Elliott Smith – Dead at 34

One of the last photos of Elliott Smith“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.

42 thoughts on “Elliott Smith – Dead at 34”

  1. I saw Elliott on New Year’s Eve 1999. He was wonderful — I couldn’ t believe his guitar playing, and his songs were great. He was also such a genuine guy. No phony showmanship — in fact, he barely seemed to notice it was New year’s eve. He just played a brilliant show.

    I’m so sorry that he’s gone, that he’s gone like this. It’s awful, and really hard to take in.

  2. heartbroken..

    i can’t help but feel uncomfortable having been one of the witnesses to a Smith performance gone awry…along with the rest of the crowd, i was one of many to see first hand the slow decay of a brilliantly creative mind.

  3. Truly, truly sad. I am not overly familiar with his work but I know how talented he was and all I can think is “what a waste”.

    As someone who has suffered from depression in the past, although maybe not to the same depths as Elliott, I just hope that this will inspire people in the same situation to just ASK FOR HELP!! No matter how alone you feel there are always people willing to help, whether they be friends, relatives, professionals, etc. There ARE ways to deal with your feelings, suicide is NOT the way out. It may alleviate YOUR pain, but just creates a whole new world of pain for your friends and loved ones.

    Elliott R.I.P.

  4. This is a sad loss. Tying this back to the prior topic of “Dying Young…”, I would have to say that if forced to choose an artist’s path between the two options of gradual loss of credibility/slide into irrelevance (Rod Stewart) vs. burn bright and flame out too soon (Elliott Smith), it isn’t any choice. In that one respect, Rod made the right decision to keep on going, despite the self-inflicted body blows his respectability has taken.

    It’s sublimely tragic we couldn’t say the same for Elliott. Thank you, Elliott, for the music you gave the world; may there be a guitar and a muse waiting for you at your next destination.

  5. I don’t feel bad for people who off themselves. If they want out of here so bad then I say let em go.

    I do feel terrible for the people they leave behind, heartbroken and hurt. Especially in this case for the kids who obviously looked up to Elliott. I remember when Cobain blew his brains out. There were a lot of young fans who were really shaken-up. Some members of the media really spoofed on those fans too, something that I think was not fair.

    In Smith’s case, though, there was obviously some massive denial from his corner that he was having problems. That included a very vocal group of fans who would forgive him of almost anything. I only hope this helps show others that these types of problems shouldn’t be swept under the rug.

    Peace Out

  6. It’s strange, because when I tell people about losses such as these, I’m always inclined to say, “One of my favorite singers of all time died,” and “you should check this album out.”

    At the same time, I’m forced to realize that Elliott Smith, while I’d like to think so, was not my favorite singer, and while I always would have reccommended his cds to anyone who asked, I must say that I feel guilty for not thinking of him as much while he lived.

    No doubt, he was a great talent, a near-Beatle in composition and harmony. In death, I always want to celebrate life amidst my sadness, but how can you celebrate the life of someone who was always sad? He and Nick Drake are two who come to my mind immediately.

    Truly, I always feel guilty after a tragedy for not acting. But how could we have helped Elliott Smith? And who could have? Death is tough, and often surprising, as is his death, but just to know that he’d completely given up on his life, himself, and all redemption doesn’t leave much room for some of us who feel similarly, or those who always hope we can weasel our way out of depression.

    Rest in peace, it’s still a shock to me, even knowing his music. We like to think lyrics aren’t true…or are true…but I will have trouble listening to him for a while.

  7. The one and only time I ever saw Elliott Smith now holds a sad and poignant place in my consciousness. It was during Grandaddy’s set at Benaroya Hall in Seattle June of 01, when a scraggly, rail-thin unwashed little guy with a torn and dirty white t-shirt wandered onto the stage during “He’s simple, he’s dumb, he’s the pilot,” and took to Jason’s mic, singing the plaintive, yet soaring refrain:

    did you love this world?

    did this world not love you?

    did you love this world?

    did this world not love you?

    I remember thinking: “Wow, this guy looks like he’s livin on the streets, but WHAT A VOICE. It’s pretty cool of Grandaddy to pick some random guy off the streets to sing with them.”

    A while later I read in the Stranger that it was Elliott Smith. And I was scared for him. A lot of the time, you love the world and it loves you back, but for whatever reason (drugs, depression) you’re unable to be open to the love and absorb it.

