Elliott Smith

Steven Paul "Elliott" Smith (August 6, 1969 – October 21, 2003) was an American singer-songwriter and musician. His primary instrument was the guitar, but he was also proficient at piano, clarinet, bass, harmonica and drums. Smith had a distinctive vocal style characterized by his "whispery, spiderweb-thin delivery", and use of multi-tracking to create vocal harmonies. Although Smith was born in Omaha, Nebraska, raised primarily in Texas, and died in Los Angeles, California, he resided for a significant portion of his life in Portland, Oregon, where he first gained popularity.

After playing in the rock band Heatmiser for several years, Smith began his solo career in 1994 with releases on the independent record labels Cavity Search and Kill Rock Stars. He eventually signed a major label contract with DreamWorks Records in 1997, for which he recorded two albums. Smith rose to mainstream prominence when his song "Miss Misery", written for the film Good Will Hunting, was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Original Song category in 1998.

Smith battled with depression, alcoholism and drug addiction for years, and these topics would often appear in his lyrics. At age 34, he died from two stab wounds to the chest. The autopsy evidence was inconclusive as to whether the wounds were self-inflicted.

Steven Paul Smith was born on August 6, 1969 at Clarkson Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska. His mother, Bunny Welch (née Bunny Kay Berryman), was a music teacher, and his father, Gary Smith, was a University of Nebraska medical student at the time. His parents divorced about a year later. Gary was drafted into the Air Force and was sent to the Philippines as a physician.

Smith and his mother left Omaha and moved to Duncanville, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, where, in July 1973, Bunny married Charlie Welch. Welch was physically abusive to both his wife and stepson (which he would acknowledge in a 1998 letter to Smith). Smith also suspected that his stepfather had sexually abused him, but his memories were vague and Welch vehemently denied the charge. Smith graphically chronicled the impact of this part of his life later in the lyrics of "Some Song": "Charlie beat you up week after week, and when you grow up you're going to be a freak." The name "Charlie" would recur in songs throughout the years, such as "Flowers For Charlie" and "No Confidence Man". In contrast, his biological parents' names were never mentioned specifically in any song.

The family was a part of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints through much of Smith's childhood, but eventually began attending services at a local Methodist Church. Smith felt that going to church did little for him, except make him "really scared of hell," a fear that biographer Benjamin Nugent believes remained with him the rest of his life.

Smith began learning guitar around the age of 10 on a small acoustic bought for him by his father. At this age he also composed an original piano piece, "Fantasy," which won him a prize at an arts festival. Many of the people on his mother's side of the family were non-professional musicians; his grandfather was a Dixieland drummer and his grandmother sang in a glee club. He cited his influences while growing up as Bob Dylan, KISS, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Hank Williams, but most importantly The Beatles. Smith continued to be a dedicated fan of The Beatles (as well as their solo projects) and once noted that he had been listening to them frequently since he was about "four years old."

At 14, Smith moved from Texas to Portland, Oregon, to live with his father, who was then working as a psychiatrist. It was around this time that Smith first began trying drugs and alcohol with friends as well as experimenting with recording for the first time, borrowing a friend of a friend's four-track recorder. During high school, Smith was part of the band Stranger Than Fiction (with Garrick Duckler, Jason Hornick, and Tony Lash (and later Adam Koval)). He graduated from Lincoln High School on June 3, 1987 as a National Merit Scholarship finalist.

After graduating from high school, Steven Smith began calling himself "Elliott", claiming he thought "Steve" sounded too much like a "jock" name. S. R. Shutt's biography of Smith speculates that it was either inspired by a street name in Portland, or it was suggested by his then-girlfriend (who had derived it from the last name of her ex-boyfriend).

Smith graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1991 with a degree in philosophy and political science. "Went straight through in four years," he explained to Under the Radar in 2003. "I guess it proved to myself that I could do something I really didn't want to for four years. Except I did like what I was studying. At the time it seemed like, 'This is your one and only chance to go to college and you had just better do it because some day you might wish that you did.' Plus, the whole reason I applied in the first place was because of my girlfriend, and I had gotten accepted already even though we had broken up before the first day." After he graduated he "worked in a bakery back in Portland with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and legal theory."

