re-reading quotes, articles, reports, memories and reflections of someone who died so brutally and atrociously has been testing and emotionally battering, and I’m not even someone who has been harassed into speaking about it over and over again for the last 10 years. It is an article that I wish I had never proposed writing.

Despite many positive responses to my angle of questioning and intent from interviewees, 10 years on, the death of Elliott Smith remains as tragic and heart-breaking as ever, just as it will in another 10 years, but it’s not just a story to be told and re-told that is devoid of feelings, nor should it be an excuse to pitch an article, book, film or documentary to tie in with something you can make money from. Writing or talking senselessly about this kind of thing has severe ramifications and honestly I’m not sure my bringing it up even further – despite my supposed good intentions – is of use or help to anyone.

I, for one, will be leaving the memory of Elliott Smith well and truly alone from here on in. His records can offer me more than I can ever offer in return. You’ll have to excuse the rather earnest, directness of this wrap-up here. The last words of this article won’t belong to me but to close friend Sean Croghan, who laments on the liner notes of Smith’s posthumous LP ‘New Moon’ incredibly movingly. “I feel both lucky and distraught that I knew him so well. Lucky that I was privileged to get that close to genius, distraught that everyday I miss my friend and I can’t find him in the night no matter how hard I look”. dot

« Previous Interview
Next Interview »