It was considered an annoying irony by Elliott Smith fans that most of the world knew him solely for his Oscar nomination for the song “Miss Misery” off the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. Unfortunately, the only way Smith was finally able to put the hoopla of the Academy Awards behind him was with one of the most violent self-inflicted deaths pop culture has even seen.
In a new biography, Benjamin Nugent delves deep into the childhood of Elliott Smith (born Steve Smith, which he later thought too “jockish”), from his clashes with his stepfather and early ventures as a musician in the suburbs of Dallas, to his teenage years in Portland living with his psychiatrist father.
Portland’s liberal culture heavily influenced Smith, and led him to Hampshire College, one of America’s most progressive universities. At Hampshire Smith read radical feminists like Catherine MacKinnon and generally, you know, lamented his white, heterosexual status, hanging around with gay friends and repressing his musical aspirations in favor of a future as a firefighter so he could do something “useful” in society. But the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts—where Sebadoh, Dinosaur jr. and Pixies had recent roots—proved to be fertile ground for Smith’s gifts as a musician and soon friends were encouraging him to embrace his talent.
After graduation Smith moved back to Portland with Neil Gust and formed Heatmiser, which came to be known as part of the “Queercore” scene of that city. The grunge phenomenon was in full swing and with Portland being labeled “the next Seattle” bands like Heatmiser got considerable attention, if not commercial success.
Heatmiser’s following grew but Smith couldn’t shake the trappings of indie-musician with shitty day job. He was also writing songs alone, outside the loud hard rock of Heatmiser. JJ Gonson, Heatmiser’s manager, played a cassette of Smith’s four-track recordings for Cavity Search records who immediately said, “We want to release this—just the way it is.” Smith at first couldn’t believe that anyone wanted to release what he recorded as solely a personal project, not meant to be heard as a demo much less as an album for the outside world. But this raw recording became the first Elliott Smith album, Roman Candle. A self-titled release soon followed and suddenly Smith had an adoring following outside of Heatmiser. Smith’s low-fi recording techniques, intimate lyrics, blended-falsetto vocals and folksy guitar came to be known as “folk punk”, which Nugent describes as “the minimalism of punk and the acoustic guitar stylings of folk.”
With his solo career taking off, Smith left Heatmiser for New York. Rumors of drug use swirled around him with lyrics that suggest a heroin habit on songs like “The White Lady Loves You More” and “Needle in the Hay.” Smith denied drug use at the time and Nugent provides ample testimonials from friends that vowed that Smith wasn’t smacked-out. Rather, Smith slummed heroin as a metaphor for his darker impulses. But he seemed obsessed with the idea of heroin and many friends tell similar stories of Smith alluding to a future as a junkie as his fame grew.
New York led to Los Angeles and a switch to the Dreamworks record label as Smith albums became more grandiose. Around the time of recording XO in 1997, Smith learned he was nominated for an Oscar for “Miss Misery.” After performing for millions of television viewers in a white suit he lost to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” Finally, Smith’s fame came to truly unnerve him, estranging him from his oldest friends and bringing out his most self-destructive tendencies. Smith’s drinking was always problematic and when he finally did embrace drugs in recording his final album he felt he was on a creative journey to make his White Album. Nugent quotes extensively from Tom McConnell, Smith’s producer for his final sessions, and he portrays an artist who wants desperately to find the core of his muse and thinks the only way to do so is to explore the fringes of consciousness.
“From A Basement On The Hill” was recorded during marathon sessions with Smith freebasing cocaine and heroin and obsessing about esoteric recording techniques, wandering around McConnell’s Malibu estate listening to crickets and hiding out from white vans that he thought were following him. Smith told McConnell that he tried to kill himself several times in his studio and the album eerily foreshadows his own coming death (“I can’t prepare for death more than I already have”, he sings on the defiant “King’s Crossing”). Released this past autumn with “final production by Elliott’s family and friends”, “From A Basement On The Hill” feels somewhat uneven by Smith standards but it also features some of his most ambitious songwriting, making more effective use of the orchestration he played with in previous albums.
After admirably uncovering the minutiae of what made Smith tick in his early years, Nugent runs into a bit of a wall trying to understand Smith’s final years in LA, in particular the final months. Nugent reveals in a caveat at the end of the book that Smith’s family and some of his closest friends wouldn’t cooperate with him. We are left with only a few paragraphs regarding Smith’s hari kari suicide. Some have suspected foul play but the authorities seem to have let it go. Nugent quotes police suspicion about the suicide (for instance, apparently most people who stab themselves in the chest take their shirt off and have “hesitation wounds” where they have prepared for the final thrust, neither of which was the case with Smith) but seems to think that Smith’s girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, who said she was in the bathroom when Elliott stabbed himself and came out to find him walking around “with a knife in his chest”, is free from guilt. Nugent might not have wanted to dwell on macabre details about the suicide or engage in rumor-mongering, but something feels like it’s missing. Nugent does a fine job of getting to the heart of Smith’s craft and seems to truly understand the pop culture moment in which he flourished (though he apparently knows white-guy, indie rock better than hip hop: He attributes Hip Hop’s breakthrough in the 90s “largely as a result of the The Fugees’ breakthrough album The Score”). Even the fact that we are left with more questions than answers about the death of Elliott Smith might be the author’s nod to a songwriter who knew how to build mystery in his music, particularly in his early, sparser recordings, where the elements of what was left out of a song were as important as what was put in.