While at Hampshire, Smith formed the band Heatmiser with Neil Gust (a classmate at Hampshire) and Jason Hornick (who attended college nearby). After graduating from Hampshire, the band reconfigured (now Smith, Gust, Tony Lash, and Brandt Peterson (replaced in August of 1994 by Sam Coomes, later of Quasi)) to pursue music professionally in Portland. Their sound has been compared to Fugazi and other punk and grunge rock bands. The group disbanded in 1995 after releasing two albums and an EP for Lisa Fancher's Frontier Records, but not before Frontier signed a licensing deal for the band with major label Virgin Records to release their final record, Mic City Sons. Due to a small clause stating that Smith was legally bound to the agreement even in the event of Heatmiser breaking up, this contract would follow Smith for the rest of his life, eventually being sold by Virgin to DreamWorks in 1998.

Around this time, Smith and Gust worked a number of odd jobs around Portland, including installing drywall, spreading gravel, transplanting bamboo trees and painting the roof of a warehouse with heat reflective paint. The pair were also on unemployment, which they considered an "artist grant".

Shortly before the dissolution of Heatmiser, Smith began recording solo, mostly acoustic albums on borrowed four-track cassette machines. His solo material was more sparse and moody than his previous band, but at the same time had a strong pop sensibility, with lyrics that referenced chemical dependency, depression, and betrayal. His first release, Roman Candle (1994), was supposedly a collection of demos that did not fit as Heatmiser songs. Smith's girlfriend at the time convinced him to send a tape of the songs to Cavity Search Records, and owner Cristopher Cooper immediately requested to release it. One track, "Condor Avenue", was reported to be written when Smith was only about 17 years old. The instrumentation of the recordings was primarily acoustic guitar, occasionally accompanied by brief electric guitar riffs or a small drum set played with brushes. Only the final track, an instrumental titled "Kiwi Maddog 20/20" (a reference to the cheap wine MD 20/20), had full band instrumentation.

Smith's debut solo performance was at the now-defunct Umbra Penumbra on September 17, 1994. He played for 35 minutes and about fifteen people were in attendance. Only three songs from Roman Candle were performed, with the majority of the ten-song set comprised of B-sides, Heatmiser tunes, and unreleased tracks. For the last song of the evening, he invited bandmate Neil Gust onstage to assist him in playing "Half Right", which was to be the last (hidden) song on the final Heatmiser album. Soon after this performance, he was asked to open for Mary Lou Lord on a week-long U.S. tour. Several more short tours followed, and Smith helped her record "I Figured You Out", a song which he also wrote.

In 1995, the self-titled album Elliott Smith was released on Kill Rock Stars; the record featured a similar style of recording to Roman Candle, but not without hints of growth and experimentation. Though the majority of the album was recorded by Smith alone, friend and Spinanes vocalist Rebecca Gates sang harmony vocals on "St. Ides Heaven", and Heatmiser guitarist Neil Gust played guitar on "Single File". Although songs like "Needle in the Hay" implied that Smith was beginning to have drug troubles, he would maintain that he was clean of hard drugs throughout the 1990s.

In 1996, filmmaker Jem Cohen recorded Smith playing acoustic songs for the short film Lucky Three: an Elliott Smith Portrait. Two of these songs would appear on Either/Or, another Kill Rock Stars release that came out in 1997 to favorable reviews. The album found Smith venturing further into full instrumentation, with several songs containing bass, drums, keyboards and electric guitars, all played by Smith. The album title was derived from the two-volume book of the same name by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, which deals with such themes as existential despair, dread, death and God.

Smith's backing band during this period was the Portland-based group Quasi, consisting of former bandmate Sam Coomes on bass guitar and Coomes's then-wife Janet Weiss on drums. Quasi also performed as the opening act at many shows on the tour, with Smith sometimes contributing bass, guitar or backing vocals.

