Sept/Oct/Nov 2013

Can't Make a Sound

A new biography plumbs the lost life of a great songwriter

Rhett Miller


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. Schultz makes good on the promise of his subtitle by focusing on the life of Elliott Smith—largely ignoring the cottage industry of lurid speculation about the circumstances of the songwriter’s violent death in 2003.

Best known for his Oscar-nominated song for the 1997 film Good Will Hunting, Elliott was a deceptively quiet and consummate pop craftsman—more Nick Drake than Kurt Cobain. He constructed intricate melodies and baroque guitar parts around anguished, confessional lyrics, addressing addiction, betrayal, and unthinkable loss, sung in a tremulous tenor voice that was the perfect vehicle for both the muttered insecurity and easy humor I saw that night in LA.

Schultz has set for himself the difficult task of rendering Elliott’s tortured muse as biography, and he meets the challenge admirably. He doesn’t dwell unduly on his subject’s depression, his darkness, or his inability to recognize his own talent and innate goodness. These traits were, of course, integral to Elliott’s personality, but they aren’t the final word on his life, and so Torment Saint is both a persuasive reckoning with Elliott’s inner demons and—much more important—a full appreciation, and celebration, of his undeniable genius.

Two years after our initial meeting, Elliott continued spiraling into self-destructive behavior. He was smoking heroin and crack, taking both prescribed and unprescribed pharmaceutical drugs, and, as always, drinking copious amounts of Jameson. So those flashes of sweetness I remember from the song swap were not repeated in our acquaintance. Every time I saw him after that, he was further and further away.

That’s why Schultz’s insights into Elliott’s kind, protective nature surprised me. One childhood friend, Kevin Denbow, recalls that Elliott was especially solicitous of his siblings: “He was real parental toward Darren and Ashley. He had a real tight bond with both those kids. He was very protective. He’d always stop what he was doing and take care of them.” Schultz also recounts a revealing scene dating from the late ’80s, when Elliott’s bandmate Neil Gust came out of the closet to Elliott before telling anyone else: “No doubt [Gust] sensed what friends in Texas and Portland already knew for certain: that [Elliott] would not judge, that his compassion was guaranteed. Faced with any sort of vulnerability, Elliott sympathized. He knew what it felt like. At this point in his life, it was one of the things he did best.”

Click to enlarge

A portrait of Elliott Smith from Jem Cohen's 1997 independent film Lucky Three.

It makes sense, though: Elliott’s raw, sparsely beautiful songs could only have emerged from a place of deep empathy. Throughout his life, he walked a fine line between feeling and too much feeling; as his friend Jason Mitchell puts it, he was “just too sensitive, too emotionally sensitive.” Indeed, Nelson Gary, an addiction-treatment therapist in Malibu who knew Elliott toward the end, declares that “Elliott’s sensitivity was his undoing.”

When it comes to Elliott’s final undoing—the account of his alleged suicide—Schultz again gracefully navigates a notoriously delicate question. Ridiculous Internet rumors are one thing, but I have friends who knew Elliott who, to this day, maintain a very skeptical attitude about the widely accepted view that his death was a suicide. I have no firsthand information but have always wanted to believe that it wasn’t a suicide. Too many of my heroes have killed themselves, and I didn’t want Elliott to make that list.

Schultz interviewed Elliott’s girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, who was in the house at the time a kitchen knife punctured his heart and ended his life. Naturally, she has been the focus of the most speculation. Her story seems so simple and so sad, though: They fought, she locked herself in the bathroom to get a moment’s peace—and then she heard Elliott scream. She found him in the kitchen with a knife sticking out of his chest, and she pulled it out. Schultz believes her story and renders it in a way that makes it hard to doubt.

A less sensitive writer might have sensationalized the details of Elliott’s death, customizing it to appeal to the rubberneckers. But I’m glad Schultz took the high road and put the controversy to bed without belaboring it. I don’t know Jennifer Chiba, but I can’t imagine what her life must have been like for the last decade with the suspicion surrounding her role in Elliott’s death. Unhappiness like Elliott’s splinters out like a crack in thin ice, reaching steadily outward until everything it touches is broken.