    For all the times that Elliott’s lyrics perfectly summed up the moments of my life (“I was bad news for you just because/I never meant to hurt you” stands right out) that moment during “he’s simple, he’s dumb” kind of sums it up for me. Peace out, Elliott. Blessings to his friends and family.

  8. This news makes me feel like I should put on one of his records loud enough to get the cops called out on me. Or maybe just cue up a few spins of his on the bar jukebox. I never got to see him live, though I guess he was on my list of people to see in my lifetime. Guess it will have to be the next lifetime.

    I’d be sugarcoating it just a little to say that this is a fucking shame. And like all the other rock and rollers gone to rust, it leaves behind all those nasty unanswered questions about the man’s life and work. Could he have cleaned up, cheered up and still made such haunting and compelling music? What would his music be like if he’d lived to the age to make an “American Recordings” type record like Cash? No answers. Not now.

  9. The only solace that could be taken from this, is that he is not in pain anymore. May he finally rest in peace.

  10. God, you get so conflicted hearing about people who just have so much to offer and so much beauty they can’t see… or won’t see. If Elliott’s genius came from suffering, I hope what he created brought him just a little happiness. R.I.P.

  11. elliott’s death has broken my heart, i still can;t even believe it, and to those who say why didn’t anyone help him– he was an addict and ultimately elliott himself was the only one who could have gotten it together. i get the impression friends had tried numerous times over the years to no avail.

    i saw him on four occasions in the last 2 years of his life, sunset junction in the summer of 2001 being the extreme low point. it aws an absolute trainwreck of a show. but then in feb of this year i saw him what would be a final time and though his between song banter was shakey and incoherant, the songs still shone, and he truly seemed better. i had so much hope for him.

    elliott gave up. it doesn;t make his music any less beautiful. i only hope he is at peace. and that dreamworks doesn;t have the rights to his newly recorded material.

  12. This is unbelievable…absolutely unbelievable…or, at least, to someone in the South who has been eating up all the Elliott I could for the past 8 years, with no real knowledge of his recent life patterns, his obvious distractions at shows…just unbelievable. I’ll still name my son after you, Elliott, but you have destroyed me.

  13. What a shame. I love Elliott’s music and I am very sad he left the world in such a way. It makes me sad to think of how he must have been feeling. I think we all knew he wouldn’t be here too long, but this just seems too soon.

  14. I feel terrible because Elliott Smith’s music really touched me. RIP man. I think a lot of the blame for this goes to drugs and drug addiction and a rock culture that glorifies drug use.

  15. I met Elliot when he still lived here in Portland, and he was a very nice guy. Kind. Unassuming. Quiet.

    Several months after we first met I remember running into him at the bar at one of his shows and he nodded as I walked by–acknowledging our acquaintance. That brief encounter has always stuck with me. Devoid of pretension. Open.

    His show was incredible that night–probably late 96′–early 97′–before the spotty performances became the norm. It was a packed house, and he sat on a stool with just his guitar, keeping the entire crowd fixed. You could hear a mouse pee on a cotton ball it was so quiet.

    Except for Elliot.

    That was the power of his music.

    It wasn’t made for background noise or parties, but for intent listening and relating. For whispering along to. For loves long lost.

    He may be gone, but he’ll never be forgotten.


    p.s.- To Scotty and Anonymous–You are more than welcome to your opinions, but they show your ignorance of what true depression means. It’s not simply about moping, or feeling sorry for one’s self. Not only can emotional scars run deeper than anyone’s power to heal, but there are chemical causes as well. Get educated.

  16. I found out he died right before I left work the other day and I really couldn’t believe it. I walked out and put my iPod on as I always do. Out of the 3000 some-odd songs it could have picked it randomly started playing “Waltz #2” and I just about lost it. His music really, really, really moved me, and I still have a hard time believing he’s gone. I was not his Biggest fan in the world, but for some reason I’m having a harder time believing this than any other star that’s disappeared, including Kurt Cobain. I really feel a loss. I’m sorry for him and those that were close to him.

  17. i think elliott himself said it best:

    “i’m never gonna know you now, but i’m gonna love you anyhow.”

    i still can’t wrap my head around this.

  18. i like that he picked “elliott” as his affected stage name. i will always remember him by the way he did not want to be known. As “Steve”. Steve Smith.

  19. John Darnielle on Elliott Smith from the Last Plane to Jakarta:

    “An amazing guitarist, a remarkably effective singer with a small range within whose parameters he’d learned to work as economically as an outclassed boxer, and a lyricist confident enough to let his images work without unnecessary window-dressing. His albums number among the best his generation had to offer. Many of us would happily sign a contract with the Devil for a gift like the one Smith has now destroyed forever.”


