Elliott Smith: ‘Mr. Misery’ Revisited, 10 Years After the Singer-Songwriter’s Controversial Death
Haunted by troubling memories, he spent the last years of his life trying to beat a debilitating drug addiction and pouring out his heart to anyone who would listen. The people who knew him in those years open up about the demons that he battled to the end.
In the December 2004 issue of SPIN, we published Los Angeles journalist/musician Liam Gowing’s detailed, empathetic look at the last years of Elliott Smith’s life and the circumstances that led up to the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter’s apparent suicide. “Mr. Misery” was difficult to read, a tremendous challenge to edit and fact-check, and one of the most remarkably intimate pieces in the magazine’s history. On the 10th anniversary of Smith’s death, it’s now available for the first time on the site.
Things did not look good for Elliott Smith in August 2001. If you were in the crowd the night that the acclaimed singer/songwriter headlined Los Angeles’ Sunset Junction Street Fair and didn’t know any better, you might have thought he was an indigent blind man who had wandered up the steps to the stage. He was pale and thin and so stooped over, it looked as though he’d just landed on some distant planet where the gravity was so intense that it required a Herculean effort to simply stand erect. As he sat down and cradled his guitar in his lap, Smith raised his right hand to strike the strings, then dropped it onto the instrument as if he had, at that very moment, fallen asleep.
“I’m sorry,” he called out after train-wrecking most of the first half of his set. “I can’t remember the words. I’m so fucked-up.”
The scene that warm summer evening was not an unusual one. The entire year had been a train wreck for Smith. The previous December, after returning — strung-out on heroin — from a tour supporting his Figure 8 album, he had abandoned plans to record a follow-up to the 2000 release with longtime producer Rob Schnapf. He’d begun distancing himself from Schnapf’s wife, Margaret Mittleman, his manager since 1994. And although he’d started recording again with Aimee Mann producer Jon Brion (who played on Smith’s 1998 album XO), those sessions had ground to a halt. Several weeks of labor produced reels of false starts and Smith repeatedly saying, “That sucked.”
After Brion submitted a bill for the fruitless sessions to DreamWorks Records (an amount recoupable from Smith’s account), executives Lenny Waronker and Luke Wood called a meeting to figure out what had gone wrong. Long unhappy with the major-label world, where record-company expenditures offset his typically moderate sales, Smith informed Wood and Waronker that their arrangement was unworkable and that the label’s intrusions into his privacy were unacceptable. “Elliott was disappointed with what the record company didn’t do,” says Mittleman. “He felt that they gave up on Figure 8 early. And he was dealing with the promotion department, interviews, radio-stationvisits, people he couldn’t relate to: disc jockeys, club promoters. It was hard. I’m not putting all the blame on DreamWorks. They just couldn’t get the record on the radio.”
“[Elliott] was always ahead of the market,” says Wood. “Eighteen months later, the market would catch up. He was the John Lennon and Bob Dylan of my generation, but unlike those two, he was fighting a cultural tidal wave that always seemed to be going in the opposite direction.”
Smith, who by then had progressed from heroin to crack, was not interested in discussing market trends or corporate finance. He demanded to be released from the label; and then, in a message relayed by his lawyer to Waronker and Wood, Smith said that if they refused to break his contract, he would opt out of his obligations to DreamWorks by taking his own life. At Smith’s home in Los Angeles’ Los Feliz neighborhood, above a floor littered with crack pipes and heroin-scalded tinfoil, he had hung a noose, just in case.
But Smith did not commit suicide while in the throes of addiction. Instead, in the months that followed, he threw himself into recording with renewed vigor, first at a friend’s home studio and later at his own New Monkey Studio in nearby Van Nuys. And after successfully kicking his addictions to both heroin and crack in fall 2002, he began playing shows and discussing plans to assemble 30 of his new songs into a double album; he wanted to pour the profits from its sale into the Elliott Smith Foundation, which he had established with drug counselor Jerry Schoenkopf and then-girlfriend Valerie Deerin to benefit abused children. After an optimistic birthday celebration in August 2003, Smith even got sober, giving up alcohol as well as red meat, refined sugar, and caffeine. He also began to phase out most of his prescription medications.
Then, on October 21, 2003, everything fell apart again. After a frantic 911 call from his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, an ambulance was dispatched to her home in Echo Park, where Smith lay bleeding to death from two stab wounds to the chest.
