Mr. Misery

Elliott Smith officially becomes his generation's Nick Drake

It was one of my best stories at parties and such, a great icebreaker, sure to get a laugh. It was May 5, 2000, and I'd just seen Elliott Smith perform at Trees. He was touring behind his fifth and latest album, that year's Figure 8, and the show couldn't have gone any better. I'd heard all of Smith's albums but had never seen him before; it was a perfect introduction, like seeing George Harrison in his All Things Must Pass-prime. But that wasn't the highlight of my night.

Not long after the show, I stepped outside to talk to some friends. That's when it happened. At first, it seemed like a mirage, or a direct result of a night's worth of tippling at any rate. Because it couldn't be real, right? The guy in the backward red baseball cap heading toward Trees couldn't be Robbie Van Winkle, better known as Vanilla Ice, walking into the aftermath of an Elliott Smith gig. Just seemed so strange. But it was.

For some reason, his presence excited me to the point that I put him in a headlock and began dragging him around to people I knew, introducing him as "my boy Robbie." All the while, I kept cranking up the tension on the aforementioned headlock. He didn't seem terribly happy about the turn of events, but I was. And like I said before, this is a guaranteed gut-buster, comedy gold no matter where I go.

Or it was, at least, until October 22. That's when I found out Smith had committed suicide the night before at age 34, stabbing himself in the chest with a knife. He was but a minor detail in the above anecdote, but whatever. Like Morrissey said, that joke isn't funny anymore.

That Smith killed himself shouldn't come as a shock to anyone; he merely came to the end of a road he'd been walking for years. If anything about his death is surprising, it's that a needle or a bottle didn't beat him to the punch. Smith's struggles with heroin addiction and alcoholism were well documented, especially by the man himself. They were often the subjects of his songs, along with a deeply rooted depression that began in his teens.

That depression may have even started in Dallas. Born Steven Paul Smith in Nebraska (he started going by Elliott in middle school), he spent most of his childhood and early teens living in the suburbs here with his mother, a singer. He moved to Portland in high school to live with his father, a psychiatrist, and he always had a problem coming back to town on tour, thanks to some particularly bad classmates who got into his head and stuck around. It would be difficult to claim him as one of our own, because he certainly wouldn't want to be remembered as such.

But he will be remembered. His albums--1994's Roman Candle, 1995's Elliott Smith, 1997's Either/Or, 1998's XO and Figure 8--can now be shelved next to his most obvious peer, the late Nick Drake, who also took his own life at an early age. In fact, like Drake, Smith likely will be remembered more in death than he was in life.

Of course, Smith did have a brief brush with fame when his songs appeared in Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting and one of them, "Miss Misery," was nominated for an Oscar. That was about as much notoriety as Smith could stand. When he performed at the Academy Awards telecast, dressed in a white suit, he looked so nervous you could practically feel him shaking through the screen. He was a singer-songwriter, never meant to be a star.

But like Drake and Jeff Buckley, he is likely to become one now that he's not around to protest. Smith was working on a sixth album, From a Basement on a Hill, at the time of his death, and several of the recordings are floating around on the Internet. I'd be surprised if the disc isn't in stores early next year, which, if the song titles are any indication, will be akin to releasing his suicide note. "Strung Out Again," "Let's Get Lost" and "Fond Farewell" are the most obvious, and the lyrics say even more: "Give me one reason not to do it," he sings on "King's Crossing." Apparently, no one could meet his demand.

 
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