Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Gone But Not Forgotten Series: Part 1
By Alaina Martin
Some artists are taken from our world too soon, just as they were becoming recognized for their groundbreaking creativity. Others pass on in relative obscurity, without people realizing the influence they had on art scenes both big and small.
Curbside Press is introducing a new series of pieces, Gone But Not Forgotten, focusing on the artists we will never get a chance to sit down with, but whose work deserves the spotlight all the same. We could think of no one better to base our inaugural feature on:
Elliott Smith (1969-2003)
Elliott Smith was an American singer-songwriter who was known for his distinct, velvet-soft vocals and melodic, alternative indie music. He captured the heart and soul of Oregon's 90s music scene and is considered a hallmark in the indie genre -- inspiring countless artists with his heart-wrenching, lyric-driven music that delves into subjects like depression, isolation, and addiction.
His acclaimed music has been featured in films like Good Will Hunting (1998), American Beauty (1999), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and was even featured in an episode of Adult Swim’s animated show Rick and Morty.
Born August 6, 1969 in Omaha, Nebraska, Steven Paul Smith began his winding path that would eventually land him in Portland, Oregon, where he would become a powerhouse in a scene that had yet to truly blossom.
He spent much of his youth in Texas, where he lived with his mother Bunny after she divorced his father within a year after he was born. They lived in the Duncanville area, located near Dallas.
Smith’s biography, “The Time It Took a Cigarette to Burn: Scenes from the Life and Art of Elliott Smith,” written by S. R. Shutt, contains interviews with the musician before his death. In it, he was asked about what his first memory was and said, “Playing on a gravel embankment next to a highway in Dallas. I found a turtle, picked him up and he peed on my hand.”
Another first memory, he recalled, was “breaking the TV by repeatedly flicking the volume and turning the set on and off. I was three. It was the first piece of electronic equipment I was ever allowed to operate. The first day I was, I broke it.”
Religion was a large part of Smith’s growing years, in an often all-consuming sense. When his mother remarried, she wed a man who was a member of a sect of Mormonism called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Smith himself would largely shed this rigid philosophy later in his life, as he is quoted in his biography as saying, "I was brought up in a religious household. I don't go to church. I don't necessarily buy into any officially structured version of spirituality. But I have my own version of it ... I don't really know what happens when you die. I don't like the idea of being buried. I would prefer to walk out into the desert and be eaten by birds ..."
Music had always been a large part of his life, too. He began learning the piano at 9 years old, then switched to learning clarinet when those lessons stopped being paid for. From a young age, he also had a fondness for bass, wishing to be a bass player when he got older.
Through the years, he would he would visit his father Gary in Portland. At the age of 12, while visiting, he received his first acoustic guitar as a present -- a father-son moment that would clearly influence Smith’s life and art.
As he grew older, music became an escape from his conflicted life in the suburbs of Texas. Smith said in interviews later in life that his stepfather was physically and sexually abusive.
The J Files wrote about his childhood, saying, “Smith endured what biographers euphemistically call a ‘difficult’ childhood, largely because of the abuse he often spoke of having received from his stepfather, Charlie Welch. Smith’s parents divorced soon after his birth, and his mother Bunny married Welch when Smith was four years old.”
The article continues, saying, “According to Smith, Welch beat him regularly. In his final years, Smith also talked of having been sexually abused. For his part, Welch denies the accusations of sexual abuse, although he admitted in a letter to ‘having been too hard’ on his stepson.”
Mentioned in his biography, the lyrics from the song “Some Song,” which he wrote for the band Heatmiser, expressed how he felt:
Charlie beat you up week after week
And when you grow up you’re going to be a freak
Want a violent girl who’s not scared of anything
Help me kill my time
Cos I’ll never be fine
Help me kill my time
You went down to look at old Dallas town
Where you must be sick just to hang around
Seen it on TV how to kill your man
Then like Gacy’s scene a canvas in your hand
Drinking and drugs became another way to distract him from the hardships he endured in his home life. According to his biography, he first tried alcohol at the age of ten, and tried smoking marajuana behind a local church at around fourteen:
“A friend’s Dad grew his own pot which he kept in a greasy, old margarine container. It was shiny. We didn’t know how much to smoke, so we just kept on until we couldn’t any more… It didn’t really work for me, but my friend was running around shouting ‘This is great!’ About an hour later, he looked at me and said ‘what if it never goes away?’ He was freaked out. The second time, it worked, music sounded amazing.”