Was it a suicide? A murder? A freak accident? Nobody seemed to know what had happened. Then came the bombshell. On January 6, the Los Angeles County Department of the Coroner completed its report on Smith’s death. First, toxicology tests confirmed that Smith, widely assumed to be using street drugs again, was clean at the time of his death; all prescribed medications present in his system were at “therapeutic or sub-therapeutic” levels. In her report, deputy medical examiner Lisa Scheinen concluded: “While his history of depression is compatible with suicide, and the location and direction of the stab wounds are consistent with self-infliction, several aspects of the circumstances (as are known at this time) are atypical of suicide and raise the possibility of homicide,” including “stabbing through clothing,” the presence of “incisive wounds…possible defensive wounds” on one arm and one hand, and an unusual “absence of hesitation wounds” around the fatal injury. The report added, “The girlfriend’s reported removal of the knife and subsequent refusal to speak with detectives are all of concern.”
Breaking the news to much of the world, LA Weekly writer Christine Pelisek related the full details of the coroner’s report on the paper’s website on January 7. Pelisek even reported that Smith and Chiba had argued just minutes before she called 911. Several of Smith’s friends were quick to support Chiba. Sound engineer Fritz Michaud addressed the clothing anomaly, saying that “Elliott literally wouldn’t have been caught dead with his shirt off”; and close friend Robin Peringer dismissed the “possible defensive wounds,” explaining that Smith was a “cutter” (a person with an emotional condition that causes them to cut their bodies with knives, razor blades, etc.). But in many courts of public opinion across the country, Jennifer Chiba was Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick.
And then, nothing. No new information. No arrests. “The case is still an open investigation,” says LAPD Detective James King.
Now, after a year of self-imposed silence, Elliott Smith’s family has released From a Basement on the Hill (through Anti- Records, a subsidiary of punk label Epitaph), a stripped-down, single-disc collection of Smith’s final recordings, which, in its present form, offers very little help in answering the lingering questions that surround the artist’s demise.
Did Elliott Smith commit suicide? And if so, why? Many of Smith’s closest friends at the time of his death say yes, and suggest that his depression, alienation, self-loathing, and drug use were merely symptoms of an underlying trauma. To this inner circle, the fact that Smith died sober was no surprise, because as their testimonials suggest, Smith was not suffering from a drug problem — he was searching for a drug solution.
The drive up from the Pacific Coast Highway to David McConnell’s Malibu home studio is one of those journeys that makes the exorbitantly expensive real estate, the earthquakes, and the landslides, all seem like small prices to pay for the glories of living in California. After cresting one particuarly scenic overlook, I spontaneously gasp, “Oh my God.” Here, before an expanse of ocean so massive that the curvature of the earth starts to reveal itself, Smith began again to record what he intended to be his magnum opus, the proposed double album.
He was in bad shape when he arrived here in May 2001. In addition to drinking heavily, Smith had been smoking up to $1,500 worth of heroin and crack per day, as well as ingesting potentially deadly amounts of prescription tranquilizers. “I learned really fast that there was no way you could intervene in his drug habit; he would have killed himself before he let anyone intervene,” McConnell says. “So I 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.’ It didn’t work! The guy was immune to drugs. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, where somebody could take that many drugs and walk away. He used to talk about it: ‘Fuck, man! I just did $800 worth of drugs in an hour! What’s wrong? What the fuck!'”
But the regimen of tranquilizers and narcotics was something fairly new to Smith. Though he had been inextricably linked with heroin since he used the drug as a lyrical metaphor for all manner of dependency on his self-titled second album (released in 1995), he later dismissed rumors that he’d been a junkie before moving to Los Angeles in 2000. But if his method of execution was new, Smith’s appetite for self-destruction was certainly not.
“Elliott told me about having a psychotic episode while he was [recording Figure 8],” says McConnell, a producer who has recorded the Los Angeles bands Goldenboy and Alaska!, as well as Josie Cotton, singer of the ’80s novelty hit “Johnny, Are You Queer?” “He was fed up with the current state of his life. A lot of people from the label were telling him he needed to get it together. He was so sick of people talking about the future. So he carved the word ‘now’ into his arm with a knife. And he sat down at the piano and wrote ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’ as the blood was dripping down his arm.”
