Although this could be argued for any musician (or group), in the case of Elliott Smith, there is certainly a distinction between the fundamental fans and those whose fandom is a direct consequence of his one and only hit, the Best Song Oscar-nominated “Miss Misery.” It, surprising no one, lost to Celine Dion’s titanic “My Heart Will Go On.” What may come as a surprise to long-time fans of Smith is that while Dion is the sort of performer who has been routinely cracked by those who are partisans of musicians like Smith, he was against that; as one of his friends, Marc Swanson recalls, “he was defending Celine Dion all the time.”
This is but one of the interesting items that can be gleaned from Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing by Benjamin Nugent (Da Capo Press; $23.95). Smith is a person about whom comparatively little is known but about whom much is speculated. His short career and awful death at age 34 (two stab wounds, possibly self-inflicted, in the chest) led to sadness and wonder by those who followed his development. Nugent has done as solid job of research and reporting in this worthwhile biography, a book clearly written by an admirer of his subject, but one who doesn’t let his admiration get in the way of describing a life that had its runs of good times and bad, with the latter seemingly book ending Smith’s short life: from a not wholly happy childhood (why did he establish the Elliott Smith Foundation for Abused Children if he hadn’t. . ?) to the bitterest of ends.
Like many young men who opt for the arts rather than athletics, Smith, in effect, was the classic tormented aesthete, one who, in high school and college, heightened personal issues to major crises. (This is not a criticism, simply a state of affairs for plenty of people, most of whom end up leading, in spades, lives of quiet desperation, or writing for music blogs.) Elliott wasn’t always Elliott. He wasn’t Elliott through high school. His given name was “Steve.”
The name change occurred when he attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, a college he attended because he was in love with a high school classmate, Shannon Wight. Nugent writes, “They started dating, and after she got an early-decision acceptance to Hampshire, he decided to apply—he hadn’t gotten around to applying anywhere else, says Wight, and he wanted to follow her. She sensed that this might be ‘a terrible idea’ as far as their relationship was concerned.” She was right, because they broke up shortly after they’d made the move from Portland. But before that happened, Steve and Shannon devised a new name for Steve: he became Elliott. Nugent explains, “Elliott is spelled with two t‘s, like a surname, because Wight was inspired by the middle name of her previous boyfriend. When she mentioned this to Smith later on, she recalls, he was surprised, although she remembers telling him where she came up with the spelling at the time.” While this isn’t pursued by Nugent, it strikes me as a signal time in Smith’s life. Here is a young man who moves from his home in the northwest and travels fully across the country because of his love of a young woman. He takes a name that she helps him devise, a name that he learns came from his predecessor for her affection. And then she dumps him. Yet the name remains. I believe that this is telling of the kind of obsession with things that characterized the man’s life, from his music. . .to, eventually, the drugs that probably did as much to kill him as the knife.
Nugent describes a man who’d worked extremely hard on—practicing and recording in a corner of a basement in an old house, which became Roman Candle—and for—taking all manner of scut-work construction jobs—his music. When he toured, he toured relentlessly. His was a life of the pursuit of something he could never quite reach, no matter how hard he tried. For example, in describing the work that was to be culminated, in part, in the recently released From a Basement on the Hill, Nugent writes, “Smith was dead set on making a great album at full speed, for the most part spurning rest. McConnell says he and Smith ‘pretty much worked around the clock. I would take catnaps constantly because I wasn’t able to stay up. I didn’t have help. So I pretty much stayed up as long as I could with catnaps and then I would crash every three days or something [I crashed] for ten or twelve hours every three days, whereas he would crash every five days. A lot of that was because he didn’t want to go to sleep without finishing each song; he wanted to complete each song before he got into bed. The whole song: Drums, guitars, bass, keyboards, vocals, everything, he wanted it all done, and then he’d go to bed and have me mix.'”
Near the end of the biography, Nugent admits, “Dear friends of Smith’s who might have been his staunchest defenders are absent from this book because they don’t generally talk to the press about him and they wouldn’t make an exception for me.” He didn’t need them. It is probably good that he didn’t have them. The music Smith created doesn’t speak for itself, if by “speak” we mean clear, full communication. Which is why it is so compelling.
See previous Elliott Smith articles on GLONO: Elliott Smith – Dead at 34, Just Say Yes and Wilco w/ Elliott Smith (an article which, by the way, is quoted on page 187 of Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing).