Ashes on Everything

Finally, on the seventh day after his passing, for the first time during the three months I had been in Los Angeles, the skies cracked open and a real rain rinsed the ashes off everything. On my way to work I drove by the sidewalk memorial and saw kids pouring the water out of all the candles, relighting them and rearranging photos. Some of them were actually smiling.

Talking with them, I got a sense that a lot of people in the Silverlake/Echo Park neighborhood actually saw his suicide coming. A few months earlier Elliott Smith was slated as the headliner at the yearly Silverlake Street Festival. (Kind of like our Fry Street Fair.) During the course of his show, he broke down altogether. He was mumbling and incoherent, his guitar playing was sloppy and uninspired, and it was all he could do just to finish a song. Some folks just walked away from the stage area. They'd rather leave than watch their Elliott Smith self-destruct before their eyes.

His desire for alcohol and heroin had stolen his soul, his voice, his gift. He was far too fragile, way too delicate to navigate reasonably through that kind of serious addiction. In his song "LA," he warned us that "Last night I was about to throw it all away." In hindsight, that wasn't really a metaphor for a relationship. "Last night" had become every night. The daily routine of borrowing life from death had become this confounding and insurmountable debt that crushed his spirit and soul.

He was loved by everyone he met, and he had friends all over the world. Smith was the sweetest man in Silverlake, but like he said in his songs, his enemy was within. He had to have understood what he was getting into. A lot of times it boils down to some weird inner justification. Does an addict essentially sacrifice old age just to feel good now? Was the daily grind and maintenance of self-medication worth laying down guitar, pen and paper? Or did this gifted musician need this rented bliss to provoke the muse?

Maybe Smith simply knew something that we don't. Are we wrong to assume he was unhappy when he died? Are we selfishly reacting to the fact that we're being "deprived" of what could have been an amazing body of work over the course of his life? Still, I catch myself doing it all the time.

In November I came back to Dallas for the Thanksgiving holiday. A group of kids had organized a memorial for Smith at Bill's Records, where a dozen or so people showed up. We introduced ourselves to each other, listened to his records over and over again and then wrote personal goodbye remembrances to him with a black Sharpie on the back wall of the store. Like some kind of improvised intimate grief therapy support group, we each took turns talking about our favorite Elliott Smith songs, how we had each discovered his music, how certain songs of his tended to describe or relate to similar things that were going on in our own lives.

One of those people attending that afternoon was Smith's grandfather, 85-year-old Bill Berryman. A lot of people don't realize that Smith grew up here, in a single-parent household in Duncanville. His grandfather is a professional marimba player--even at his age, he's still a working musician with regular gigs. For an hour or so, Berryman told us stories about how Smith was a prodigy on guitar and piano by the age of 9, how he struggled with garage bands here during his teenage years and then how, out of sheer frustration, he moved to Portland, Oregon, to eventually play in the band Heatmiser.

He also spoke of Smith's favorite day job, working early in the morning at a bakery. About how much he loved the solitude and simplicity of creating a single loaf of bread. His grandfather's eyes sort of glazed over as he told a story of a camping trip they went on when Smith was a teenager. A pack of wild raccoons tried to steal some of their food, and Berryman ran out into the woods with a rifle looking for the raccoons to try and either frighten or kill them. When he got back a few minutes later, Smith was sitting by the campfire feeding potato chips to one of the raccoons by hand. "That's what kind of person he was. He wasn't about to harm or injure any living thing. He loved everything and everyone."

Tears welled up in Bill Berryman's eyes as he spoke of watching his grandson play his first sold-out solo show at Trees a few years back. Elliott Smith had returned home and showed us all what he was really made of. "Yeah, a lot of people were surprised to see an 80-year-old man hanging out at a big rock concert in the middle of the night, but I was just so proud of him. I wasn't going to miss it for anything in the world."

You could tell by the look on his face that he was just starting to come to terms with the fact that Smith was never coming back, that all of the trappings that often come with success in the music business had taken his grandson before it was his own time to go. He had walked into that record store with a big smile on his face, happy to be there, not really knowing what to expect, pleased to meet the fans who had turned up to pay their last respects.

And as we stood there at the front counter of the last dusty, dirty record store in our city, sharing a cigarette with the owner who has smoked five packs a day for the last 40 years, the two Bills looked around and saw the same thing that I had seen that morning in Echo Park--there were smoke and ashes all over everything.

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Jeff Liles

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