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Rock Rewind: Elliot Smith Revisted

Joey Kuhn | Monday, March 30, 2009

In 1997, film audiences around the world tearfully watched Rose float away from her beloved Jack as “My Heart Will Go On” wafted into their ears and their hearts. Celine Dion performed the song at that year’s Academy Awards and went on to win the Oscar for “Best Original Song.” But many people do not remember the modest, inconspicuous man who also took the stage that night. His song “Miss Misery,” featured in the movie “Good Will Hunting,” was nominated for the same award, but he expressed no disappointment when he didn’t win. In fact, he didn’t even want to perform at the Oscars until the producers told him that if he didn’t do it, someone else would sing his song for him. Except for music buffs and a small group of devoted fans, few people today remember this man, but his real life story is more tragic than any fictitious love affair that occurred upon a doomed ship. And that’s not even mentioning his music.The man’s name was Steven Paul Smith, but for most of his life he was known as Elliott. Elliott Smith was a talented musician who could play the piano, clarinet, bass, drums and harmonica, but his specialty was the acoustic guitar. He had played in two bands during high school in Portland, Ore., and another one while attending Hampshire College in Amherst, but his musical career began in full when he started recording solo work. At a time when almost everyone was listening to grunge bands like Nirvana and Mudhoney, Smith was recording wispy, acoustic fantasias with delicately poetic lyrics. After releasing two well-received but not widely circulated albums, director and fellow Portland, Oregon resident Gus Van Sant found Smith and asked him to contribute to the soundtrack of his forthcoming film, “Good Will Hunting.” Five of Smith’s songs were included in the soundtrack, including the Oscar-nominated “Miss Misery.” After that, Smith could avoid the limelight no longer. He released his third album, “Either/Or,” with favorable reviews in 1997, and soon after appeared on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.”The album title “Either/Or” comes from the book of the same name by philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. It is a fitting title for the album, as most of its songs deal with feelings of cynicism, disillusionment, and indifference. Smith’s lyrics maintain a pretty consistent melancholy, only liftinfor a small glimmer of hope on the last track, “Say Yes.” That is not to say that every song is a creeping acoustic ballad; several songs pick up the pace and even reach into the realm of pop for a bouncier sound. Nevertheless, the lyrics remain bittersweet. The pervasive darkness is what makes this album so hauntingly beautiful.Minimal brushstrokes on the drums and intricate fingerpicking form the backdrop over which Smith croons his often enigmatic, always enchanting lyrics. Every once in a while Smith slips in a four-letter word so smoothly and sweetly that your mother wouldn’t even notice it. He must have had himself in mind in “Ballad of Big Nothing” when he sang, “The helpless little thing with the dirty mouth / Who’s always got something to say.”Unfortunately, the grimness of Smith’s poetry had its sources in his own life. His parents divorced when he was a baby, and his stepfather allegedly abused him as a child. Eventually he went to live with his natural father, but he began experimenting with alcohol and drugs in high school, becoming more and more dependent on them as he became more and more successful in his career. He also suffered from depression and began to openly talk about suicide starting around the time that “Either/Or” was released. His friends usually managed to talk him out of it, but he made at least one serious attempt to end his own life by jumping off a cliff in 1998. A tree broke his fall and he survived, but his demons had not left him. After Smith’s fifth album he developed a heroin addiction which almost ended his career and his life. He rarely performed in public during 2001 and 2002, and when he did his performances were pitiful as he forgot the lyrics and chords to his own songs. Finally he went to the Neurotransmitter Restoration Center in Beverly Hills and made a remarkable recovery. He seemed to be perfectly healthy again and was in the process of recording a new album when on October 21, 2003, he died of two stab wounds to the chest. A brief suicide note was left on a Post-It, but some suspected foul play. However, after an inconclusive autopsy there was no further investigation.Whatever the reason of his death, Elliott Smith continues to be missed by all who knew him, and his music continues to touch new and old listeners today.