In 1998, Smith had gotten his first real taste of international acclaim. He’d been nominated for an Academy Award for “Miss Misery,” an original composition from the film Good Will Hunting. He was also preparing to release XO, his first big-budget, major-label record on DreamWorks. He should’ve been on top of the world, but in fact, he was descending into its dark recesses.
“He always talked about suicide,” says Dorien Garry, a friend with whom Smith lived when he first moved to New York City in 1997. “He made me promise that I wouldn’t be mad at him. He just talked about it as if it were going to happen.” Smith regularly walked along the city’s subway tracks, listening to his Walkman as trains passed.
In 1997, Smith was recording his last indie album, Either/Or, an intimate, lo-fi collection. Yet the process brought him little joy. “I recorded so many songs for it,” he later told the magazine Under the Radar, “and one or two of them sucked. Then three or four of them sucked. Then they all sucked and everything I did was terrible.” Instead of enjoying the buzz his new songs generated on tour, Smith ended up drinking heavily and jumping off a cliff in North Carolina, miraculously landing on a tree that broke his fall. After an unsuccessful intervention by friends at a Chicago hotel, he ended up in an Arizona psychiatric hospital.
Director Steve Hanft — who tracked Smith from Portland to New York while shooting a short film on the singer, Strange Parallel — had met him for the first time on the set of the video for “Coming Up Roses,” a track from Smith’s second album. “He was so suicidal, he had to wear shades. You couldn’t look him in the eye. I met Kurt Cobain — he didn’t have that much depression.”
Back in 1993, Christopher Cooper, owner of Portland-based indie label Cavity Search Records, was so excited by a tape of mostly untitled acoustic demos that he asked Smith if he could release the music as is. But even Cooper’s support of this first solo effort, Roman Candle, didn’t help. “I had numerous encounters with Elliott at three or four in the morning where he was telling me that he didn’t want to live anymore,” says Cooper. “He would tell me that if I didn’t see him again, to tell everyone that he knows, that I know, in our community, that it’s not their fault, not to take it personally. I would tell him, ‘People love you,’ and ‘They love your music.’ I didn’t know what to do…I felt that he needed to be told that he was okay and that he was going to be okay.”
Unfortunately, Elliott Smith was not okay, and he never would be. Something had obviously torn him apart well before he arrived at David McConnell’s doorstep in Malibu. Yet he was not a hapless victim. In flooding his system with heroin, cocaine, tranquilizers, and alcohol, Smith chose a very particular combination of drugs to augment his pharmaceutical medications, what medical practitioners at the turn of the century called a Brompton’s cocktail, an elixir designed to ease the suffering and accelerate the journey of the terminally ill.
“He knew more about drugs than most therapists,” says McConnell. “He talked about it like a scholar. He had medical books. He knew what each drug was doing mentally as well as physically.” There was no misunderstanding Smith’s intent. “At one point, Elliott asked if he could give me his power of attorney,” says McConnell. “He said he was seeking someone who could be an authority — not over his career, but over what would happen to his body of work. He’d sit me down and say, ‘Now listen, this is very important. If anything happens to me, make sure this record comes out.'”
From the beginning, Smith intended his last album to be more musically fierce, more sonically twisted, and less lyrically abstract than anything he had done before. His inspiration was a record that he’d discovered when he was only five years old. “He referred to [From a Basement on the Hill] as his ‘White Album,'” McConnell says. “Very unproduced, very spontaneous. Whether he was high or sober, he was very consistent. He’d rather have it emotionally raw than be in pitch. We would purposely detune the guitars out of pitch enough to sound gritty, just to the point that it’s upsetting. We might start off with traditional sounds. But he would say, ‘How can we make these songs make your stomach churn?'”
If the music was unsettiing, so too were the words Smith sang over it. McConnell describes the vocal sessions he engineered over the weeks and months that followed as cathartic: “The more work we got done, the better he seemed to feel. He was getting shit out. Lyrically, this is the most profound record I’ve ever heard in my life, from any artist. I’d hear the words, and I’d just start crying. He was really speaking to his oppressors on this record—speaking directiy to certain people — saying a lot of things that he just had to get off of his chest, revisiting themes from his past.”
