Sad Song: Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing

He was defending Celine Dion all the time.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).

10 thoughts on “Sad Song: Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing”

  1. Every time I listen to Elliott’s music I feel the insides of me screaming for something. He inspired me to start playing the guitar about year ago; I’ve written several songs about him poured out of rage and obscure pleasure. I often find myself drawn to tears when I hear his compositions things will surface and be pulled out of the layers of stuffed hurting I’ve hidden over the years. The day I learned of his death I was in my hotel room on the campus at Liberty University listening to “Either/Or” scrolling through finding an obituary statement. It was about 12:30am and I was finishing up a paper, I was in a state of shock no sooner had I discovered his music he dies on me. Collapsing on my bed I fractured into tears reaching for the exacto knife I slashed open my wrists. I wasn’t seeking death but release from the train that collided into me. Having never known him he may never know the full impact his music had on my existence. Nonentity is all I can articulate; I can’t even begin to describe the chasm in my heart. That is all I have to say.

  2. Very true. Elliott’s music, and death, should never be used to justify your problems with self-mutilation, or be used as an excuse to do so.

  3. What were you seeking if it wasn’t death? Stitches? Attention? You’re a dork, and I would have never imagined myself saying this to anyone, but maybe you shouldn’t listen to Elliott Smith. The results could be deadly.

  4. This is so unrepresentative of what Elliott Smith’s music means to me. This piece as well as the responses.

    Elliott’s music was intimate. It surprises me how much of the opposite that it inspires in others.

    I guess it doesn’t really matter, all the crazy things that are said on the internet, but I just wanted to balance this with some nice thoughts about Elliott’s music that don’t bring me to any conclusions about him personally and that don’t inspire destructive behavior.

    His music put my thoughts into much more beautiful words and sounds than I ever could have expressed them. And I appreciate that so much. Thank you, Elliott.

  5. Hannah, if eating cheetos made you want to bleed all over the place, you would avoid cheetos, right? Maybe you should start listeing to Britney & Christina instead.

    I adore Elliott’s work & am irritated that you blame him for your issues. You need help, but that is within you and you can’t pin it on Elliott’s genius. His music brings me comfort when I want to bleed. Makes me stop thinking about it. If that’s not what he does for you, then find someone who does. Wallowing in illness is just plain stupid. It’s like living on Krispy Cremes when you’re scheduled for quadruple bypass surgery: it doesn’y make anyone feel sorry for you or respect you. It makes them think you’re an ass.

  6. Hannah, if your note really was just for attention, you won. If not, let me just say that you have an opportunity he doesn’t; you’re still alive! Use his story as an inspiration to you; get help.

    Cutting is a serious sign for someone who is in so much pain, that the pain feels unimaginable, and therefore people feel the need to feel the pain physically instead of just emotionally.

    Be thankful to your mentor; he not only gave you guitar, but also Life 101: the hard way.

  7. Screw that lame and emo inward turned anger shit. Punch a wall or something, it feels way the fuck better, and plus, you’ll learn how to do something useful, like patch holes in walls.

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