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Rock n Roll Suicide: Elliott Smith (1969-2003)

May 12, 2011

Elliott Smith died young, but he didn’t leave a beautiful corpse. As one of the most talented songwriters of his generation, he’d made a career of singing about sadness and suicide. He was the melancholy minstrel of his day. In retrospect, his death seems inevitable. After all, he lived what he wrote and he wrote what he lived. As a junkie, chronically depressed alcoholic and survivor of sexual abuse, Elliott Smith was never short on grim inspiration. His lyrics and life tragically dovetailed, his music explored every nuisance of his sadness to the point that he wore his pain like an infected tattoo.

For several years, Elliott was one of my favorite musicians, but as it became increasingly clear that he was determined to put himself out of his misery – whether via the slow dive of hard drugs or simply fast-forwarding to a more direct method of suicide – it became too depressing for me to listen anymore.

Ultimately, Elliott chose the quick route to death, stabbing himself in the chest, slicing through the heart that had been so repeatedly broken and abused. I suppose, there is some controversy whether his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, did the deed, but I don’t buy it. By her account, they had been fighting and she locked herself in the bathroom. When she heard a scream, she came out and found Elliott with a knife sticking out of his chest. While she was probably poison – many who knew them say they had a Sid/Nancy relationship – the fact remains that she was never seriously pursued as a suspect.

The last time I saw Elliott play was on January 31, 2003 at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles and it’s a memory I don’t particularly relish. Always a vulnerable performer, Elliott hadn’t played in a while and it’s hard to describe his set that night as anything but a disconcerting mess. Never have I seen a musician so clearly wasted (quite an achievement). Babbling between songs, forgetting lyrics, straining at the confines of his own skin – all in all, he was a disaster. He spent the show hunched over his guitar, sitting down in a chair where the majority of the crowd couldn’t see him, plucking away, often out of tune. “I can’t stand up because I don’t have no knees,” he explained. People will tell you that Elliott had kicked heroin and was clean for the last year of his life – and maybe it’s true that he wasn’t on smack, but that night in Los Angeles he certainly wasn’t straight.

An artist’s sobriety only concerns me if it has a negative impact his work. Otherwise, I really don’t care. But Elliott Smith was lit that night and at best, he wasn’t doing the music any favors. While I will concede that his playing and singing were better than I remember (video of the show is below), his in-between song banter was a painful spectacle to witness. Most of the people on the floor couldn’t see Elliott and it’s too bad that the largely underage crowd didn’t get a good look at their broken angel hero in all his wasted glory. Maybe they would have seen how sick he was and not so quick to deify him.

Elliott said he wanted to play some new songs, “They might seem dark, but not for now necessarily … but no, I’m fine. Really … Some songs are dark, but they make you happy anyway.” As anyone who loves Elliott Smith’s music knows, there is indeed comfort in being sad. But when most of your songs are sad songs, the least you can do for your body of work is to stay alive, to give a ray of hope to all of those people who take the misery journey with you. There’s a reason that memoirs chronicling the saddest, darkest, most dysfunctional lives have resonance and it’s because those books come with the implicit promise that those trials can be survived – otherwise they couldn’t have been written down in the first place.

Elliott’s suicide nullified not just his life but also his songs’ inherent message that while life can get rough, you can transcend the turmoil. If you are going to wallow in pain, let that pain be like armor that shields you from more of the same. Before Elliott killed himself, the songs themselves were a triumph because he was still here to sing them. While one could hope that by revealing the intimate details of his pain, Elliott inoculated himself from feeling even worse; the joy of hearing a sad song, meanwhile, is in knowing that you’re not alone, that you can survive.

Elliott would play one more show the next night at the Henry Fonda and then once again three months later in Portland. And that was it.  Amazingly, there’s a video on YouTube of the show I was at. It’s handheld and a bit shaky, but it pretty much nails the mood of the performance. I suppose the concert is a bit of a Rorschach Test. Many people who were there and a lot of his fans who have heard it since praise this show; they think he was great. His vulnerability, his false starts and his fuck-ups make him authentic in their eyes. But not everyone was so on-board. Around 45:00 in, someone (not me) yells for him to get a backbone. “A backbone?” Elliott responded. “What the fuck? … I could tell you a dream I had last night, otherwise I couldn’t be more fucking for real.” Then he retreated, “I don’t mean to pick on you. Maybe I didn’t understand what you meant? … I’m playing a lot of dark songs tonight, which is funny, because I’m very healthy now. So, don’t get bummed out by these songs.”

