When Elliott Smith played Los Angeles in the fall of 2002, aftermore than a year of semi-seclusion, he didn’t look so good.His hands scrabbled across the guitar strings like they werestrangers to his arms. He appeared grubby and unshaven and wore awatch cap pulled low over his skull. He stumbled on a Beatles song– his beloved Beatles! — and seemed only partiallyacquainted with his own work. He looked in pain, and it was painfulto hear.
Smithwas playing a Latin nightclub that had been remodeled for hipsters inEcho Park, the neighborhood where he resided until his death on October21, 2003. He lived on a nearby hill and could have walked to the gig.Echo Park is like L.A.’s new Laurel Canyon (the ’60s Hollywood scenethat spawned the so-called beautiful-people rock of Jackson Browne, theMamas and the Papas, et al.). It’s full of bohemians, drifters, andhouses tucked behind other houses. Build an ark in your backyard — youcan do whatever you want in Echo Park and find someone to get youwhatever you want. A little kid was recently mauled by a pit bull closeto Smith’s house. Dogs were often running loose in the streets.Musicians, Latino families, and, more recently, middle-class whiteswere also out and about. It was a good place to hide, and Smith likedto hide.
The last Elliott Smith concert in Los Angeles was atribute show, thrown together a week after he killed himself by puttinga knife through his heart. A whole lot of folks played his songs wellduring the sold-out memorial at the Henry Fonda Theatre. Rilo Kileyperformed “I Didn’t Understand” (from Smith’s fourth album, XO);singer Jenny Lewis’ sweet voice made the lost-love lyrics even moreunbearable than they were already. Beck played three songs, and hisdelicately labored picking reminded you what a terrific guitar playerSmith was. Another product of the neighborhood, Beck came as anadmirer, but he couldn’t help symbolizing something else as well — heis nearly Smith’s total opposite. Where Smith was paralyzinglyconflicted about success, Beck’s got all that figured out. Where Smithwas tortured about representing himself — about having an image he hadto live up to — Beck has an army of images. While Smith could drinkall night and had been a heroin addict, Beck thanks you for notsmoking.
The benefit (to help abused children) ended with aperformance by Beth Orton, a casual acquaintance of Smith’s. Shementioned Gram Parsons and Johnny Cash, opening the set by saying “Justthink — Elliott is probably with a lot better company than he was withbefore.”
Hello, Echo Park — and good-bye.
Smith’s songs were melancholic, brooding, constantly flippingbetween hopefulness and disappointment. He was a brilliant songwriterwho hadn’t peaked yet, as suggested by the song “A Distorted Reality IsNow a Necessity to Be Free” (the B-side of a limited-edition 2003single). In 1998, as XO was released, I spent a few days withSmith in his former Portland, Oregon, home and followed him to Londonfor some shows. His songs had been featured in Good Will Hunting(director Gus Van Sant was a fan), and he had performed “Miss Misery”at the Oscars. This was his breakthrough year, and the story waspossibly going to be a Spin cover. In person, Smith was muchthat his songs suggested he would not be: direct, relaxed, easy to talkto. In fact, he talked for hours and even let me interview his father,Gary, backstage in Portland. There was only one thing he would not do,and it was instructive. According to Smith, for the Spin photo shoot, he was asked to wear a tight, white T-shirt artily spattered with fake blood. (Former Spin staffers deny that this happened.)
Smith felt that he was being asked to play the role of thetortured artist, marketing his pain. He walked out of the shoot, thoughhe later returned and offered to pose in less theatrical ways. (For avariety of reasons, he ultimately did not appear on the cover.) At thetime, I thought such stubbornness was an example of someone taking aprincipled stand about controlling his own image. Now, I wonder whetherit was a case of an acutely conflicted artist finding a brand-new wayof sabotaging his success.
Thiswas a man who occasionally also craved connection. Another afternoon,at the same bar, Smith didn’t remember my friend, his tormentor, and myfriend didn’t repeat the mistake. He continued his conversation abouthorse racing with the waitress, but Smith came over and was suddenlyeager to participate. An evaluation of a thoroughbred he could endure.An evaluation of Elliott Smith he could not.
For all his shyness, Smith made people want to enter hisorbit. His melancholy resonated, drew people close. Then they’d getclose enough to see how he was living and how he was damaging himself– with heroin in Portland, then booze when he moved to New York, andthen heroin and other drugs when he moved to Los Angeles. Friends wouldtry to get him to stop destroying himself, and that’s when he’d cutsome of them out of his life. It was really that simple.
His favorite form of public execution was the intervention.There were at least two. The first came after the release of his thirdalbum, Either/Or, in 1997. He was on the road in Chicago whenfriends surprised him, accompanied by a counselor. He eventually agreedto go into an Arizona hospital to detox, but left shortly thereafter.This scene played out again as he was working on XO, and manyof that album’s songs are, on some level, about leaving behind all thepeople who’d been in that Chicago room. He left the Olympia,Washington, punk label Kill Rock Stars — its head Slim Moon helpedinstigate the intervention — and moved to Brooklyn.
“A lot of the songs on this record [XO] had to dowith being really amazed at how quickly people will totally invade yourspace just because you’re not like them and you don’t deal with thingsjust like they do,” Smith told me. “They think that you drink too much,or they think that you’re too — they just don’t like how you live orsomething. It kind of blows my mind, the nerve people have to goparading around as if they know what somebody else ought to do withthemselves. To the point where they’ll confront you and tell you what you ought to do.”
XO was ambitious and sad and turned a cult artist intoa modest commercial success (having sold around 200,000 copies todate). The moral of the Chicago intervention was that Smith didn’t needPortland or his self-righteous punk-rock friends, that he was right tobail on the intervention and get drunk. The album’s success was hisproof of that.
Another intervention occurred in 2001, reportedly bankrolledby DreamWorks, the major label that signed him after he left Kill RockStars. Doubtless there were people at the label who cared deeply aboutSmith’s health. Even so, it’s tragicomic when you think of what musthave been going through this stubborn man’s head when his new labelfunded another showdown. Yet again, a record company had becomesymbolic of all the prying people in his life. After that, he suspecteda new set of betrayals, and soon the double CD he was working on wasnot going to be released on DreamWorks.
Oneday, we were talking about religion and how Smith went to church a lotas a kid (first in Dallas, then in Portland after he moved there at theage of 14). “Mainly, church just made me really scared of hell,” hesaid. “It still just scares the shit out of me. If you grew up beingthreatened with that, it’s really hard to be like, ‘Oh, it probablydoesn’t exist.’ Even if everyone you meet tells you there’s no placelike that.”
“Do you think you’ll go to hell?”
“I guess,” Smith replied, “although I try to arrange myaffairs otherwise. I don’t want to. But I guess I would have to go tohell on a technicality — because there’s some things that you’re notsupposed to do that I can’t see, not to do.”