In 1997, Smith was tapped by director and fellow Portland resident Gus Van Sant to be a part of the soundtrack to his film, Good Will Hunting. Smith penned an original song, "Miss Misery", and recorded an orchestral version of "Between the Bars" with acclaimed arranger Danny Elfman for the movie. Three other previously released tracks from Roman Candle ("No Name #3") and Either/Or ("Angeles" and "Say Yes") were also included. The film was a commercial and critical success, and Smith was nominated for an Academy Award for "Miss Misery". Apparently not eager to step into the limelight, he had to be convinced to perform the song at the awards ceremony. Only after the producers informed him that his song would be played live that night—either by him or another musician of their choosing—did he agree to show up.

On March 5, 1998, Smith made his network television debut on Late Night With Conan O'Brien performing "Miss Misery" solo on acoustic guitar. A few days later, wearing a white suit, he played an abridged version of the song at the Oscars, accompanied by the house orchestra. James Horner and Will Jennings won the award that night for best song with "My Heart Will Go On" (sung by Celine Dion) from the film Titanic. Smith never voiced disappointment about his loss.

In 1998, Smith recorded and contributed a cover version of the Beatles song "Because" to the American Beauty soundtrack, which can be heard during the closing credits of the film. Although this was the only Beatles song that Smith ever officially released, he is known to have recorded at least one other ("Revolution", during the sessions for XO), and played many during his live concerts. Among the Beatles songs he played during concerts are "Blackbird", "Yer Blues", "I Me Mine", "For No One", "Something", "I'm So Tired", "Long, Long, Long", and "I'm Only Sleeping". He also played songs from the Beatles members' solo careers, including the John Lennon song "Jealous Guy" and the George Harrison songs "Give Me Love", "My Sweet Lord", and "Isn't It a Pity?".

Smith was also rumored to have recorded a version of "Hey Jude" for the 2001 Wes Anderson film The Royal Tenenbaums to be played during the opening scenes, but the song never materialized. In a December 2004 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Anderson said that although Smith was lined up to record the song, he "was in a bad state and just wasn't able to." However, The Royal Tenenbaums did ultimately include Smith's song "Needle in the Hay", played during the suicide attempt of one of the film's principal characters.

In 1998, after the success of Either/Or and "Miss Misery", Smith signed to the major label DreamWorks Records. Around the same time, Smith fell into depression. While in North Carolina, he became severely intoxicated and ran off a cliff. He landed on a tree, which despite badly impaling him, broke his fall.

Smith's first release for DreamWorks was later that year. Titled XO, it was produced by the team of Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock. XO also contained some instrumentation from well-known Los Angeles musicians Joey Waronker and Jon Brion. It contained a more full-sounding, baroque pop sound than any of his previous efforts, with songs featuring a horn section, Chamberlins and elaborate string arrangements and even a drum loop on the song Independence Day. However, his familiar double-tracked vocal and acoustic guitar style was still apparent. The album went on to peak at number 104 on the Billboard 200 and sell more than 200,000 copies (more than double that of each of his two Kill Rock Stars releases), becoming the best-selling release of his career. On October 17, 1998, Smith appeared on Saturday Night Live. He sported a worn T-shirt featuring an image of Steve Martin, an apparent nod to the comedian/musician who had hosted SNL frequently, and performed "Waltz #2."

In response to whether the change to a major label would influence his creative control, Smith said: "...sometimes people look at major labels as simply money-making machines, they're actually composed of individuals who are real people, and there's a part of them that needs to feel that part of their job is to put out good music." Smith also claimed in an another interview that he never read his reviews for fear that they would interfere with his songwriting.

Figure 8 came in 2000, featuring the return of Rothrock, Schnapf, Brion and Waronker, and was partially recorded at Abbey Road Studios (where the Beatles often recorded) in England. The album garnered generally positive reviews and peaked at number 99 on the Billboard 200. The songs were increasingly influenced by 1960s popular music like The Kinks, The Beatles and The Zombies. Album art and promotional pictures showed Smith looking very cleaned-up and well-put-together. An extensive tour in promotion of the record ensued, including television appearances on Late Night With Conan O'Brien and The Late Show With David Letterman. However, towards the end of this time, his appearance and health appeared to deteriorate.

