One of the stranger moments in Oscar history — especially for indie rockers who might have caught the telecast back in 1998 — was seeing the woebegone singer/songwriter Elliott Smith alone on a giant stage, dressed in a gleaming white suit, performing his “Miss Misery” from Good Will Hunting for hundreds of nearby Hollywood types and roughly a billion viewers worldwide. Particularly surreal was the fact that Smith was nominated alongside that year's eventual winner in the Best Song category, Celine Dion, who, as we all remember, won for that late-'90s symbol of unhinged sentimentality “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic.
Before the events of last week, however, Smith seemed quite removed from most people's thoughts (as do Dion and Titanic, but I'm not complaining). He hadn't released an album since 2000's Figure 8, which, unlike dour masterpieces Elliott Smith and Either/Or, felt more like a Dear John letter to his music career than a welcome next step. But last Tuesday Smith once again became the topic of conversation throughout message boards, record stores, and concert halls when he was pronounced dead from a self-inflicted knife wound to the chest. That is to say, he stabbed himself in the heart.
Like his forebears, such as singer/songwriters Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake (two guys who also expired before their time), Smith turned the angst of loneliness and alienation into haunting, soft-sung ballads, which, in the beginning of his career, were stitched out of plucked acoustic guitars and maybe a few brushed drums. Later, on parts of '97's Either/Or but certainly on '98's XO and Figure 8, he added some more epic touches, like the occasional swatch of strings or electric guitars or bigger drums, and critics started comparing his songwriting skills to the Beatles' or the Beach Boys'. But the thing that made Smith's music so adored was his lyrics, and the gut-wrenching, confessional style in which he delivered them. Over a blanket of plaintive melodies he told us such simple sentiments as, “I'm in love with the world/ Through the eyes of a girl.” But in addition to love, both realized and unrequited, his songs were about drugs and booze and desperation. “I'll make it through the day/ With some help from Johnny Walker Red,” go the famous opening lines of “Miss Misery.”
Like a lot of fans, my first impulse when I heard the news of his suicide was to talk to people about it, dilute the grief, that sort of thing. But the more I looked into it, the more frustrated I became that this had happened. It was, after all, the age-old cliché of the strung-out rock star on a downward spiral, and it seemed like everyone saw it coming.
Conor Jonathan, singer/guitarist for S.F.'s the Caseworker, shared, via e-mail, a story of having met Smith in L.A. in 2001 through mutual friends. The group was hanging out in a bar together where, according to Jonathan, “it only took about 10 seconds to realize he was very badly strung out and the effects on his mind were more than apparent. He couldn't speak clearly, his hand-eye coordination was gone, he nodded off every few minutes, and woke up mumbling to imaginary people.
“It was sad and awful to watch, like a car crash, you don't want to look but. … So, to make matters worse, he kept passing out and his head would crack off the bar every time. Did his friends help him out of the club and into his bed / nearest treatment center / the hospital? No, they laughed at him and then — you won't believe this — they took turns to plait his lanky, matted hair as he lay passed out on the bar. So he was kind of their hair doll, if you like. Then he'd wake up muttering to the imaginary people and all his friends burst their shit laughing because he wasn't in a fit state to notice that they'd plaited his hair while he was 'asleep.' Then he'd pass out again, and someone would unknot the plaits and take a turn themselves. Un-fucking-real. This death is not a surprise at all.”
While a lot of Internet sites have already begun reeling off the typical “he was such a genius” confessionals (and I'll be the first to admit that he was), there are also plenty of pre-suicide accounts from fans who speak of feeling uncomfortable when they would see Smith perform these past few years. On both the Internet and in conversation with people in the days after his passing, I encountered stories of Smith forgetting notes and words onstage, of screwing up song after song, of passing out in the middle of a set. Reports indicate that he was this close to finishing his long-awaited new record, titled From a Basement on the Hill, an album that featured foreboding song titles like “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free,” “Fond Farewell,” and “King's Crossing,” which included the lyric, “Give me a reason not to do it.”
Then there are the photographs. Johnny Cash died at age 71 after a long battle with various health problems, and even he looked better toward the end than Smith, who, at 34, looked like a browbeaten alcoholic, his skin sagging like a Dali painting, his eyes droopy, his face pale as ice. Smith looked like shit, plain and simple. Clearly this check was in the mail. Everyone knew he was fucked up, everyone knew he was skirting the edge. The question, then, is could his death have been prevented?
God knows. In a March interview with Under the Radar magazine, Smith admitted that he had sought treatment for drugs and alcohol abuse. Granted, it was some strange treatment (a non-FDA-approved detox program of some kind), but maybe it was enough to get people off his back. Perhaps at a certain point, you just get tired of trying to outsmart the addict; perhaps you get sick of lecturing him or trying to trick him into rehab. It just gets to be too much.
As anyone who's ever dealt with a drug addict knows, when someone is truly determined to hit bottom, it's next to impossible to talk him out of it, regardless of what the movies tell you. In these situations, blame falls not so much on those directly involved as with the culture at large. Right now, I can comfortably speculate that someone (probably DreamWorks, which released Figure 8) is shuffling to get the Elliott Smith super-deluxe-double-platinum-edition-memorial-DVD out before the holidays, right in the wake of the Tupac Shakur megadocumentary coming to theaters this fall. And did I mention that Kurt Cobain's diaries just came out in paperback, priced to move at $19.95? For a long time it seemed that Smith would forever be remembered as the awkward, uncouth indie rocker who gave Celine Dion a run for her money at the 1998 Oscars. Now, his entire catalog will be obsessed over, his lyrics analyzed, his life dissected. I'm not accusing Smith of being posthumously opportunistic, but when you have to choose between the long road of recovery from drug addiction and depression — which is one of the longest roads I know of — and the immortality and instant gratification of suicide, well, we're not exactly the kind of culture that makes that choice easy.
As Cobain puts it in his own diaries: “I'll be able to sell my untalented, very un-genius ass for years based on my cult status.” Now that Smith's own music has been underscored by his dramatic suicide, his cult status will grow, his sales will increase, and thousands of listeners will “rediscover” his melancholy brilliance. I don't know that that's a bad thing — it doesn't lessen the impact of Smith's art, it merely draws attention to it — but I can't help but be reminded of the singer's disconsolate question: “To vanish into oblivion/ Is easy to do/ And I try to be but you know me/ I come back when you want me to/ Do you miss me, Miss Misery/ Like you say you do?” Sure, we miss Smith now that he's dead, but how many of us bothered to miss him while he was still alive?