“I didn’t have a hard time making it, I had a hard time letting it go.”
Steven Paul (Elliott) Smith was a prolific singer/songwriter who began his career as a solo artist, a voice for estranged audiences, in the early nineties. His significant presence in the indie music scene was wrought with the sopranos and baritones that accompanied his drug addictions and extreme depression. Smith was not only a virtuoso who could procure a cult following through musical skill, he was a man who was able to attain a peculiar, nonpareil relationship with his fans that made their relationship unique. Elliott Smith was able to connect with his fans because his lyrics offered a personal parallel to their lives “With each album, his audience grew, swelling with legions of crushed romantics, the desperately lonely and the clinically sad” (Valania). Elliott Smith’s biographer, S.R. Shutt, remarked, that through Smith’s lyrics, he “had not just found an artist, (but he) found a brother”(Sweet Adeline). Smith’s fans could assuredly identify with that statement, since Elliott Smith’s lyrics were intellectually influenced by existentialists such as Kierkegaard and laced with raw, unadulterated emotion taken from his personal life that endure in relevance. Hence, the shadowy artist made such an impact on his fans that it enabled them to harbor an anomalous relationship with him that was not without it’s own consequences.
To mainstream audiences, Elliott Smith’s career may have nebulously peaked when he performed “Miss Misery” at the Oscars in 1998, yet an overview of his musical career skips the most significance impact on his fans- which was his unexpected death. Smith’s passing away was fluid with his musical career because his lyrics directly related to, and oftentimes foreshadowed his quietus. The link between the interdependence of Smith and his fans could easily lie within his lyrics, which seemingly offered a depressing glimpse at his apparent suicide. Smith’s commercial pinnacle preceded his drug induced mania, fueling his psychotic episodes and severely hindering his live performances. During his shows, Smith would bluntly state, “I can’t remember the words. I’m so fucked up”(Gowing, 82). The songwriter’s drive, his motivation to write music was not the wild rockstar life, but to help ease his memories along with hard drugs. Elliott Smith’s cognitive dissonance correlated with his fans’ inability to accept anything contrary to what they thought were the events leading up to his death because some of his fans quickly accused Jennifer Chiba, Smith’s girlfriend, of murder.
Smith’s fans believed this because they could relate to his struggle with suicide and did not want to think that he ultimately decided life was not worth living. David McConnell was a friend and producer for Smith, and he admitted that during recording he “had him on constant suicide watch. He tried OD’ing. He would say things like, ‘The other day I popped 15 Klonopin, thinking it would help me die, and it didn’t.’ …The guy was immune to drugs” (Gowing, 83). Frequent listeners knew about his troubled past, how he dealt with his emotions through his lyrics, and his drug abuse (at one point he was smoking up to $1,500 worth of heroin and crack a day) (Gowing, 83). In order to get a better picture of Elliott Smith’s troubled past and why he so heavily abused drugs, his background must not only be understood, but the emotive subjects channeled through his lyrics must be fit in with the framework of his life. Certainly, it was his proverbial demons from the past that drove him to write the music that he did.
Smith was born in Omaha, Nebraska, but his parents got divorced when he was only a toddler, and so his mother had to move around frequently in order to support her son. For the remainder of his childhood, Elliott lived in a quiet Dallas suburb with his mother and his life insurance selling stepfather, Charlie. Smith later confided in his friends about his dark years outside Dallas in which he claimed to have been both beaten regularly, and sexually abused by his stepfather. This was why he became so engrossed in music at an early age, and it was not surprising that he quickly developed his musical skills because his family had a history of being involved with all kinds of music. At the age of fourteen, Smith moved to Portland, where his father lived, in order to escape Charlie’s torments. Smith felt guilt because he thought he had abandoned his mother in the process. Throughout high school, music became even more of a catalyst for Smith to express himself, as he formed his first band, Stranger Than Fiction, and eventually moved on to the band that would precede his critical acclaim and rise to fame, Heatmiser. It was during this period that Elliott became proficient with a variety of instruments, including the guitar, piano, and the drums, and as he put it plainly in a 1998 interview with Janeane Garofalo, “I like to play different instruments, and, you know, you can’t get better at things you never play” (Garofalo). His introverted demeanor made him seem awkward during interviews, and he never gave questions lengthy or direct answers that would seem simplistic or facetious. However, Smith was honest, he played all of the instruments on Roman Candle and Either/Or, the former being the album that set off his solo career, becoming more successful than Heatmiser, and inciting the band’s dissolution. (Shutt)