The next several years were particularly dark for Smith, who had become addicted to heroin either towards the end of or just after the Figure 8 tour. Smith's live performances following this time were few and far between, typically in the Pacific Northwest or Los Angeles.

A review of his December 20, 2001 show at Portland's Crystal Ballroom stated concern over his appearance and performance: his hair was uncharacteristically greasy and long; his face was bearded and gaunt; and during his songs he exhibited alarming signs of "memory-loss and butterfingers". Fans were shocked at his inability to remember songs he had been playing for close to a decade straight, and the crowd would often have to shout out the lyrics (and in some cases, guitar chords) when Smith could not think of them. At many shows he played from 2001 and on, he would often stumble through a few unclear sentences about how he had just gone through a rough period, but had now cleaned up.

In the first of only three concerts he performed in 2002, Smith co-headlined Northwestern University's "A&O Ball" with Wilco on May 2 in Chicago. Due to lackluster on-campus ticket sales, the promoters opened ticket sales to the public on the day of the show. Smith's performance was described as "undoubtedly one of the worst performances ever by a musician" and an "excruciating...nightmare". A reporter for the online magazine Glorious Noise made the statement "...it would not surprise me at all if Elliott Smith ends up dead within a year."

On November 25, 2002, Smith was involved in a brawl with the Los Angeles Police Department at a The Flaming Lips/Beck concert. Allegedly, Smith saw the officers harassing a young man, at which point the musician tried to step in and defend him. Assuming he was a homeless man, the officers supposedly beat and arrested him and his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba. The two spent the night in jail. Smith's hand and back were injured in the incident, causing him to cancel a number of shows. Wayne Coyne, lead singer of The Flaming Lips and a friend of Smith's, stated concern over Smith's appearance and actions, saying that he "saw a guy who had lost control of himself. He was needy, he was grumpy, he was everything you wouldn't want in a person. It's not like when you think of Keith Richards being pleasantly blissed out in the corner."

A follow-up to Smith's 2000 album was originally planned to happen with Rob Schnapf, but their sessions were abandoned. Smith also began distancing himself from manager Margaret Mittleman, who had handled him since the Roman Candle days. He finally began recording a new album with only himself and Jon Brion as producers sometime during 2001. The pair had recorded a substantial amount of music for the album, when Brion confronted Smith about his drug and alcohol abuse. Their friendship promptly ended, and Smith scrapped all of their work up until that point. He later told an interviewer: "There was even a little more than half of a record done before this new one that I just scrapped because of a blown friendship with someone that made me so depressed I didn't want to hear any of those songs. He was just helping me record the songs and stuff, and then the friendship kind of fell apart all of a sudden one day. It just made it kind of awkward being alone in the car listening to the songs."

When Brion sent a bill for the abandoned sessions to DreamWorks, executives Lenny Waronker and Luke Wood scheduled a meeting with Smith to determine what went wrong with the sessions. The singer voiced what he believed to be intrusion upon his personal life from the label, as well as poor promotion for the Figure 8 album. The talks proved to be basically fruitless. Soon after, Smith sent a message to the executives, stating that if they did not release him from his contract, he would take his own life.

In May 2001, Smith set out to re-record the album, mostly on his own, but with some help from David McConnell, a member of the band Goldenboy. McConnell told SPIN that, during this time, Smith would smoke over $1500 worth of heroin and crack per day. He would often talk about suicide, and on numerous occasions actually tried to give himself an overdose. Steven Drozd (of The Flaming Lips) and Scott McPherson played a few drum tracks, Sam Coomes contributed some bass and backing vocals, but almost every other instrument was recorded by Smith. The songs were much more layered and psychedelic than anything else he had recorded up until that point, with most of the tracks done in only one or two takes. Smith jokingly labeled his new experimental way of recording "The California Frown" (a play on the Beach Boys' "California Sound"). He said of the songs: "They're kind of more noisy with the pitch all distorted. Some are more acoustic, but there aren't too many like that. Lately I've just been making up a lot of noise."

