Elliott Smith: All Things Must Pass

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Elliott Smith, 34, died on Oct. 21, 2003. He is survived by a private history, his personal demons, questions about his death and some songs that make sense of it all. By Jonathan Valania

Something terrible happened on the night of Oct. 21, 2003, in the cozy, box-like bungalow at 1857 1/2 Lemoyne Street in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles where Elliott Smith lived with girlfriend Jennifer Chiba. In Chiba’s version of events, the couple had an argument that grew so heated she locked herself in the bathroom. At some point, she heard Smith scream and unlocked the door to see him standing with his back to her. When he turned around, there was a knife sticking out of his chest and he was gasping for breath. Panicked, Chiba pulled the knife out of him, and Smith turned and took a few steps before collapsing. Chiba called 911, and an operator talked her through CPR until the paramedics arrived. Smith was rushed to a nearby hospital, where emergency surgery to repair the two stab wounds to the heart couldn’t save his life.

Back at the house, police found a note written on a Post-It:
I’m so sorry.
Love, Elliott
God forgive me.

When the coroner’s report was finally issued in January 2004, the nature of Smith’s death was maddeningly ambiguous. While the circumstances of the case had most of the hallmarks of a suicide, certain factors also pointed to the possibility of a homicide: the absence of hesitation wounds (the nicks and cuts that come from tentative initial attempts to stab yourself), the fact that Smith didn’t remove his shirt before stabbing himself, a pair of cuts on his hand and arm that could’ve been defensive wounds incurred while fighting off an attacker. There’s also Chiba’s removal of the knife and what police characterize as her refusal to cooperate with investigators, all of which leaves the precise nature of Smith’s death in limbo. Chiba has since refuted police reports that she didn’t cooperate, but the case remains officially open and under investigation.

I don’t pretend to have known Elliott Smith, but I spent about a week with him on the road and at his home when I was profiling him for a MAGNET cover story four years ago. At the tail end of a tour in support of 2000’s Figure 8, he looked tired and thin. His long hair, unwashed for days, framed his ravaged face. I wrote that he looked like Christ after three days on the cross. A bit dramatic, perhaps, but no less accurate. He played me a new song he’d just recorded. The irony of the title is tragic bordering on the grotesque. He told me it was called “A Dying Man In A Living Room,” but it would eventually turn up on 2004’s posthumous From A Basement On The Hill (Anti-) with the title “A Fond Farewell.”

Smith’s childhood was rough, a fact underscored by his unwillingness to talk about it. “There’s not much I could say about that time that I would like to see in print,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to remind any of the people involved of that time.”

Smith’s parents split when he was a year and a half; he grew up with his mother and stepfather in the suburbs of Dallas, where he was preyed upon by schoolyard bullies and, later, hassled by the police. He left Texas when he was 14 to live with his father in Portland, Ore., claiming he feared for his mother’s safety. In the last few years of his life, he confessed to close friends that he was tormented by vague memories of sexual abuse back in Dallas. Shortly before he died, Smith established a charity for abused children to which he planned to funnel all the royalties from Basement On The Hill. (In the wake of his death, his family has since softened the name from the Elliott Smith Fund for Abused Children to the Elliott Smith Memorial Fund.)

In his early 20s, during the flannel glory days of the early-’90s Pacific Northwest, Smith played guitar in a Portland grunge outfit called Heatmiser. After three albums, he quit the band because, he often said, when you grow up around a lot of yelling and screaming, the last thing you want to do is be in a band where everyone’s yelling and screaming. He struck out on his own, making music that was the polar opposite of grunge: delicately acoustic, painfully introspective, full of flickering-candle reverie and blurred visions of personal disintegration, betrayal and heartbreak. With each album, his audience grew, swelling with legions of crushed romantics, the desperately lonely and the clinically sad.

Yet even as Smith’s profile rose—in 1998 he was nominated for an Academy Award for “Miss Misery,” from Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting—he was collapsing inside. He seesawed up and down between drug use and alcoholism, full-blown depression and tenuous recovery. Friends staged interventions. There were hospitalizations. At some point, he told me, aided by Paxil, he simply willed himself back into the light with this personal mantra: Things are going to work out, and I am never going to stop insisting that things are going to work out. On the last day I spent with Smith, we sat outside his bungalow, tucked away in a leafy section of Silver Lake. I asked him a lot of pretentious, big-picture questions about love and death and God. At one point, I asked him if he thought suicide was courageous or cowardly.