Yet Elliott’s musical outlet was not enough to stay his troubling memories. After he performed “Miss Misery” at the Oscars, Elliott fell into a drug filled mania that hindered his ability to perform in every aspect in his life, including his live sets. He would often apologize to the audience as they would shout out lyrics and sometimes even chords to try and help him play. The artist and his punk musician girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, were addicted to heroin, and they were easily able to maintain their addictions because of their music. Smith pushed his psychosis too far when he started smoking crack and adding a cocktail of prescription tranquilizers on top of his original dependancies. He was able to quit street drugs and alcohol “cold turkey” on and off throughout 2003, but this was only a partial recovery, because Smith was still abusing some of his prescription medications. (Gowing, 84)
The reasons why his fans felt so connected with him was because of his lyrics. With songs like: “Say Yes”, and “Rose Parade” that were at times deeply metaphorical, and adversely, simple and straightforward; it’s no wonder how Smith’s listeners formed a bond with him through his music. On the simple side, “Say Yes” had a chorus that expressed a glimmer of hope for the melancholy artist, “I’m in love with the world through the eyes of a girl / who’s still around the morning after” (Either/Or). This simple kind of message helped Smith win the adoration of his fans, which could be seen in their reception of his performance when watching him play live (Say Yes live). In “Rose Parade” Smith compared his outlook on other people and life to a mindless marching parade, “They asked me to come down and watch the parade / to march down the street like the Duracell bunny / with a wink and a wave from the cavalcade /throwing out candy that looks like money”(Either/Or). Smith named the album Either/Or after the famous treatise by Soren Kierkegaard because his songs were written about similar existential topics that included not only despair, but the sympathy for an individual struggling against the arbitrary societal structure that he or she must overcome. Smith’s music often draws self-described societal rejects because his music is aimed at relating to the alienated individual.
The one thing Elliott Smith did not want was for people to think that his music was melancholy because he wanted attention, and so he dedicated songs to different subjects and emotions in life not relating to depression or drugs. His lyrical messages often opposed attention seeking behavior. Smith explored this topic by equating selflessness with innocence, featuring and adding his own lyrical/musical touches to the Big Star cover “Thirteen” on the album New Moon. Smith would casually talk to the crowd while smoking a cigarette between songs, spontaneously playing whichever one the audience wanted most, and they often requested this one (Thirteen live). The song reflected on a thirteen year old boy having his first feelings for a girl.
“Won’t you let me walk you home from school? / Won’t you let me meet you at the pool? / Maybe Friday I can / get tickets for the dance / and I’ll take you” (New Moon).
The melodic shifts Smith incorporated on the guitar with the beats of the lyrics made them sound more like beautiful and intricate verses in a sonnet than simple words about adolescent love. The intricacies in the music were interwoven with the first complex feelings Smith related to while maturing. The boy offered his love to her, but it was free and selfless, which correlated with the innocence portrayed in the first stanza.
“Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of? / Would you be an outlaw for my love? / If it’s so well let me know / if it’s no well I can go / I won’t make you” (New Moon).
The innocent portrayal of complex feelings for other people and the world contrasted with what he saw as the simple minded, status-quo selfishness regarding relationships between men and women in contemporary American society.
Smith complemented “Thirteen” on New Moon with a song that had similar messages but in a mature setting. “All Cleaned Out” laments emotionally abusive relationships, throughout the song Smith would refer to his friend’s boyfriend in a critical, insulting manner.
“Here comes your pride and joy / the comic little drunk you call your boy / who takes your pretty plan / and then becomes a disappearing man / after a little while (New Moon).
Meanwhile, the speaker in the song reveals jealousy in the relationship, but his concerns become justified when the object of her affection abandons her repeatedly.
“I saw you with your make up running down / now what’s that all about / you say you don’t want anyone around / cause you’re all cleaned out” (New Moon).
Smith believed in compassion and understanding, and he wished to convey that the hedonistic attitude which has become so common in our culture leads to emotional pain and suffering. Smith also implied that the misogynistic tendencies of the past generations has carried on into the twenty first century.
“I’m sorry you think you have to hold your tongue / when your so pretty and smart / I’m seeing you caving in / becoming afraid of all these men / that you’ve given your heart” (New Moon).
Elliott Smith could relate to the downtrodden because his whole existence growing up was dampened with the shadow of his stepfather’s abuse. In the song “Memory Lane” Smith metaphorically described the oppression he felt dealing with his abuse.
“Your little house on Memory Lane / the mayor’s name is fear / his force patrols the pier / from a mountain of cliche / that advances every day” (From a Basement on the Hill).