To prove to fans that he was still making music in spite of his long hiatus between releases, Suicide Squeeze Records put out a limited-edition vinyl single for "Pretty (Ugly Before)", a song that Smith had been playing since the Figure 8 tour. Its only B-side was "A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to Be Free", later deemed to be an "alternate version".

Around the time he began recording his final album, Smith began to display signs of paranoia, often believing that a white van followed him wherever he went. He would have friends drop him off for recording sessions almost a mile away from the studio, and to reach the location he would trudge through hundreds of yards of brush and cliffs. He started telling people that DreamWorks was out to get him: "Not long ago my house was broken into, and songs were stolen off my computer which have wound up in the hands of certain people who work at a certain label. I've also been followed around for months at a time. I wouldn't even want to necessarily say it's the people from that label who are following me around, but it was probably them who broke into my house." During this period, Smith hardly ate, subsisting primarily on ice cream. He would go for several days without sleeping, and then sleep for an entire day.

He attempted to go to rehab several times, but he said he "couldn't honestly do the first step [admit that he had a drug/alcohol problem]… I couldn't say what you were supposed to say and mean it." After several particularly dark years, things began to improve. Director Mike Mills had been working with Smith at the time on the soundtrack for his movie Thumbsucker. Mills said, "I gave the script to him, then he dropped off the face of the earth… He went through his whole crazy time, but by the time I was done with the film, he was making From a Basement on a Hill and I was shocked that he was actually making music."

In fall of 2002, Smith went to the Neurotransmitter Restoration Center in Beverly Hills to start a course of treatment for his drug addiction. In one of his final interviews, he spoke about the center: "What they do is an IV treatment where they put a needle in your arm, and you're on a drip bag, but the only thing that's in the drip bag is amino acids and saline solution. I was coming off of a lot of psych meds and other things. I was even on an antipsychotic, although I'm not psychotic." After his 34th birthday on August 6, 2003, he gave up alcohol, caffeine, red meat, refined sugar and his longtime (sometimes abused) regimen of psychological medication.

Rumors of Smith's improving condition spread on the Internet and throughout the independent music community (as apparent on Ben Folds' tribute song to Smith, "Late"). He began looking forward to the future and new projects; he experimented with noise music and worked on Jennifer's iMac with the intent of learning how to record with computers, noting that it was the only method with which he was still unfamiliar. He was in the process of recording songs for the Thumbsucker soundtrack, including Big Star's "Thirteen", and Cat Stevens' "Trouble". Director Steve Hanft described Smith's last six months of life as being "like the light at the end of the tunnel" and was convinced that Smith was clean and recovered.

Elliott Smith died on October 21, 2003 at age 34 in his home in Echo Park, Los Angeles, California from two stab wounds to the chest. According to Jennifer Chiba, with whom he was living at the time, the two were arguing, and she locked herself in the bathroom. Chiba heard him scream, and upon opening the door, saw Smith standing there with a steak knife in his chest. She pulled the knife out of him, after which he collapsed and she called 911. Smith died at the hospital, with the time of death listed as 1:36 p.m. While Smith's death was originally reported as a suicide, the official autopsy report released in late December 2003 left the question of possible homicide open. According to the coroner's report, a possible suicide note, written on a Post-it, read, I'm so sorry—love, Elliot. God forgive me. The misspelling of "Elliott" was later acknowledged as a mistake on the part of the coroner.

