The late, great and much missed Elliott Smith in concert tonight. Recorded live for posterity at The Fuji Music Festival 2000 on July 28, 2000.
Steven Paul “Elliott” Smith was an American singer, songwriter, and musician. Smith was born in Omaha, Nebraska, raised primarily in Texas, and lived for much of his life in Portland, Oregon, where he first gained popularity. Smith’s primary instrument was the guitar, though he was also proficient with piano, clarinet, bass guitar, drums, and harmonica. Smith had a distinctive vocal style, characterized by his “whispery, spiderweb-thin delivery”, and used multi-tracking to create vocal layers, textures, and harmonies.
After playing in the rock band Heatmiser for several years, Smith began his solo career in 1994, with releases on the independent record labels Cavity Search and Kill Rock Stars (KRS). In 1997, he signed a contract with DreamWorks Records, for which he recorded two albums. Smith rose to mainstream prominence when his song “Miss Misery”—included in the soundtrack for the film Good Will Hunting (1997)—was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Original Song category in 1998.
Smith had trouble with alcohol and other drugs throughout his life, while suffering from depression, and these topics often appear in his lyrics. In 2003, aged 34, he died in Los Angeles, California, from two stab wounds to the chest. The autopsy evidence was inconclusive as to whether the wounds were self-inflicted or the result of homicide. At the time of his death, Smith was working on his sixth studio album, From a Basement on the Hill, which was posthumously completed and released in 2004.
Around the time he began recording his final album, Smith began to display signs of paranoia, often believing that a white van followed him wherever he went. He would have friends drop him off for recording sessions almost a mile away from the studio, and to reach the location, he would trudge through hundreds of yards of brush and cliffs. He started telling people that DreamWorks was out to get him: “Not long ago my house was broken into, and songs were stolen off my computer which have wound up in the hands of certain people who work at a certain label. I’ve also been followed around for months at a time. I wouldn’t even want to necessarily say it’s the people from that label who are following me around, but it was probably them who broke into my house.” During this period, Smith hardly ate, subsisting primarily on ice cream. He would go without sleeping for several days and then sleep for an entire day.
A follow-up to Smith’s 2000 album was originally planned to happen with Rob Schnapf, but their sessions were abandoned. Smith also began distancing himself from manager Margaret Mittleman, who had handled him since the Roman Candle days. He finally began recording a new album with only himself and Jon Brion as producers sometime during 2001. The pair had recorded a substantial amount of music for the album when Brion confronted Smith about his drug and alcohol abuse. Their friendship promptly ended, and Smith scrapped all of their work until that point. He later said “There was even a little more than half of a record done before this new one that I just scrapped because of a blown friendship with someone that made me so depressed I didn’t want to hear any of those songs. He was just helping me record the songs and stuff, and then the friendship kind of fell apart all of a sudden one day. It just made it kind of awkward being alone in the car listening to the songs.”
When Brion sent a bill for the abandoned sessions to DreamWorks, executives Lenny Waronker and Luke Wood scheduled a meeting with Smith to determine what went wrong with the sessions. The singer complained of intrusion upon his personal life from the label, as well as poor promotion for the Figure 8 album. The talks proved to be fruitless, and soon after, Smith sent a message to the executives, stating that if they did not release him from his contract, he would take his own life. In May 2001, Smith set out to re-record the album, mostly on his own, but with some help from David McConnell of Goldenboy. McConnell told Spin that, during this time, Smith would smoke over $1,500 worth of heroin and crack per day, would often talk about suicide, and on numerous occasions tried to give himself an overdose. Steven Drozd of The Flaming Lips and Scott McPherson of Sense Field played a few drum tracks, Sam Coomes contributed some bass guitar and backing vocals, but almost every other instrument was recorded by Smith.
Smith’s song “Needle in the Hay” was included in Wes Anderson’s 2001 dark comedy film The Royal Tenenbaums during a suicide attempt scene. Smith was originally supposed to contribute a cover of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” for the film, but when he failed to do so in time, Anderson had to use The Mutato Muzika Orchestra’s version of the track instead. Anderson would later say that Smith “was in a bad state” at the time.
Smith’s live performances during 2001 and 2002 were infrequent, typically in the Pacific Northwest or Los Angeles. A review of his December 20, 2001 show at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom expressed concern over his appearance and performance: his hair was uncharacteristically greasy and long, his face was bearded and gaunt, and during his songs he exhibited alarming signs of “memory-loss and butterfingers”. At another performance in San Francisco that month, the audience began shouting out lyrics when Smith could not remember them.
In the first of only three concerts performed in 2002, Smith co-headlined Northwestern University’s A&O Ball with Wilco on May 2 in Chicago. He was onstage for nearly an hour but failed to complete half of the songs. He claimed that his poor performance was due to his left hand having fallen asleep and told the audience it felt “like having stuff on your hand and you can’t get it off”. Smith’s performance was reviewed as “undoubtedly one of the worst performances ever by a musician” and an “excruciating nightmare”.A reporter for the online magazine Glorious Noise wrote, “It would not surprise me at all if Elliott Smith ends up dead within a year.”
On November 25, 2002, Elliott Smith was involved in a brawl with the Los Angeles Police Department at a concert where The Flaming Lips and Beck were performing. Smith later said he was defending a man he thought the police were harassing. The officers allegedly beat and arrested him and Chiba. The two spent the night in jail. Smith’s back was injured in the incident, causing him to cancel a number of shows. Wayne Coyne, lead singer of The Flaming Lips and a friend of Smith’s, stated concern over Smith’s appearance and actions, saying that he “saw a guy who had lost control of himself. He was needy, he was grumpy, he was everything you wouldn’t want in a person. It’s not like when you think of Keith Richards being pleasantly blissed out in the corner.”
Elliott Smith died on October 21, 2003 at the age of 34 from two stab wounds to the chest. At the time of the stabbing, he was at his Lemoyne Street home in Echo Park, California, where he lived with his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba. According to Chiba, the two were arguing, and she locked herself in the bathroom to take a shower.Chiba heard him scream and upon opening the door saw Smith standing with a knife in his chest. She pulled the knife out, after which he collapsed and she called 9-1-1 at 12:18 p.m. Smith died in the hospital with the time of death listed as 1:36 p.m.
A possible suicide note, written on a Post-it note, read: “I’m so sorry—love, Elliott. God forgive me.” The name “Elliott” is misspelled as “Elliot” in the coroner’s report of the note, but not on the Post-it. While Smith’s death was reported as a suicide, the official autopsy report released in December 2003 left open the question of homicide.
According to Pitchfork, record producer Larry Crane reported on his Tape Op message board that he had planned to help Smith mix his album in mid-November. Crane wrote, “I hadn’t talked to Elliott in over a year. His girlfriend, Jennifer, called me [last week] and asked if I’d like to come to L.A. and help mix and finish [Smith’s album]. I said ‘yes, of course’, and chatted with Elliott for the first time in ages. It seems surreal that he would call me to finish an album and then a week later kill himself. I talked to Jennifer this morning, who was obviously shattered and in tears, and she said, ‘I don’t understand, he was so healthy.'”
The coroner reported that no traces of illegal substances or alcohol were found in Smith’s system at the time of his death but did find prescribed levels of antidepressant, anxiolytic, and ADHD medications, including clonazepam, mirtazapine, atomoxetine, and amphetamine. There were no hesitation wounds, which are typical of suicide by self-infliction. However, the authorities do not seem to be investigating the case further.
And as a reminder – here he is at Fuji Rock 2000 – crank it up and raise a toast.