Jennifer Chiba, an art therapist and musician, lives in a quaint two-bedroom cottage on another hill, this one in Echo Park. A slim, raven-haired woman with penetrating Bette Davis eyes that hint at her half-Japanese heritage, Chiba, 37, was clearly in a dark place when we began our interview three months after Smith’s death. It took only a few questions to discover that it was not her first time there. Following the death of her mother in 1993, Chiba struggled through a suicidal depression that became so severe that it required hospitalization shortly before Smith befriended her in 1999. She also candidly admits to “a history of drug use.” In other words, she’s a lot like Smith.
But is she in some way responsible for his death?
Possibly, according to Smith’s friends who lost touch with him after he began using heroin and crack heavily in Los Angeles, and to those who knew Chiba from her bleakest days, when she played bass with the notoriously drugged-out psychedelic rockers the Warlocks. These people blame her for enabling Smith’s romance with heroin. But to most of those who maintained a relationship with Smith through his recovery and were close to him when he died, Chiba “wouldn’t hurt a fly,” was “sweet and watchful and affirming” with Smith, and “helped in his rehabilitation.” Of the first group of friends, Chiba says, “I was the scapegoat, the easy target. Nobody wants to blame a beautiful, intelligent, talented guy like Elliott for his own problems. So let’s blame this girl that he likes.”
Regarding Smith’s final year with her, she says, “I hope that someday people will see that he had cleaned up. The toxicology report shows that he was clean of any illicit substances. That had been true of the whole last year. That’s not to say he hadn’t been abusing some of his prescription drugs, but in the last two months, I can honestly say that we were in the healthiest shape that either of us had ever been. I hope that people will see that he died in a valiant attempt to live a healthy life.”
“But isn’t that why people think he didn’t kill himself?” I ask.
“The problem is,” she says, “that it makes people think, ‘Well, if he was clean, how the hell could he have done that to himself?’ But anyone who understands drug abuse knows that you use drugs to hide from your past or sedate yourself from strong, overwhelming feelings. So when you’re newly clean and coming off the medications that have been masking all those feelings, that’s when you’re the most vulnerable.”
When I ask Chiba what Smith had been hiding from or why he was sedating himself, she becomes uncomfortable. “He was remembering traumatic things from his childhood — parts of things. It’s not my place to say what.”
With Elliott Smith, almost everything seems to lead back to childhood. Still a baby when his parents divorced, Steven Paul Smith (his given name) had no permanent father figure in the first few years of his life. His mother, Bunny, scrambled to make a living in the dusty suburbs of South Dallas, where she had relocated from Smith’s birthplace of Omaha, Nebraska. A new father figure appeared in his life when she married Charlie Welch, a stern, self-made insurance salesman from a small town in East Texas. Years later, Smith told friends that he received his first beating from Welch on the day Bunny and Charlie wed. He was three years old.
It was the beginning of a relationship that haunted him for the remainder of his life, and inspired much of his work. Smith suffused the lyrics of his early compositions with the geography of Portland — where he moved at 14 to live with his biological father, Gary Smith. But the subject matter reeked of a stifling Dallas and a childhood spent under the tyranny of someone he despised and feared. And, underneath it all, there was the recurrent guilt he felt for having “abandoned” his mother.
In a 2003 interview with Under the Radar, Smith recalled the shame of leaving his mother in Dallas for his father’s home in Portland: “I didn’t sleep at all for about the first six months I lived there. At that time, the situation at my mother’s home was fresh in my mind. I was very worried about my mother.” Smith said next to nothing about his relationship with Charlie Welch in the press. His comments to French magazine Les Inrockuptibles were typical: “I cannot enter into details, because that would hurt my mother, but I had to go. I couldn’t stay in the same house as my stepfather.” Smith was more solicitous with friends. “Elliott said he was abused by his stepfather,” says Steve Hanft. “He said it was real bad mental trauma. He said he never got over it.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying.
For years, Smith vented his psychic spleen in song. “Roman Candle,” his first album’s title track, and “Southern Belle,” from his second record, put Welch a single pronoun away from open character assassination: “Killing a Southern belle is all you know how to do / That and give other people hell… / How come you’re not ashamed of what you are?” But early in the recording of 1998’s XO, Smith received something that led him to bottle up his bitterness even more. It was a letter from his stepfather, containing an apology for emotionally abusing and physically mistreating Smith as a child. Although friends scoffed at the olive branch, since it arrived only a few weeks before Smith’s performance of “Miss Misery” at the 1998 Oscar ceremony, Smith took it to heart. Or at least he tried. He told friends that “Charlie’s a changed man.”