I was bummed out, though. Admittedly, I came to the show with a lot of emotional baggage. At the time, someone close to me was addicted to heroin, so seeing Elliott Smith completely wasted was a bitter pill. What I saw was an artist that was not only obviously sick, but was also being glorified for his addiction. The crowd seemed to be willingly enabling his self-destruction, happily accepting his obviously self-deluded suggestions that he was okay now. It was too much for me to bear.

I walked out of that show sad and shaken. I was quite sure that Elliott Smith would be dead soon. I did something I never do and posted my concern on a fan website. Naively and stupidly, I was hoping that through this site – theoretically a community of people who love him – maybe Elliott would get word that despite the misguided affirmation he got at the show, he still had fans who actually cared that he was throwing his life away.

Instead, in response, a cabal of sycophants bleated and moaned their anger and denial. The general consensus was that Elliott’s his own man, he can do what he wants. It’s none of our business. One post read that “Elliott says he’s not on drugs, we should believe him.” Obviously, that person has never dealt with an addict and I hope they never have to. Addicts lie. All the time. They have two jobs: getting fucked-up and then lying about it. Drunk or strung out on smack – does it really matter in the end? I don’t know of too many rehab programs that give out medals for kicking junk, yet still hitting the bottle.

Either way, the end for Elliott Smith was near. And when he died in his home, less than mile from my own, there was certainly no joy in being right about it. Mainly, I was just angry and I suppose I still am.

I can forgive his younger fans for their orthodox devotion (how large of me, I know). Times had changed and the kids have been taught to celebrate diversity, not to pick apart differences. Apparently under the new paradigm, throwing away your life is just a choice that shouldn’t be judged. But when I was young (how awful it is to type that phrase), even Deadheads were able to differentiate between a good show and a bad show. Even Deadheads had the decency to be concerned about Jerry Garcia when he was killing himself with heroin.

Not that it matters to anyone but me, but I don’t know that I can forgive Elliott. In my eyes, his suicide betrayed his songbook; it wasn’t a confirmation of its authenticity, it was a denunciation of it. I’m usually empathetic to victims of suicide.  If he had slipped away with, say, an overdose, I probably wouldn’t feel this way, but his suicide was so unabashedly violent, the aftershock felt like a screaming exclamation point, a big fuck you to all the people who he had inspired to persevere through their own pain.

As an aside, oddly, I don’t feel that way about Kurt Cobain’s suicide, whose music I revered and whose death was equally violent … but I guess the difference is that Cobain didn’t solely traffic in misery the way Elliott Smith did. Nirvana was about release and, in a twisted way, suicide is the ultimate expression of that. Meanwhile, Elliott Smith’s music is about sadness and while suicide may not be far away, sharing that kind of pain is purely masturbation unless the ultimate goal is to overcome it.

“Fucking up is part of it, man. If you can’t fail, I guess you have to always win. And I don’t think you can always win,” said Elliott near the end of his show at the Henry Fonda. And some in the crowd cheered.

Well, fuck you Elliott, at least you could have tried to win. Instead, it seems, for Elliott Smith, losing was inevitable. And whether he liked it or not, he owed it to himself and his music to say yes to another day.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Phaedout permalink
    June 13, 2011 9:45 am

    This is flat out, the most compelling argument against presuming he committed suicide–he got help and was looking forward. I know this was not your intention, but I appreciate your anger and dissapointment. It challenges the obvious explanation of his death.

  2. June 14, 2011 9:28 am

    Thanks Phaedout for your comment. I am grateful to you for taking the time … from my understanding, getting help and looking forward are not cures for suicidal tendencies. They’re a start, but the best intentions don’t always yield the best results. Many people who have “successfully” committed suicide have been through the therapy / rehab / new you wringer. Moreover, to believe Elliott didn’t commit suicide is to believe that Jennifer Chiba murdered him. I think such a conclusion requires quite a few logistical gymnastics and with this situation, sadly, the simplest answer (suicide) is also the most likely.