“It’s ugly and cruel and I really need my friends to stick around, but dying people should have that right,” he said. “I was hospitalized for a while and I didn’t have that option, and it made me feel even crazier. But I prefer not to appear as some kind of disturbed person. I think a lot of people try to get mileage out of it, like, ‘I’m a tortured artist’ or something. I’m not a tortured artist, and there’s nothing really wrong with me. I just had a bad time for a while.”

From A Basement On The Hill isn’t the last will and testament of Elliott Smith. Alas, that is unknowable, hidden behind a protective wall of silence erected by his family and friends. To try and scale it is a fool’s errand; take it from someone who was fool enough to care and crass enough to try. The true facts of his life are beyond our privilege, beyond our right to know, perhaps correctly so. Maybe that will be one of Smith’s legacies: that the integrity with which he created his art and the decency with which he treated those around him will forever guard the purity of his memory.

There are, however, a chosen few who got a glimpse of the closest thing we have to Smith’s last will and testament: the songs in his heart during the final years of his life. Their names are Rob Schnapf, Jon Brion and David McConnell. All three are producers who worked with Smith on the songs that would be released as From A Basement On The Hill. Only two of them would speak with MAGNET, and only one of them would go into much detail about what he knows, what he saw and how he feels about it all. The portrait of Smith that emerges here is woefully incomplete but, on its own terms, is no less legitimate than the vow of silence his friends and family have taken.

In the years since I spent time with Smith, I’d heard discouraging things: that he had fallen off the wagon hard. That he had graduated from heroin to crack. That his manager Margaret Mittelman, widely seen as one of the pillars of his stability, had given up on him and moved on. That he had stopped working with Mittelman’s husband, Rob Schnapf, the man who polished to a high shine the gilded folk/rock of Smith’s last couple albums. That his performances had devolved into trainwrecks. That his record company, DreamWorks, passed on the follow-up to Figure 8.

In early 2001, after his break with Schnapf, Smith began recording with Jon Brion, a singer/songwriter noted for his distinctive soundtrack work, his Friday-night residency at L.A.’s Largo club and his encyclopedic knowledge of vintage recording gear and Beatlesque recording techniques. To anyone following the careers of Smith and Brion, it seemed like an ideal match. But a month into the recording session, they parted ways, reportedly over Smith’s increasingly debilitating drug use. (Brion declined to speak with MAGNET about Smith.)

The basement referenced in the title of Smith’s album is located at the bottom of a pricey, split-level house perched on a hill in Malibu that overlooks the glittering blue Pacific. It’s the home of Satellite Park studio, to which a friend directed Smith after his falling out with Brion. The studio is run by David McConnell, a lean and pale 29-year-old songwriter and engineer best known for recording L.A. pop band Goldenboy. McConnell lives at Satellite Park with girlfriend Josie Cotton, who had a new-wave novelty hit in the early ‘80s with “Johnny Are You Queer?”

McConnell hasn’t gone out of his way to court media attention, but if you go out to Malibu and make your way up the steep, winding canyons and knock on the door, he might invite you in for lunch and answer your questions. The house is immaculate, bathed in the white light of Southern California sun and charmingly appointed with tiki-culture totems and a matching leopard-skin rug and couch where Smith would sleep when he was recording here, when he bothered to sleep at all.

McConnell remembers Smith and Chiba showing up at Satellite Park in the middle of the night in April 2001, several hours after Smith and McConnell had agreed to meet. Smith took a look around and apparently liked what he saw.

“Can we get started?” Smith asked.

“Right now?” McConnell responded wearily. “Yeah, I guess so.”

That night, Smith and McConnell began a sometimes stormy two-year creative partnership that blossomed into a tight friendship. The recording sessions were alternately stoked and slowed by a cornucopia of cocaine, crack, speed and heroin—always snorted, never injected, according to McConnell—not to mention the dozen or so prescription meds Smith took regularly. The two established a gonzo pace of working on songs until they were completed, often staying up for four or five days in a row. Smith rarely ate anything other than the hundreds of dollars’ worth of ice cream he kept in the freezer.