Smith’s attempts to put the past behind him were apparent in his 2000 release, Figure 8, a rather unsuccessful attempt to create, in Smith’s words, “a happy-sounding record.” But it was too late. As he sang on “Easy Way Out”: “Without an enemy, your anger gets confused.” Departing on the ill-fated tour to support the record, he confided in Chiba, then just a friend. “He said that he’d wanted to kill himself many times,” she says, “but didn’t want his mother to get a phone call one day saying that he’d done it, so he was going to commit ‘socially acceptable suicide,’ the slow one—alcohol and drugs—because he knew that would eventually destroy him.”
But after numerous attempts to overdose or induce cardiac arrest over the next two and a half years—becoming, in McConnell’s words, “immune to drugs”—Smith evidently reached the conclusion that the socially acceptable suicide wasn’t working. And in August 2002, during an explosive breakup with then-girlfriend Valerie Deerin, he decided to kick his heroin and crack habit with a stay at the Neurotransmitter Restoration Center in Beverly Hills, an addiction-treatment clinic run on principles developed by Dr. William Hitt. Hitt, it turned out, was not a doctor at all, and in Texas had been enjoined from running his clinics, which had sold fake drugs and administered dangerous procedures—including injecting patients with urine as a supposed treatment for allergies and AIDS. But for a time, Smith believed that the Center was
helping him tremendously.
The day before he checked in, Smith took aside Andrew Morgan, a friend and fellow singer/songwriter who was recording his own music at Smith’s New Monkey Studio. “[Elliott] asked me to go to the bathroom with him so I could watch him throw all of his drugs down the drain. It was really painful to see. He was bottoming out in every sense of the word.”
And at the very bottom were hazy flashbacks that a newly clean Smith could not ignore—incidents that had allegedly taken place back in Texas. His recollections lacked narrative coherence but nevertheless filled him with horror. He shared one of those partly repressed memories with Morgan. “His eyes got wide,” Morgan says, “and he looked at me as if he’d seen a ghost, and said, ‘My stepfather used to take me up to the attic. That’s all I remember. I don’t remember what he did.'”
After emerging from the Neurotransmitter Restoration Center, and moving in with Jennifer Chiba to recuperate in fall 2002, Elliott Smith was still in tremendous psychic pain. But at that point, instead of masking his symptoms with heroin and crack, he shifted the burden to his prescription medications. Robin Peringer—a former Modest Mouse guitarist who toured with Smith before the release of Roman Candle and was Smith’s best friend the last year of his life—recalls the effects of the pharmaceuticals.
“We were at Starbucks, and three guys walked in all wearing black pants, white shirts, and ties,” Peringer says. “And we had to leave because they were all ‘from DreamWorks,’ sent there to follow him—you know, not three businessmen going there to get coffee. He used to
take pictures of random white cars. Every white car was following us. Pretty much everybody was following him. They were bugging his conversations. There’d be days where he’d stay up four days straight. I’d be like, ‘What are you doing?’ And he’d be rambling this nonsense. I watched that movie A Beautiful Mind, and it reminded me of hanging out with Elliott. He believed these things were there and knew they weren’t necessarily real, but he couldn’t control his thoughts.”
After trying to balance his state of mind with a roller-coaster regimen of prescription uppers and downers, Smith realized that he had to try and face his psychological demons. “But there was no way for him to get to the underlying problem without first clearing away all the obstructions,” says Scott McPherson, who played drums on the Figure 8 tour and during Smith’s final year of gigs. So, shortly alter his 34th birthday, on August 6, 2003, he decided to wean himself off pharmaceutical drugs. After Smith parted ways with his longtime psychiatrist, Dr. Bert James Schloss, Chiba introduced him to her own psychiatrist, Dr. Abigail Stanton, who agreed to take over Smith’s medication management.
Even after quitting heroin and crack, however, getting completely clean would not be easy for Elliott Smith. For several years, he had been taking liberal mixtures of antipsychotics, antidepressants, anti-anxiety agents, anti-seizure medication, amphetamine-based attention-deficit-disorder medication, antidepressant-based ADD medication, and narcotic painkillers. By the time Smith decided to purge his system entirely, he had reduced his prescription intake to five drugs: Klonopin, an anti-convulsant tranquilizer; Remeron, a semi-sedative antidepressant; Strattera, a non-stimulant ADD treatment; Neurontin, which treats partial seizures; and Adderall, a nice way of saying “speed.”
