“Watching Smith’s public breakdown, I felt like I’d walked into my house to find Robert Downey, Jr sleeping on my chaise lounge. During a disjointed, rambling 45 minutes, bright flashes of Smith’s brilliance would explode and fade away, their afterimages replaced by dodgy rants about his stiff little fingers. It wasn’t irritating that he could only stumble through three full songs – it was saddening. Because even when he was mumbling half-remembered lyrics, or strumming the opening chords to forgotten songs, there was genius in Elliott Smith’s stupor.” — From “Wilco w/ Elliott Smith,” May 3, 2002.
It was mid-afternoon when the hotline in Jake Brown’s corner office started ringing. At first, it was news of a private show from Wilco that had been under-promoted. “They’re letting the general public in,” the voice on the phone said. “Get down to the Riviera toot suite.” The Glorious Noise compound vacated en masse. Twenty minutes later, we were standing in front of the Riv, buffeted by a last winter wind whipping up Broadway Ave. Everyone was still excited for Wilco, but the chatter running up and down that queue was even more electrifying.
Elliott Smith was opening the show.
I remember being excited by the “secret” quality of the event, excited that monitoring Rumor control had paid off for us. As we took seats in the balcony’s front row and watched the venue fill up around us, there was a growing sense of what we’d be watching, a real live Event Show, right under the noses of an entire city. On stage, the enormity of Wilco’s vintage speaker cabinets and Wakeman-esque keyboard banks dominated with threatening sonic girth. Out in front, perched on the lip like a kid at the end of the line, stood Smith’s lone mic stand. Dwarfed and frail in front of the pure rock and roll potential of the equipment’s cubist forms.
From the moment he settled awkwardly into his chair, it was clear that Elliott Smith was not himself. As his distractions rapidly overtook the performance, my self-satisfaction at seeing Smith so intimately quickly shifted to awkwardness. It was like surprising a loved one, only to walk in on a scene of intense privacy and perversion. And it was heartbreaking, because each fleeting moment of focus was brimming with effortless grace and concentrated genius. That’s no exaggeration – imagine the see-saw feelings of romance and disillusion, of depression and gorgeous, heady abandon that coursed through Smith’s albums. Now, imagine that same range of emotion cooked into a rush of three, maybe four cohesive minutes. Either/Or? X/O? It was madness and beauty fighting it out in a figure 8 of white-knuckled desire.
Smith’s bizarre behavior and grievous, angelic musical dichotomy was the real story that night, and it spilled over to Glorious Noise the next day. Jake Brown was accused of fatalism for suggesting that Smith might not make it out alive. Posters dismissed Smith’s bewilderment as typical, and nothing to worry about. But the overall feeling on GloNo that day was the same as what had permeated the Riviera the night before – no one wanted Elliott Smith to be fucked up, because everyone knew just what might happen if he was.
After over a year of both hopeful and mean-spirited speculation, as well as rumors of just how incredible From a Basement on a Hill was purported to be, Smith reportedly committed suicide late on October 21st. Reports put the discovery of his body at his Silverlake apartment at 12:18am; at that point, in the Eastern time zone, I was listening to the radio play a set by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. “Outside I’m masquerading… Inside my hope is fading…”
It’s okay to be miserable, but it’s unfair that we have to be.
Do we not all spend the greater part of our lives under the shadow of an event that has not yet come to pass? — Maurice Maeterlinck.
The shadow of death is long. Too long for some people to ever get out from under it. Sadly, Elliott Smith seemed to be all too aware of that shadow and yesterday, was consumed by it.
Smith’s music always hovered over the sadness of death, briefly touching the crippling destructive thoughts that have echoed in his mind in songs like “Needle in the Hay.” To say his music was sad is a misunderstanding of depression and suicide. It’s not a sadness but a supreme understanding of the futility of life. For most people that understanding is tempered with flashes of joy and excitement and meaning. For others it becomes sharp as broken glass and impossible to ignore. It becomes their understanding of everything. They eventually fall in.
Elliott Smith is gone.
If I could stick a knife in my heart,
Suicide right on stage,
Would it be enough for your teenage lust?
Would it help to ease the pain? — “It’s Only Rock and Roll” by the Rolling Stones.
There was a fragility in Elliott Smith’s songs that always made me feel a little guilty about loving his music as much as I do. Were we just getting off on his pain?
I don’t know the answer. I know that when I saw him being a complete mess on stage last year, I wanted to take him home and take care of him. Help him. He was in rough shape and I was angry. Angry because I knew how this would end up.
I’ve been dreading this moment for a year and half. With all the album delays and the reports of aborted performances, I imagined how Dreamworks would capitalize on his obviously impending death. How his sixth album would have to be released posthumously, and of course it would be the best-selling album of his career.
And then things seemed to be getting better. Concert reports (and bootlegs) sounded good. Photos and interviews had him looking okay and sounding excited about finishing up his new album. He released a single on an independent label, and it sounded great. Hopes were high for a new double(!) album to be released soon.
And now this. What a fucking waste. What a shitty deal. I feel personally ripped off. I feel cheated out of a lifetime of great music that Elliott Smith could have recorded. But we’ve got his music. And that’s better than nothing. A lot better.
You can get the latest Elliott Smith information at the excellent fan site, Sweet Adeline, and its active message board, Sweet Addy. The photo above was posted to Sweet Addy from a recording session on the evening of October 12, 2003.