  3. Malocclusiontenfour permalink
    July 26, 2011 4:45 pm

    I believe it is wrongheaded to “review” Elliott’s suicide as if it were a mission statement or some sort of performance art. By all accounts he had been turning his life around, but that is a complex and far from linear process. He struggled with a depressive disorder throughout his life. He may even have been born with it. If he had been self-medicating– i.e., putting drugs between himself and his depression– once he went off drugs the depression could have come back full force. Or after being clean he could have felt himself backsliding, and couldn’t go back to the way he had been. Whatever it was, it was a horrible setback. He could have had a psychotic break and not even have been rational at the moment he did it. And it was a moment, not a career. It in no way taints the music he left behind. We have no right to judge him, because we don’t know what he went through. We all think we do, because we all saw mere glimpses of it.

  4. July 28, 2011 11:18 am

    Thanks Malo, “Horrible setback” is one of the greatest euphemisms I’ve ever heard for suicide.

  5. Malocclusiontenfour permalink
    July 28, 2011 2:14 pm

    I was not referring to suicide as a setback. Recovery, whether from addiction or depression, is full of setbacks, so I was referring to the setback as a setback. I don’t know why you didn’t post your other email to me as well. Anyway, anger is part of the grieving process, according to Kubler-Ross. Maybe someday you will stop being pissed off at him for being a damaged human being and can listen to his work again.

  6. August 19, 2011 11:32 pm

    This brought tears to my eyes. I was never a fan of Elliott until after his death, mainly because I was just too young. I’m 18. But I can really appreciate and agree with everything you said here. Suicide should never be glorified. I feel that it often is. And as someone who’s attempted suicide and gone to serious rehab for it (even as young as I am) I can for sure say that even now, as far as I’ve come I still think about it and I still consider myself pretty depressed. I never knew him personally, of course, so I don’t want to talk out my ass or anything. But I think you really offered a great perspective on not just his death, but suicide in general. And I wanna thank you for writing this. Really.

  7. siena permalink
    October 9, 2011 5:45 am

    I don’t think its for you to judge his actions or be angry about them, i mean, did you know what he was feeling or how much pain he was in? no one can, its not our place to judge someone else when they commit suicide, its like when people say “its a cowards way out”… you don’t have the right to say that unless you know what has made these people end their lives… besides mental illness is usually a major factor!

  8. Shane permalink
    October 18, 2011 7:53 pm

    You cant comprehend the perception he had of existence. Somebody who can say what he did sees the highs and lows stronger than most can. He got stuck in a low cause the light bright went black and white, he could take apart a picture you don’t know how to. Why don’t you stay the fuck away from things you know nothing about.

  9. devon permalink
    November 6, 2011 12:52 am

    Coming from someone who disagrees with you that suicide was Elliott’s official cause of death, I agree with the first commenter that yours is a very compelling argument. However, as some one who has watched so many people that i love battl dual diagnosis — mental illness coupled with drug addition — I just can’t help but make this comment: Does it really matter how Elliott died? Of course, it matters legally. But why can’t we have more compassion for how he lived? This man was suffering his entire life, whether or not it was to alleviate, or because of, or the absence of chemicals to self-medicate with. I just respect his music and how much it has contributed to my life. I can’t imagine having to live a life like the one Elliott’s brain was living. I wish he hadn’t died; but regardless, I wish him the most peaceful rest.

  10. January 30, 2012 2:42 pm

    Elliott Smith was, is, first and foremost a person and then a musician. He did not have to account to us. Elliott Smith, I think, like all of us, wanted,to first of all, be happy. He has not had, but luckily for us, has had the ability to write beautiful melodies. When a boy leaves his mother, as he has done, there is a serious problem. Something that marks you forever. Elliott made ​​his way, and I think we all wished we could do anything for him to keep him with us. I always think of his mother. Why are you so shocked that a person has surrendered to suffering? You always win? His music is immortal and you should listen to it, otherwise you kill him twice. I only see that Elliott was suffering too, was a person, not a musician. We are fortunate that he was also a musician!

  11. June 7, 2012 11:11 pm

    wow – this is a beautifully written article, with so much pathos – and to think your lives were connected in many strange and personal ways (you had a friend going through addiction, he died a mile from where you stay)

    Thank you for this -and I hope, through this writing, you experienced catharsis of sorts.

