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Yeah, I jumped off a cliff, but let's talk about something else," Elliott Smith told me in1997. It was shortly after the release of his breakthrough album on Kill Rock Stars, Either/Or, and Smith had recently attempted suicide by throwing himself off a cliff, suffering only minor injuries.
Long before Tuesday, October 21, the day Smith finally succeeded in killing himself, his friends and family had been all too aware of his predilection for self-abuse. Still, when the first reports of his suicide started appearing, I was incredulous, like it was too obvious a rumor to be true.
"I think he always had that button in there," Pete Krebs, a Portland, Oregon, singer-songwriter and longtime friend of Smith's, said last week after hearing of his death. "That kind of self-destruction definitely accounted for his alcoholism and his drug use and the way he treated himself, the way he thought of himself. I can't say that I've met anybody quite as fragile and almost comically freaked-out as Elliott."
Krebs, formerly of the band Hazel, was on tour with Smith when I first interviewed the latter in 1997. But when I spoke with Krebs two days after Smith's death, he told me that like many of the singer's friends from the Pacific Northwest, he hadn't seen Smith in a few years.
"A lot of his really close old friends wouldn't hear from him for months, years at a time. It wasn't him being a rock star, or being too busy -- Elliott kind of always had this aspect to him that was just crawling out of his own skin."
Smith launched his musical career in Portland in the early '90s, playing in the band Heatmiser before recording his first solo LP, Roman Candle, for the tiny Cavity Search label. Even then, he suffered from major depression, which was manifested gracefully on his finger-picked, soft melodies. "In Portland, we got the brunt of Elliott's initial depression," Krebs says. "We saw that a long time ago. Lots of people have stories of their own experiences of staying up with Elliott till five in the morning, holding his hand, telling him not to kill himself.
"I don't think that anybody was really surprised, to be honest, that knew him from around here. If there's anything that people are freaked out about, or affected by, it's definitely the brutality of his act." Smith died at an L.A. hospital after committing a poet's version of seppuku, stabbing himself in the heart with a knife.
Former Heatmiser bandmate Sam Coomes sang on his group Quasi's 1998 album Featuring Birds: "I'm not trying to document my suicide/You won't live long, but you may write the perfect song/Please excuse those who choose not to play along" (from "The Poisoned Well"). It was a not-so-subtle barb directed at Smith, with whom Quasi would later tour extensively, even playing as his backup band.
When I met Smith, he came across as gentle and fragile, speaking softly and slowly, pondering each question before he replied. After his in-store performance at Stinkweeds Records in Tempe, Arizona, he accepted an invitation to continue drinking beer at my house. There were six other people present, one who brought an acoustic guitar, leading Smith to start a round robin of songs -- though no one especially cared to compare their talents to his. He played our favorites from Either/Or, covers of Neil Young and Hank Williams songs, and obscurities like "I Figured You Out," a song he wrote but never recorded, though Boston busker Mary Lou Lord had released a version of it earlier that year. Offhandedly, he told us that Lord, who had unsuccessfully pursued a romance with him, had told him he was the next Kurt Cobain, another tragic musician with whom she had a fling. Though Smith laughed it off as ridiculous, the comparison seems prophetic now.
At the time, Portland director Gus Van Sant was incorporating songs from Either/Or into his new film, Good Will Hunting. Smith recorded one new song, "Miss Misery," for the movie, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Song, a category he shared with Titanic diva Celine Dion. Less than a year after he had been drinking beer on my porch at 3 a.m., he would be playing for millions of people on network TV. We spoke on the phone shortly before the televised ceremony and joked about Dion pulling a Tonya Harding on him to secure the award for herself. "Yeah, some big thug guy that's abusive to her beats me with a monkey wrench to the throat, then breaks my fingers...you never know."
Smith appeared at the Academy Awards sporting a blinding white Prada tuxedo, as if to emphasize how out of place he was. His soft, intense (though abridged for brevity by the Academy) version of "Miss Misery" was one of the most intense and elegant performances the awards gala has ever hosted, his singing barely above a whisper. Afterward, Smith returned to the stage with Dion, uncomfortably holding her hand while they took a bow.
Smith had moved to Brooklyn in mid-1997 to escape the hurtful memories of a broken relationship he had left behind in Portland. In 1999 he relocated to Los Angeles, where he recorded his last full-length album, Figure 8. Speculation was rampant the past few years that Smith had sunk into a pit of despair, alcoholism and drug abuse. His shows were erratic; he would forget or mumble lyrics, often stopping songs halfway through.