After I met Elliott, I wondered to a mutual friend why he seemed so tortured. The reply I got was a vague reference to a history of childhood abuse. I never knew, or much wanted to know, any more than that. But as a biographer, Schultz doesn’t have the luxury of letting the question lie. As he explains it: “We are interpreters. We are pattern finders. That is biography. . . . It’s the plot inferred, spread over messy, desultory life.” And Elliott’s own messy, desultory life included a stepfather named Charlie.

I’ve always believed that we songwriters are all secretly writing the same song over and over again. The message we are sending out can take all sorts of forms, sit atop any number of melodies, come out in a whisper or a howl, but remains constant. We deal with one core issue throughout our creative lives, puzzling over it, wrestling with it, trying either to make some sense of it or to banish its attendant demons. Elliott’s music speaks repeatedly of suicide, pain, and sadness. He delivered even his prettiest songs with an underlying but undeniable anger. And as Schultz pored over Elliott’s songs—including numerous early drafts that Elliott reworked after finding the lyrics too revealing—to puzzle out Elliott’s central issue, the demon he found lurking between the lines was Charlie.

Schultz wrangles with the full nature and extent of Charlie’s mistreatment of Elliott throughout the book. In a letter written after Elliott had moved from Dallas to Portland, Charlie confessed that he’d been too harsh in his dealings with Elliott; he blamed his inexperience and his quick temper. He apologized and claimed he had since changed. Despite the veiled references in his songs, Elliott rarely spoke about Charlie in interviews. Even with friends, he seemed to have steered clear of specific stories of abuse. Something happened—that’s all most people knew.

The book’s trickiest part comes at the end. During the last months of his life, Elliott stopped taking all or almost all of the drugs, legal and otherwise, that had destroyed a good deal of his life for a couple of terrible years. In this “precariously drug-free state,” having read a book about the sexual abuse of young boys, he “decided—or suspected, or intuited, it’s impossible to say—that he, too, might have been sexually abused.” Schultz is quick to point out that, because of Elliott’s generally fragile state of mind, “there seemed to be little way of knowing, with certainty, whether this was a false or a true memory.”

Elliott eventually settled on Charlie as his tormentor and, in a phone call to Texas, confronted his mother with the accusation. Charlie denied any molestation, going so far as to write Elliott another letter (similar to the apology he’d written years earlier), owning up once again to his “deficiencies as a father.” But in Schultz’s judgment, there’s something funny about the wording: Charlie “asserts pointedly that he’s never had any urges to sexually abuse anyone, ever. Charlie does not say ‘I never sexually abused you, Elliott.’ Instead he denies even the slightest thought of such behavior.” An interesting observation, certainly, but Schultz presents scant empirical support for Elliott’s conviction that Charlie was his abuser. To be fair, Schultz never asserts outright that Charlie was guilty—still, his implication is clear, and unsupported by any real evidence. This stands as a singular misstep in an otherwise evenhanded and generous biography. Regardless, the letter arrived the day Elliott died. He never saw it.

That final, abortive overture toward something approaching a moment of closure seems sadly fitting. In Elliott’s case, all the complicated diagnoses and measured speculations ultimately leave the reader in a simple place: wishing for what might have been. If the brain chemistry had been medicated appropriately, or the childhood traumas had been worked through in therapy—or, better yet, never happened at all—Elliott might have been spared his ghastly end. As it stands, Schultz’s richly realized narrative leaves us with a deep sense of loss. The world was better with Elliott in it: one man, sitting in front of a muted television, playing an impossible melody on a beat-up guitar. I believe Schultz when he writes that “Elliott was very deeply loved, by many, many people.” His friends found in him a sturdily loyal and loving source of support. His fans found in his work a deep intelligence paired with a supernatural musicality—affirming his art, justly, as rare genius. And as Schultz goes on to observe, “the largest mystery of all is why he so often could not believe that. He knew it, it was obvious, he heard what people told him about how much they cared, but there was also a gnawing sense of worthlessness he never quite managed to rise above. Others valued his life with enormous displays of affection. He didn’t.”

Thankfully, Elliott’s music still permits fans to register the unique value of his legacy. Torment Saint adds a fresh dimension to that great gift by allowing readers to appreciate both Elliott’s otherworldly art and his all-too-worldly life.

Rhett Miller has released nine studio albums as the front man for the band Old 97's and five as a solo artist. His song "The Believer," from the solo album of the same name, is a tribute to the memory of Elliott Smith. He is also involved with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK).

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