Smith abused drugs because he needed a release from his tortuous memories. This made Elliott even more dissociated from reality, and as he meandered through his mind he made a habit of aimlessly wandering through whichever city he was in at the time. The ballad to drug induced wandering would have to be “High Times”, another lyrically-strong song off of the posthumously released double album New Moon. The acoustic guitar is tuned a full step down from standard, which gives the song an eerie touch that magnifies the surreal perception of being an outsider in modern society.
“I went walking around the city some more / people watching with a cold blank stare / and I saw your face in everyone, I swear / seems I never get your kick quite right / I was walking slow to a dirty dive / I’m so sick and tired tryin to change your mind / when it’s so easy to disconnect mine” (New Moon).
His friends wanted him to kick the drugs that he used to cover up his vague childhood memories, and the Coroner’s report stated that he was on prescription levels of his behavioral medications: he was clean. However, the absence of Elliot’s street and prescription drug cocktail lifted the veil over his depression and could have very easily given him the energy he needed to kill himself. Yet the Coroner’s report also included: “possible defensive wounds on his arms, the absence of hesitation marks on his chest, Chiba’s lack of cooperation with the authorities,” and the fact that she pulled the knife out of his chest before paramedics showed up to the scene(King). Smith’s fans were compelled to feel that he wouldn’t harm himself because it would hurt them; they were attached to him as his biographer admitted “with Elliott, I had found someone who gave voice to the outsider’s way of looking at the world” (Shutt). Even though there is factual evidence that can be cited which would point to murder as a cause of death, it is still circumstantial evidence that seems to be used as a proxy for the fan’s deep seeded connection with Smith’s intimate words. Smith’s own words contradicted the murder theory around every corner, with his foreshadowing thoughts of suicide and even tangible proofs like his suicide attempt in North Carolina that failed “Um, yeah – I jumped off a cliff. But it didn’t work.” (Garofalo).
The murder question existed because his fans wanted to believe that their idol would not have chosen nothing over everything else. Yet reality indicated that Smith could not handle his memories or his emotions. This caused him to give up, trying to make it work was irrelevant because no matter how hard he tried he could not let go of what was keeping him down. His fans thought they were justified in believing Chiba was responsible for his death, but Elliott’s message was inconsistent with throwing blame around and not being accountable for oneself. Whether he killed himself or not, Elliott Smith tried to live through his music, and with his songs he reached out to a broad audience, giving them an expression of himself that they could relate to when feeling down like him. Although Elliott’s fans were eclectic in themselves, it wasn’t hard for Smith to make such appealing music, it was hard for him to let go of the memories that drove him to express himself. Ultimately, it was his animus that led to his demise.
“Elliott Smith Interview.” Interview by Janeane Garofalo. Viewed on Youtube. Web. 8 Apr. 2011.
Gowing, Liam. “Mr. Misery” Spin Dec. 2004: 80-92. Google Books. Web. 10 Apr. 2011.
County of Los Angeles, Department of Coroner Investigator’s Narrative. Sources, Det. King, Jennifer Chiba, Felice Eaker, Dr. Stanton. 21-28 Oct. 2003. Viewed through thesmokinggun.com. Web. 11 Apr. 2011.
Shutt, S. R. “The Time It Took a Cigarette to Burn: Scenes from the Life and Art of Elliott Smith”. Sweet Adeline Biography. Web. 11 Apr. 2011.
Smith, Elliott. “Say Yes.” 19 Sep. 2003. Viewed on Youtube. Web. 11 Apr. 2011.
Smith, Elliott. “Thirteen.” 1 Jan. 1999. Viewed on Youtube. Web. 2 May 2011.
Smith, Elliott. “All Cleared Out.” New Moon. Kill Rock Stars, 2007. MP3 file.
Smith, Elliott. “High Times.” New Moon. Kill Rock Stars, 2007. MP3 file.
Smith, Elliott. “Memory Lane.” From a Basement on a Hill. Anti/Epitaph, 2004. MP3 file.
Smith, Elliott. “Rose Parade.” Either/Or. Kill Rock Stars, 1997. MP3 file.
Smith, Elliott. “Say Yes.” Either/Or. Kill Rock Stars, 1997. MP3 file.
Smith, Elliott. “Thirteen.” New Moon. Kill Rock Stars, 2007. MP3 file.
Valania, Jonathan. “Elliott Smith: All Things Must Pass.” Real Music Alternatives. 28 Jan. 2005. Web. 11 Apr. 2011.
(Photos are from unknown source found on Sweet Adeline.)