“The thing to do with this fellow,” says Dr. Joe Miller, director of pharmacology at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, “would have been to take him off of everything, put him under close observation for a couple of weeks, wait until everything was out of his system, and find out what his underlying psychiatric condition really was.”
“Several doctors said that,” says Chiba, “but they also said, ‘You should go into a hospital and detox.’ And every time he heard the word ‘hospital,’ he had a bad taste in his mouth from the interventions and the rehabs he had gone to voluntarily. So the next best thing was to get under the care of a psychiatrist who would slowly, very meticulously, take him off each thing.”
Peringer acknowledges Chiba’s efforts to monitor Smith’s medication regimen, but remembers a different scenario unfolding. “Elliott was kind of all or nothing,” he says. “When he decided to drink, he drank really heavily. When he decided to do heroin, he did a lot of heroin. When he decided to do crack, same thing. And then when he decided to stop taking everything—same thing again. He wanted to be normal the day he stopped. He decided one day that being heavily medicated was just as bad as an addiction to heroin or crack and said, ‘I’m going to stop.’ He didn’t go from taking 15 pills a day to 14 the next day to 13 the next day. He woke up one morning and took two pills. Half of America is on antidepressants, and everyone knows you don’t quit—you wean yourself off them. Elliott just woke up and quit taking them.”
In mid-September, the effects of going cold turkey were apparent. “I came home from seeing Lost in Translation and he was lying in the bed with his arm bleeding,” says Chiba. “He had seven old cigarette burns on his arm. It was evidence of his pain from that [heroin and
crack] period that was just a little too real, so he’d taken a knife to it. It was on a Friday, so we went to the doctor on Monday and found out that he’d abruptly stopped taking one of his medications [Strattera]. It’s so dangerous. It throws you so off balance. You can’t just go off that. So from then on, I got [a pill organizer] with the days of the week, and I would administer [the meds].”
Peringer remembers the incident well: “He had three really tremendous knife wounds on his left arm. They were deep, like he had to go across a couple of times or have the sharpest, biggest knife to do it.”
And yet, Smith was making some strides. On September 19, in Salt Lake City, he played his first show in years without supplementing his prescribed dose of Adderall or drinking any alcohol. The day after the gig, Smith was elated about the triumph of performing sober. According to Chiba, this all-or-nothing decision had a domino effect on Smith’s remaining vices. “He quit drinking!” she says. “This is a guy who was drinking almost a bottle of Jameson [whiskey] every week. He quit caffeine, and this is also a guy who drank, like, ten to 12 of those double shots a day. He quit smoking! He stopped eating red meat! He quit sugar, too! It was like, ‘Okay, you’re asking a lot of yourself. You’re giving up a lot at once.'”
And so Elliott Smith entered the last 31 days of his life more lucid than he had been in a decade. But in drummer Scott McPherson’s eyes, he was “a sick man without his medicine.” Confronting his problems in the harsh light of sobriety, Smith found that his nerves were raw and buzzing after years of being muted by drugs and alcohol. And according to Peringer, during the last month of his life, Smith’s relationship with his stepfather “was all he fucking talked about.”
By the end of September, Smith was well on his way to completing From a Basement on the Hill. He had more than 50 songs on tape reel and digital hard drive, from which he planned to assemble a two-disc set. These tracks included all of the songs he’d worked on with David McConnell; songs he’d recorded at his New Monkey Studio privately or with Fritz Michaud, his right-hand soundman; a couple of tracks he’d done with friend and Earlimart singer/songwriter Aaron Espinoza; plus a long list of album outtakes he’d recorded with Schnapf and Tom Rothrock in sessions that dated back to Either/Or. He had set aside final mixes of about nine of these tracks for inclusion on the album, and was recording final lead-vocal tracks for others. It was at about this same point during the Either/Or sessions that Smith began having a nervous breakdown. In the earlier case, he was picking a dozen tracks from 30. He was now choosing 30 tracks from a pool of more than 50.
But if it was an anxious time for Smith, it was also cathartic. He had burned a lot of bridges over the last several years while under the influence, and was trying to reach out to loved ones with whom he’d lost touch. One was his mother, Bunny Welch. After telephoning to wish her a happy 60th birthday, however, he learned that his stepfather had stopped by the elementary school where she worked to drop off congratulatory flowers, and to spend some time getting to know her first-grade students. It spurred Smith to a crisis of conscience that forced a painful confrontation.