“I remember one drunken night, we posed for a picture in front of this pyramid he made out of all his prescription bottles,” says McConnell. “Elliott had all these medical manuals, and he loved studying and discussing his meds: Klonopin, Adderall, antidepressants, anti-psychotics. It was crazy. One drug would cancel out the other … Some mornings he would tell me he tried to OD the night before but it didn’t work somehow. He tried to kill himself that way at least 10 times, but it didn’t work. Or at least that’s what he wanted me to believe.”

McConnell set up mics all over the house so that whenever the inspiration would strike, he could get Smith on tape before he drifted into incoherence. “We would just sit around sometimes and do nothing but talk for 12 hours at a time,” says McConnell. “You know, the more you tell somebody like Elliott not to do drugs, the more he wants to do them, so I never tried to drag him into a 12-step program, but I would try to talk to him about it. Ultimately, I thought it was more helpful just to be there as a friend and support him even in his darkest hours. I think he appreciated that, and he shared things with me that I don’t think he shared with anyone. He would go through these periods where he would be really depressed about his childhood, and he would tell me that he thought he might have been sexually abused by his stepfather but he couldn’t remember for sure, that he must have blocked it out and that he wanted to talk to his mother about it to see if she could remember anything. It was really sad. It broke my heart to hear that.”

His grasp of reality loosened by his near-constant narcotic intake and the vague abuse memories that tormented him, Smith grew increasingly paranoid. He was convinced he was being tailed by white vans. “I was seeing them, too,” says McConnell. “There were a lot of white vans when we were out or driving around.” To throw the white vans off his trail, Smith would often have whoever gave him a ride to Malibu drop him off at the bottom of the canyon. He would then scale the steep hill leading up to the house, hiking hundreds of yards through snake-infested thorn patches and scrub brush.

McConnell routinely fielded calls from Smith’s financial advisors, who were alarmed at how quickly Smith was burning through his considerable earnings from touring and soundtrack work. “When I met him, he had hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says McConnell. “By the end, he didn’t have much left.”

McConnell convinced Smith he should invest his money in building his own recording studio instead of just blowing it on dope. With the recordings for From A Basement On The Hill nearly completed (upward of 30 songs were in the can for a planned double album), the sessions were put on hold while Smith and McConnell started building what would become known as New Monkey studio. Located in an office complex in the San Fernando Valley, New Monkey was outfitted with, by McConnell’s estimate, $150,000 worth of vintage gear in various states of disrepair. Smith spent months on end trying to solder the recording console into working order, only to have it break down time and again. “It was just chaos, wires everywhere,” says McConnell. “I couldn’t take it after a while. I had to get out or I was gonna be in the same boat as him, so I went out on tour with Goldenboy.”

Eventually, Smith got New Monkey up and running and resumed working on From A Basement On The Hill without McConnell. The last time McConnell and Smith were together was in November 2002 at a Beck/Flaming Lips concert in L.A. At the show, Smith got into a fight with a cop and was hauled off to jail. “I never met anybody who hated cops more than Elliott,” says McConnell. “To hear him talk, you would have thought he was a gangsta rapper. We were standing in the beer line, and there was this cop fucking with these kids. Elliott sees this and started walking over to the cop, and I thought, ‘Oh, shit, here we go. Somebody’s gonna have to bail him out.’ Elliott just basically started fighting the guy, throwing punches. The cop was twice his size, but Elliott hit him so many times that he almost had him falling over. Then the cop pulled out some pepper spray and got Elliott on the ground and started handcuffing him. Elliott was still kicking and screaming, and I went up to him and said, ‘Elliott, it’s David. I know you can’t see me, but just stop. You put up a good fight, but you’re going to jail.’ He sort of calmed down at that point, and they dragged him off.”