  12. Lee permalink
    August 2, 2013 9:31 pm

    Thank you so much for remembering. I remember.

  13. matt digz permalink
    May 17, 2015 1:48 am

    Before I get into the main purpose of my post (a logic-driven discussion about your arguments, and the conclusions you’ve drawn based on them), I do ask that you acknowledge that you’ve stated an opinion. And that, at no time, is it appropriate or open-minded to justify dismissing the views of another by simply replying, “I am entitled to MY opinion.”

    Of course, you ARE entitled to your opinion. The problem with refusing to consider other information, where an opinion is concerned, is that you are no longer expressing an opinion; you have made up your mind to willfully reject all new (possibly contrary) information.

    By definition, an opinion is a personal belief, based on a subject on which there is not complete information from which to draw a factual conclusion; if new information is available, but you don’t allow it the same validity as the information on which you originally formed your opinion, then you’re subscribing to a willful ignorance.

    I will do my best to avoid letting it cloud my honest assessment, but my integrity insists that I admit my own bias on this subject… I have a tremendous admiration for Elliott Smith; both his humanity, as well as his music catalog, which is among the most intimate we may ever see… There is something to be said for opening up and sharing your soul with any and everyone who would like to see, and offering it with the freedom to take from it whatever you choose.

    For many, Elliott Smith has written and recorded material so relatable–often on the subjects that make us feel the most alone–that it provides a tremendous amount of comfort to know that we are not alone.

    You state that, because of his manner of death (for the sake of clarity, I will not debate the conclusiveness of it as a suicide), this is no longer valid; because Elliott did not overcome his troubles once and for all, we can no longer draw comfort from feeling like someone understands the pain we are experiencing.

    Here are the problems with your conclusion

    1. You base this on a false premise (that comfort can only be drawn from relating to someone else’s pain/hardship/demons/etc., if that person has fully conquered their personal struggles, and gone on to live the rest of their lives, and died from a completely unrelated cause.)

    -You try to illustrate this point by mentioning the memoirs of people who have fully succeeded. As anyone who has ever struggled with addiction, depression, mental illness, etc. can tell you, these are but battles within a larger, often lifelong war.

    -Consider this: If your argument holds true, it would then follow that–should any of the subjects of those inspirational memoirs ever, sometime in the future, struggle with the issues that they wrote about overcoming, and die early as a result of those issues…… Then their memoirs are no longer valid/useful/valuable… Those who may have previously found strength and made positive changes in their lives (after reading the memoir), should do what? Rebel against the author? Decide to give up, even though they are personally in a better place, simply because the person who gave them the advice/strength/comfort has backslid?

    Does it also invalidate those who (through information learned from the memoir) have made it to a better place in life, and stayed there until dying of an unrelated cause?

    Should those who have found much of the memoir useful (but not 100% of it) also reject that beneficial parts, simply because the author wasn’t perfect?

    To hold anyone to such standards — “live perfectly and in complete balance with your previous artistic expression” is unreasonable, and it misses the larger point; art is in the eye of the beholder, and can only provide what you are willing or able to take from it.

    If an artist does something that you find contradictory to their work, you may benefit from realizing that it is the art itself–not the artist–that is on display.

    Finally…. Relapse, recovery, ups, downs, good days and bad–they don’t disappear because some heroic individual just willed them away.

    All we can do is make it (as the recovery mantra goes) one day at a time. If Elliott’s music provides ONE person with the strength to make it through ONE day, ONE time, that is an *amazing* thing, worthy of celebration.

  14. March 20, 2016 10:57 am

    “What I saw was an artist that was not only obviously sick, but was also being glorified for his addiction.” Fuck off!

  15. Bzz permalink
    April 26, 2018 11:43 pm

    I appreciate this post. Your feelings echo the way I felt back then, though I guess I am more accepting now in between bouts of bitterness and sadness. Thanks for sharing your experience of that show. I think I might even remember your old post or posts like it on Sweet Addy. You were right to speak up. Do you know they I mean when I say it feels ludicrous to care so much? And yet…I guess I always will.

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  1. Artist Of The Day: Elliott Smith – Millions of Thoughts

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