In the last year of his life, the typically shy Smith had begun telling other family members and friends—even complete strangers in bars—about the flashbacks he’d been having. He told almost everyone close to him—except his mother. Finally, in a telephone call on September
30, he soberly confronted her with his belief that all those fuzzy flashbacks were repressed memories of being sexually molested by his stepfather. Incredulous, she suggested that they spend the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday together in Los Angeles, so the two men could discuss
Smith’s allegations face to face.
Repressed memories are a subject of heated controversy, and many experts challenge their accuracy. But according to Dr. Ian Russ, former president of the California Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and a frequent evaluator for the California court system, they are hardly uncommon. “When it comes to traumas, especially those inflicted by a person of trust, the memory goes haywire: Some things come in flashbacks, some things you remember repeatedly, other things you can’t remember at all.” But was it possible that after years of drug abuse, Smith had invented childhood experiences? “It just doesn’t happen that way,” says Dr. Russ. “Drugs don’t create events in childhood. Drugs can shade a mood, an attitude, lead you to see things as worse than they were…. What [Smith] is talking about is being a teenager and having a clear sense of what went on, even if there are holes in the memory. People don’t invent that. I’ve been treating people for 25 years and I’ve never seen that.”
Says Robin Peringer: “Ashley [Welch, Smith’s half sister] has no recollection of [the sexual abuse], and she was raised with him. None of it’s been proven. But they are Elliott’s memories, and they haunted him every day. Elliott truly believed something happened to him at his stepfather’s hands.”
Two weeks before he died, Smith had a long conversation with another musician, Io Perry, someone with whom he had become very close. “He was crying, saying that he’d told his mom and that she didn’t believe him,” Perry says. “He said he was crying because he felt so horrible. He said he shouldn’t have been bothering her with it, that [Charlie] did it a long time ago, and that he’s a changed man. He felt horrible for causing her pain and bringing it up. He felt horrible that she didn’t believe him. He was crying like a baby. It was heartbreaking.”
On October 12, Chiba accompanied Smith to New Monkey Studio, where he laid down lead vocals to one of From a Basement’s unfinished tracks, “King’s Crossing,” a song whose lyrics build to the precipitous line “Give me one good reason not to do it!” At live performances, Ashley Welch and Chiba had gotten into the habit of shouting “Because we love you” from offstage. After recording his own words, Smith invited Chiba to add her vocal. After she recorded the line “Because I love you,” Smith turned to her and said, “Let’s get married.”
Smith had a lot on his plate the last weeks of his life. He was reeling from the effects of scaling back his prescription medication and cutting out street drugs and alcohol completely. He was hiring a new lawyer with expertise in independent-album launches. He was talking with financial advisers who were reminding him that he’d spent most of his savings outfitting his studio and that he needed to release a new album quickly and tour immediately. He was newly engaged and openly discussing the prospect of having children. And of course, he was dreading the prospect of sitting across the Thanksgiving dinner table from Charlie Welch.
It had been two months since Smith left the care of his psychiatrist, Dr. Schloss. Unlike Schloss, Smith’s replacement psychiatrist, Dr. Stanton, was solely assigned to medication management, while Smith was seeking a talk therapist with a background in child-abuse issues.
After an exhaustive search, he found an expert and scheduled his first session for October 24. But in the critical interim, he had no health-care professional with whom he could discuss his feelings. So now, more than ever, he poured those feelings into his music.
Smith had recently unearthed a track he’d started years before at Abbey Road, the famed studio where the Beatles recorded most of their music. It was a song originally called “Tiny Time Machine,” an unusually upbeat piece of pop rock, which Smith had renamed and given new lyrics. He recorded the final vocal track the day before he died. The new title: “Suicide Machine.”
According to Chiba, Smith seemed particularly upset the morning of October 21: “We had plans to go to my doctor. He kept changing his mind. I got impatient. We got into a petty fight. I started crying. I went into the bathroom.” She sighs deeply. “I gave him everything I could, all my love, everything that was humanly possible. But [the argument] was the catalyst.”