When Smith first showed up at Satellite Park, he brought along the reels of tape from the sessions with Brion. Despondent over what he characterized as a “blown friendship” with Brion, Smith wanted to abandon the songs and erase the tapes. McConnell thought better of it, and when Smith wasn’t around, he went through the tapes looking for something that could be salvaged. Most of it was unusable—take after take of songs half-finished or marred by muffed drum or vocal parts—but there was one song that stopped McConnell in his tracks. It’s called “A Heart Is A Rose.” McConnell plays it for me. The song is a stoned-in-Laurel-Canyon waltz that wouldn’t sound out of place on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo but for the warbling psychedelic keyboard texture in the background and Smith’s brutal drugs-as-lover metaphors. It swells with the woozy, dark-horse swoon of his best work, and you can hear the pain and weariness in Smith’s cracking voice as it strives to hit a final high note.

McConnell pushes the stop button and turns away, trying to hide the fact he’s wiping a tear from his eye.

“Wow, how do you listen to that?” I ask.

“I don’t,” says McConnell.

At my request, McConnell pulls out two pages from Smith’s dream journal. “He’d always say things like, ‘Dude, I don’t know how much longer I’m gonna be alive. You better hold on to this,’” says McConnell, handing over two pieces of black construction paper, torn from a notepad and inscribed with white ink. On the pages, Smith recounts a surreal nightmare and interprets it as a sign that it’s finally time that he get clean and sober:

Started with me thinking if I could I’d beat myself up. Why, Valerie? I don’t know. “Ya don’t believe in violence.” Yes I do in some situations. I’d want to kick my own ass for treating me so badly. Must never buy coke again (only Pepsi). Understood last night’s dream to mean if I didn’t have a clear mind, I’ll be put into a decision I won’t know how to make between drives, drugs, music and connection to people, love, or only recreational use, but probably can’t use recreationally any more. Must separate drug use from escaping my past and/or stupid “I don’t remember what happened” saddened self.

In the dream a big Titanic-type ship, painted sky blue everywhere, was stretching, pulling apart, seemingly pulling itself apart, without tearing, just kept stretching, 3 smokestacks, movie-like edit to me scraping the black, moldy, fungus-infected, ruined, burned parts of my own brain with a table fork. Horrendous! This is easy to read, but it’s been a long time, maybe years, since I’ve thought of and lived over and over, all day, a nightmare.

In August 2002, Smith checked himself into the Neurotransmitter Restoration Center in Beverly Hills. The dubious facility, headed by the ironically named Dr. Hitt—who had run afoul of medical authorities in Texas and Tijuana for, among other things, misrepresenting himself as a licensed M.D. and treating AIDS patients with injections of urine—prescribed a weeks-long regimen that involved an intravenous drip of saline and amino acids. The Center’s unconventional method is supposed to repair the neural transmitters of a brain ravaged by years of substance abuse. Despite Hitt’s tarnished reputation, the treatment apparently worked, and Smith spent the next year more or less drug-free.

When Smith died, he left behind hours and hours of recorded music in various states of completion and very little documentation to explain the origins of the recordings or his intentions for them. Around Christmas 2003, Smith’s family contacted Rob Schnapf and Joanna Bolme (Smith’s girlfriend from his days in Portland, who currently plays bass in Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks) about fashioning an album out of the reels of recording tape Smith had left behind. McConnell was initially included in the proceedings but eventually bowed out, citing too many cooks in the kitchen. Says McConnell, “After a while, I took the family aside and said, ‘You guys don’t really seem to need my help, but I just want you to know that I know how Elliott wanted the record to be mixed and sequenced. Give me a call when you get things sorted out, and I will help you out free of charge.’ They never called me. Very strange.”

Schnapf and Bolme gathered more than 50 unreleased songs, some dating back to sessions for 1997’s Either/Or, and put them on CD-Rs for Smith’s father Gary, his mother Bunny and his half sister Ashley to listen to. Tracking the origins of these recordings—the studio, the engineers, the players—proved nearly impossible. “Elliott recorded in many different places over a few years,” says Bolme. “Sometimes he would start a song with someone and finish it somewhere else. Sometimes the tapes we worked with were labeled one way but were obviously a different version, maybe the basic tracks from another tape with overdubs. He kept horrible records, and he lost contact with most of the people he had worked with.”