Shutt, the author, adds his own thoughts into the biography here, “His recollection of those years often emphasize the violence and fragmentation that pervaded life in those particular burbs.”
At fourteen, halfway through his freshman year, Smith had endured enough of his life with his mother and stepfather, at which time he moved to Portland to live with his father. The move would be the beginning of a new chapter in his life and would lead to his music career.
"Playing things too safe is the most popular way to fail"
He began recording music around the time he moved to his father’s house. Using a four-track recorder, he would experiment with his music, honing his sound, and using his instinct to find what worked for him.
He attended Lincoln High School, where he and his friends started a band named Stranger Than Fiction, which had the essence of what Smith’s music would develop into.
His biography explains, “It was around this time (1985-86) that Elliott composed what is, so far as we know, the earliest song that found its way into his mature repertory. Condor Avenue, written when he was 16 or 17, eventually took its place on his first album Roman Candle.”
It was in his high school years that he began being called Elliott, which he ultimately decided to go by. He is quoted in his biography saying:
“I didn’t like that my first name started with the same letter as my last name. That really irritated me. And also, like, there’s no good versions of it, ya know like there’s, Steven … Steven is like sort of too … hard to say, and kind of like, bookish, Steve is like … like jockish, sorta. Big handsome Steve, big shirtless Steve, ya know, like football playin’ blond haired Steve. Ya know?”
Maturing, In Music & Life
After high school, while attending college at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, Smith met Neil Gust, and together they would form the band Heatmiser in October of 1991. The success of the band would eventually lead to them being inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame in 2015.
The band was made up of Smith and Gust, who both played guitar and sang, Tony Lash, who played drums and also played music with Smith in high school, and Brandt Peterson, who played the bass (later replaced by Sam Coomes). Their music consisted of similar themes as Smith’s solo career: alienation, depression, angst, and frustration with society. With Gust being openly gay, the band was often labeled as “queercore” or “homocore,” according to Smith’s biography.
In 1993, Heatmiser released their first album, Dead Air, with record label Frontier Records, which featured songs like “Cannibal” and “Candyland.” With a distinct heavy rock sound, it aligned more with the grunge music coming from the upper Pacific Northwest, such as Nirvana, which had obtained a massive following around the country by this time.
Heavily distorted guitar riffs, paired with prominent drum fills and punchy vocals, made Heatmiser’s music a perfect fit for the Portland music scene, which was riding the waves started by hometown-hero punk and alternative groups like The Wipers and The Replacements throughout the 1980’s.
Heatmiser regularly performed at venues like the X-ray Cafe, and La Luna; venues which would prove to be a staple for the PNW grunge/alternative rock scene of the 90’s.
Though their music touched on similar themes as Smith’s music, their musical approach differed quite significantly, juxtaposed between Gust’s angsty sound and Smith’s softer tastes.
Their music is also noticeably heavier than any of Smith’s solo albums. Smith is quoted as not being fond of their heavy sound, saying, “I was being a total actor, acting out a role I didn’t even like. I couldn’t come out and show where I was coming from. I was always disguised in this loud rock band.”
In an interview with David Greenwald of The Oregonian, Peterson, Heatmiser’s founding bassist, said:
“Every individual in the band had identities that were bound up with some sense of injuries, of not fitting in or whatever… I didn’t really understand myself really well, I drank pretty heavily. And Elliott was increasingly unhappy with the rock thing. And I think that I became emblematic of everything that was bad about that for him.”
By the time they released their single “Yellow No. 5” in 1994, and full-length album Cops and Speeder that same year, the group had found a larger audience. Smith had also already recorded his first solo album, Roman Candle, with Cavity Search Records. The band began to make a shift in sound over the next few years and, with songs like “Half Right" off of Heatmiser’s album, Mic City Sons (1996), Smith’s softer style began to show.
Smith recorded his unnamed album, usually just called “Elliott Smith,” with record label Kill Rock Stars, and it was the beginning of the end for Heatmiser. Smith had lost his job at a bakery, which gave him time to record more and more.
Gust, from the same Oregonian article, said, “That was like the state giving a grant, because for a year, he didn’t work. All he did was record at his girlfriend’s house. His process just went boom! It was amazing to watch. It was also intimidating because I was working, we had the band and there (were) things to deal with with the band, but he just drifted into his own thing.”