But in the days just after Smith’s death, Chiba received a letter from Charlie Welch—ironically postmarked three days before Smith died. In the letter, Welch acknowledged his shortcomings and how he’d been too hard on his stepson. He also claimed to have become a new person in the past 20 years, pointing out how he’d been a good father to Smith’s half siblings, Ashley and Darren Welch. He expressed regret that Smith had been resistant to his and his mother’s attempts to be more of a presence in Smith’s life.
And finally, Welch denied the charges of sexual abuse that Smith had discussed with his mother.
You’d never guess it after reading this article, but Elliott Smith was a really funny guy. He liked to crack up his bandmates before gigs with spot-on impersonations of Mick Jagger and other celebrities, or by executing Keystone Kops-style pratfalls. Smith even liked to dance. “Elliott could pop and lock with the best of them,” says Robin Peringer, and once “did the robot the whole way out of a club into the parking lot.” Smith was sweet and loving, and ridiculously generous to friends and strangers alike, sticking hundred-dollar bills in the shoes of sleeping homeless people. And he was brilliant. One touring partner remembers him in the back of a tour bus “with a book on quantum physics in one hand and the thickest book on world history I’ve ever seen in the other, while the rest of the guys were too tired to read a comic book.”
But he was also very sick, and it was not just the drugs or the prescriptions or the alcohol. Whether his memories were true or not, Smith lived his life feeling like an abused child in a grown man’s clothes.
Smith’s family—mother Bunny and stepfather Charlie; father Gary Smith and his wife, Marta Greenwald, the estate’s executor—has said nothing about Elliott’s death. Their lawyer, Conrad Rippy, made only one statement on their behalf, pointedly dissociating them from Chiba after she told MTV that the family knew she was not at fault. In the course of a conversation with Dr. Stanton, a suspicious Gary Smith (also a psychiatrist) asked the doctor if she thought Chiba was capable of murdering his son. Without hesitation, Dr. Stanton told
him, “No.” Chiba has just recently filed a complaint against Smith’s family, claiming that she and Smith were partners on both a personal and professional level, and that she deserves compensation for her role in his life.
And now, the Smith-Welch family has released a cleaned-up version of From a Basement on the Hill. In not responding to offers of participation from David McConnell and Fritz Michaud, the soundscapers Smith brought to the project, and ignoring Chiba, who knew Smith’s intentions for the record better than anyone, the family clearly had little interest in following Smith’s sonic blueprints. And although they showed some deference to Smith’s legacy by hiring as producers Rob Schnapf (the closest thing Smith had to a “fifth Beatle”) and Joanna Bohne (Smith’s former sweetheart, who helped with the mixing of Either/Or), the family ultimately decided which songs made the album. Several recordings originally intended for inclusion are absent. Some had no lead-vocal tracks, and might have been justifiably considered unreleasable—”See You in Heaven” was one. But others withheld from the album had final vocal tracks recorded, and their absence smacks of censorship: “Stickman,” with its lyrics about “killing sons”; and “Abused,” with its chorus, “I’ve been abused…abused…abused.”
And what of Smith’s final recording, “Suicide Machine”? Not on the album.
Perhaps his parents—and even their spouses—have suffered enough and should be applauded for having the presence of mind to release anything at all. If the suicide of a child is the ultimate indictment of parental failure, it is also the ultimate punishment. But it’s disturbing
that some of Smith’s best new songs, which explicitly reference abuse and suicide, were kept off From a Basement on the Hill. It’s also difficult for some to accept that Smith’s nemesis, Charlie Welch, may benefit monetarily from sales of the album.
Certainly, many people close to Smith tried to help him when they realized how deeply he was affected by his memories of abuse. Unfortunately, by that point, Smith didn’t want help.
But when it came to looking out for anyone but himself, he was steadfast. I gained some insight into this one day when I stopped by a bar he used to frequent in Echo Park. An intense-looking young man came up to me and said, “Are you the guy doing the story on Elliott Smith?” I braced myself as I answered “yes,” because frankly, I thought he was going to take a swing at me. But he turned out to be a really sweet local musician who was struggling with his own addiction to heroin. He “just wanted to share some really good advice” that Smith had given him about his drug problem a few months before Smith’s death.
“Elliott told me: ‘The people who try to intervene, they’re good people who genuinely care about you. But they don’t know what you’re going through. Do what you need to do.’ We talked for a long time that night about songwriting and art and, finally, depression. I told him that I had it pretty bad and was thinking about killing myself. He looked me in the eye and just said one word: ‘Don’t.'”