  20. I remember going into a record store and talking to the clerk there telling him what kind of music I listen to, and if he could make any suggenstions. It was then that he suggested to me Ellio Smith: Either/Or. I took it home and listened to it, It was certaintly something different to listen to. Although somewhat depressing his music was, I could tell it was from his soul. Elliot Smith was a very talented artist. Unfortunately, I am not able to continue getting to know him, or going to any concerts, but of what i know i will always remember him. His death was truly horrifying to hear, he is in my prayers.

  21. I have never really understood suicide too much, since I have never really considered it, but I often overhear people insult those who kill themselves as being selfish. It is true; it is an extremely selfish act. But in cases of musicians (Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis) and in this case Elliot Smith, you need to listen to their music. These are usually people who feel things in a different way than most others do. When they hurt, they FUCKING HURT BAD. You can hear it in the music, the lyrics. They have what most of us call “a gift” to write these songs that make us cry, or make us just feel miserable. Well if just hearing that song can make you feel all the sadness you’ve ever felt, or flashback to when you were 5 and your dad yelled at you for the first time, the first time you felt fear, the first time you realized what heartache was, the first time and everytime you feel what you feel when someone close dies…Well then imagine what it like to always feel ALL of that. That, and yes, talent, is what produces those songs. Most do not kill themselves, some should(Axl), some use a lot of drugs to help themselves not always feel so much pain. Sometimes they OD on accident or on purpose. You will often hear “what a waste, he was so talented”. Was it really a waste? Did they leave us with beautiful songs that will stick with you forever. Songs that will become your nostalgia, maybe a song you love so much you will request it to be played at your own funeral.

    All I am saying, and this is NOT being insensitive, is that when rockstars die, it’s not really a shame. It’s not “before their time”. Maybe it’s right on time. Maybe they gave all they had. They felt enough pain. No Prozac or drug can help after a certain point. Enjoy what is left behind. Maybe even enjoy your inability to write those songs.

  22. Where were his friends? Why is it ok that everyone saw it coming and did nothing?! That’s L.A. for you, full of fucked up selfish people whose sentiment was probably “he’s going to do what he wants” or whatever. But it’s unacceptable!!

    I spoke with Elliott many times. He was funny and he made me happy, really happy. So few people have been able to do that.

    I’m not surprised, but why? If everyone who knew the guy saw his detrioration, why didn’t they help him? WHY?????!!!!! I can’t stand the ache in my heart!!

  23. Today at work I felt shitty, trying to be nice to people with that fake smile. I could only think of a few nights before, when I had watched, ‘Lucky Three’, and had been moved to tears by Elliott singing ’13’ by Big Star.

    Goddamn, if I could move people like that in 4 min. time I could die a lot easier.

    Going home I blasted ‘Jesus’, by the Velvet Underground, and dedicated it out there, to wherever he is. Hope he heard it.

  24. “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. That’s all I really want to say about it.”

  25. I had a boyfriend in high school who introduced me to elliott’s music. 4 years later, the boy is long gone, but elliott remained with me. His music was actually one of the things that helped me through when the relationship ended. Now I have a new boyfriend, and I have gotten him on the elliott bandwagon. Even if I lose him someday, I will keep elliott.

    I hope it’s better where you are. I hope you are finally happy.

  26. my freind turned me on to listening to elliot smith only a few days before he (elliot) died.

    i was in very deep depression when my freind introduced me to listening to smith’s beautiful music but a few days after elliot smith died. whether it was murder suicide or some other act i hope that he is happy in his resting place and his sleep is never disturbed.

    actually i was quite depressed after i found out that elliot died. my freind feared i might do somthing drastic and actually i did. i pondered on the thought of suicide for a while and i thought to myself that my life is not so hopeless or so full of hate that i could kill my self. anyway i would want to die slow, preferably i would take a razor or knife to my wrist.any one who reads this please do not take offense i am simple and i am hated, i think of my self as evil but i cant bring myself to do anything about it. i think that elliot smith was a beautiful singer and i intend to listen to his beauty until the day i die.

    i just have one last thing to say, a quote actually well here it goes

    “ashes to ashes, dust to dust, devils are coming so who can you trust?”

    thats all i have to say

    if you want to respond personally PLEASE e-mail me at

    [email protected]

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