Can't Make a Sound
A new biography plumbs the lost life of a great songwriter
I was lucky enough to know Elliott Smith a little. We both lived in LA for a while and spent many nights at the oldLargo nightclub in Hollywood. At the very end of the ’90s, Largo’s owner, Mark Flanagan, asked me to participate in a charity song swap to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I was to sit on a stage with Jon Brion, Fiona Apple, and Elliott. In the greenroom before the gig, Elliott, whom I had just met, was nervously mumbling about how lousy he was, that he didn’t belong on a stage with such great performers, that people were going to hate him. Incredulous, I told him, “You’re Elliott fucking Smith!” But he just shook his head. Once we were on the stage, though, his sly sense of humor came out. I made passing reference to a Stevie Nicks story, and he stage-whispered, “That’s not the Stevie Nicks story I heard.” In the middle of the show, he surprised everyone by pulling out a harmonica and playing along with the other performers’ songs. I had just written my song “Rollerskate Skinny,” and I nervously trotted it out. When I finished, Elliott said, rather matter-of-factly, “Now that’s a great song.” He was generous like that, if only to other people. And then he sang one song he’d just written, “Son of Sam,” and we were transported. At the time, the thought occurred to me: He doesn’t just live for the music; he lives in the music. It was as if everywhere else was too painful.
In Torment Saint, William Todd Schultz has written his own kind of love song—an account of Smith’s life that does full justice to his memory and the impressive legacy of his art.