After everyone had a few months to live with the pool of unreleased tracks, they decided by committee what should go on the album, with the family having final veto power. Says Schnapf, “I kept saying to myself, ‘Is this what he wanted? I hope we are doing right by him.’ We were very honest and respectful of what was on tape. But in the end, Elliott needed to be there, because only he knew for sure what he wanted.”

Luke Wood, who was Smith’s A&R rep at DreamWorks, says Smith was constantly revising his songs up until the last possible moment: “He would write four or five different sets of lyrics for each song and revise a pronoun eight or nine times before he was satisfied. You know, for a time he felt that half of Either/Or wasn’t worth putting out. There is no ‘right’ answer for how Basement should be.”

From A Basement On The Hill isn’t the record Smith envisioned while working at Satellite Park: the 30-song double album that morphs from exquisite melodic order into sustained chaos, mirroring his own disintegration. What Schnapf, Bolme and Smith’s family have come up with is a collection of the strongest and most finished material Smith left behind. Yet some who were close to Smith near the end of his life have complained about what isn’t on the album, namely a pair of grimly titled songs: “Abused” and “Suicide Machine.”

“‘Suicide Machine’ was originally recorded for Figure 8, but in light of everything, I just thought it would have taken the focus off the music,” says Schnapf. “I was uncomfortable with that. There is already enough in the lyrics to make the thing sound like a suicide note; that would have put it over the top. Look, I think it sucks to be Monday-morning-quarterbacking the outcome.”

“This is not the record Elliott would have put out,” says Bolme. “This is a version of it. As far as all the concepts, double album, straight-to-weird … I’m not totally sure Elliott would have stuck with any of those ideas. The double-album idea was out, and straight-to-weirder certainly would have been a lousy sequence for this group of songs. He was still in the process of recording things.”

“We know had he finished it, it would have been different,” adds Schnapf. “In what ways would it have been different? Well, that’s what is unquantifiable. However, I much prefer this option of some version of a record than no record at all. It would have been a shame for these songs to remain silent.”

There are those who have openly questioned the ethics of even releasing From A Basement On The Hill. But anyone who’s ever cared about Smith’s music has recognized it’s as good as anything he released when he was alive, maybe even better. Dark, sad and full of beauty and intimations of his own death, it’s a far more worthy representation of his mark on the world than the chalk outline he left behind.

There are also those who will bemoan the sanctifying of Saint Elliott—not the least of all Smith himself if he were alive to see it happen—and his self-martyrdom will be remembered by history on the same hallowed page as Kurt Cobain and Nick Drake. And so be it. Not because he died a Byronic death—or because he was a junkie or because he walked around with a terrible secret he couldn’t live with—but because he kept himself alive for 34 years. And this is what he did with his time on Earth.

Additional reporting by Corey duBrowa

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3 Comments

  1. Posted July 22, 2009 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Very well written article. I’m glad I came across it and put some perspective on one of my favorite musicians. RIP Elliott.

  2. Alyson
    Posted June 20, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    There is an error:

    “McConnell remembers Smith and Chiba showing up at Satellite Park in the middle of the night in April 2001,”

    It was not Chiba at the time, it was Valerie Deerin, his previous girlfriend. Chiba and he were together only at the end of 2002 till his death

  3. Josh
    Posted May 10, 2012 at 3:30 am | Permalink

    I feel closer to Elliott Smith than ever after reading this article. I’ve always wanted to talk to someone who has known him personally. I have so many questions. Like what his favorite ice cream is. My biggest question is about these white vans. I don’t want to come off as some crazy conspiracist but his death was so ambiguous and the fact that it was hardly investigated. I wish I knew him in person. I didn’t listen to his music until some people started nicknaming me Elliott Smith. I feel like him and I would’ve gotten along swimmingly. Depression, drug abuse, musicians. It’s 3am and it’s sleepless nights like these that drive me crazy knowing that I’ll never be able to talk to him or do heroin with him. He’s my hero and an inspiration as a musician. No one will ever make music as honest as he did. You should feel honored that you got to meet him in person. I know that’s something the majority of his fans including myself will never ever get to experience. Right now he’s making music in heaven and eating as much ice cream to his heart’s content. Rest in peace.

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