According to Pitchfork, producer Larry Crane reported on his Tape Op message board that he had planned to help Smith mix his album in mid-November. Crane wrote: "I hadn't talked to Elliott in over a year. His girlfriend, Jennifer, called me [last week] and asked if I'd like to come to L.A. and help mix and finish [Smith's album]. I said yes, of course, and chatted with Elliott for the first time in ages. It seems surreal that he would call me to finish an album and then a week later kill himself. I talked to Jennifer this morning, who was obviously shattered and in tears, and she said, 'I don't understand, he was so healthy.'" The coroner's report revealed that no traces of illegal substances or alcohol were found in his system at the time of his death. The coroner did find anti-depressant and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder medications in his system, but at prescribed levels. With his death not being officially declared a suicide, a journalist noted that some have suspected foul play, but also that the authorities do not seem to be investigating the case further.

Soon after his death, a fan memorial was initiated outside of Solutions Audio (4334 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California), the site where the cover of the Figure 8 album was shot. Farewell messages to Smith were written on the wall, flowers were brought and photos, candles and empty bottles of alcohol mentioned in Smith's songs were left. The owner of Solutions has, for the time being, allowed the memorial to stand. Dozens of tribute albums were recorded, and memorial concerts were held in many cities in America, England, and Iceland. A petition was soon put forth with intent to make part of the Silver Lake area a memorial park in Smith's honor. It received over 10,000 signatures, but no plans to go forth with the park have been announced. Another memorial is located inside Smith's former high school, Lincoln High, and was erected in July 2006.

Since Smith's death many musical acts have paid him tribute. Songs in tribute to, or about Smith have been released by Rilo Kiley ("Ripchord" and "It Just Is" on More Adventurous), Sparta ("Bombs and Us"), Third Eye Blind ("Elliott Smith" on Symphony of Decay), Ben Folds ("Late" on Songs for Silverman) and Rhett Miller ("The Believer" on The Believer). Several tribute albums have been released since his death: To: Elliott From: Portland, Home to Oblivion: Elliott Smith Tribute (piano) and A Tribute to Elliott Smith. Various other tributes and covers of Smith's music have been performed by Bright Eyes, Bayside, Bad Astronaut, Kevin Devine, the Dirtbombs, Madeleine Peyroux, Mason Jennings, Metric, Pete Yorn, Queens Of The Stone Age and My Vitriol.

Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing, a biography by Benjamin Nugent, was rushed to publication and hit stores shortly after From a Basement on the Hill, barely beyond the one year anniversary of the musician's death. It contained long interviews with Rob Schnapf, David McConnell, and Pete Krebs. However, some of those who were likely the closest to Smith refused to speak to the author: his family, Joanna Bolme, Jennifer Chiba, Neil Gust, Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss all declined to be interviewed.

From a Basement on the Hill, with almost four years in production, was finally released October 19, 2004 by ANTI- Records (a part of Epitaph Records). With Smith's family in control of his estate, they chose to bring in Rob Schnapf and Smith's ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme to sort through and mix the album. Although stated by the musician to be a double album (or a regular album with a "bonus disc"), it was released as a 15-track single album. Many of the darkest songs were not included, such as "True Love" (which deals graphically with addiction and then rehab), "Abused", "Stickman", "Suicide Machine" (a reworking of the Figure 8 era unreleased instrumental, "Tiny Time Machine"), though these have leaked onto the internet (with the exception of "Suicide Machine"). It is rumored that it was the family's wishes not to have these songs on the record, as they had the final say in what should and should not be released. Reviews of the album were mostly very positive. Despite this, there was some criticism of the album, for example, The Onion's A.V. Club wrote that "the album he left behind turns out to be messy, complicated, and unquestionably not his defining work...the album still earns its place—not at the top, and unfortunately as a bookend—in a jarringly important body of work."

On May 8, 2007, a posthumous 2-CD compilation album named New Moon was released to critical acclaim by Kill Rock Stars. The album contained 24 songs recorded by Smith between 1994 and 1997 during his tenure with the label. In the U.S., the album debuted at number 24 on the Billboard 200, selling about 24,000 copies in its first week. A significant portion of the proceeds are to go to Outside In, a social service agency for low-income adults and homeless youth in Portland, Oregon.Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts.
Virtual Magic is a human knowledge database blog. Text Based On Information From Wikipedia, Under The GNU Free Documentation License. Copyright (c) 2007 Virtual Magic. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home