By the end of 1996, the band dissolved.
Smith would go on to record three more albums: Either/Or in 1997, which had hits like “Between the Bars” and “2:45 AM,” XO, which he recorded in 1998, and Figure 8 in 2000.
Hits like “Miss Misery” off of XO, which he recorded with DreamWorks Records for the movie Good Will Hunting (directed by Oregon filmmaker Gus Van Sant), would help propel Smith from the Portland indie scene and into the mainstream eye. The song even received a nomination for an Oscar for Best Original Song and Smith performed it live during the 70th Academy Awards.
Wearing a white suit, he stood alone onstage, guitar in hand, and played “Miss Misery” -- not only for the celebrities gathered in The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, but for an estimated 90 million people who watched the broadcast around the world.
His song would lose the night to Will Jennings and James Horner’s massive hit from Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On,” performed by Celine Dion, but Smith’s nomination and performance would forever enshrine his name for audiences much further flung than Portland, Oregon.
Struggles, Optimism, and His Last Years
Throughout his life, Smith struggled with depression, and had been diagnosed with ADHD. His fame would only exacerbate his mental health struggles. His battle with his mental health would lead to him abusing alcohol and drugs, including heroin, crack, and prescription medications.
During an interview with Brendan Kelley of Phoenix New Times, a friend of Elliott’s, Peter Krebs, explained when Smith’s drug usage was exacerbated.
Kelley writes, " ‘While Elliott was living in Portland, [drugs] weren't a problem for him, he just drank and stuff,’ Krebs says. ‘I think when he went to New York and Los Angeles, especially L.A., that's what kind of killed him in a manner of speaking. He was around people who knew him not as Elliott, but as Elliott Smith the rock star.’ "
Around the time of his album Either/Or (1997), which he recorded with Kill Rock Stars, he began to lose control.
In an Interview with Jonathan Valania from MAGNET Magazine during Smith’s “Figure 8” tour in 2001, the downward spiral he experienced was laid out:
“By the time of 1997’s Either/Or, things were beginning to fall apart. Smith’s drinking was getting out of hand: blackouts, alcohol poisoning, getting into fights he couldn’t remember, waking up on the street covered in cuts and bruises. Friends staged an intervention in Chicago in the middle of the Either/Or tour.
‘I got kind of weird,’ says Smith. ‘I started drinking too much and I was taking antidepressants, and they don’t mix. But I got this strange kind of optimism going, even though the way I was living wasn’t showing it. But mentally, I started demanding I be productive and positive.’ "
That year, in June, he attempted suicide by jumping off a cliff shortly after a breakup with his girlfriend. He only sustained minor injuries, but was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility in Arizona after an intervention with his friends. Within the next year, He would make the move from Oregon to New York.
His success continued to bring his struggles to the forefront. By 1998, before and after the release of XO, his depression and suicidal thoughts became alarmingly clear.
In his song “Amity” off of XO, he seemed to express his despair:
God don't make no junk
but it's plain to see
He still made me
He told me so
I'm good to go
I'm ready to go
According to his biography, Smith said, “When I said, ‘ready to go,’ it was supposed to mean [I was] tired of living.”
He would leave New York and move to Los Angeles in 1999, which would become a turning point for the artist, and lead him towards his fight with drug addiction.
Despite Smith's continuing struggles, he maintained his optimism of better things to come. In his article for MAGNET, Valania said Smith would often tell himself, "Things are going to work out, and I'm never going to stop insisting that things are going to work out."
His optimism could be heard in his album Figure 8, which he released in 2000. He recorded parts of the album in the famous Abbey Road Studios. He wanted to break free from the label of being a “tortured artist” and record an album that was more positive.
The album sounds like one big ode to The Beatles, with upbeat guitar riffs, multi-layered vocal tracks, paired with a noticeably positive vibe that brings a lightness to the still-present darkness that can be found in his lyrics.
Lyrics from his song "Better Be Quiet Now" highlight this point:
Maybe I got a problem, but that's not what I wanted to say
I'd prefer to say nothing.
I got a long way to go
I'm getting further away
Near the end of his tour promoting Figure 8, Smith became addicted to heroin. Figure 8 would also be Smith's final album to be released before his death.
His last years were among his hardest, and yet his fight to rise above his addiction and depression never stopped. His drug use continue to escalate and became a hindrance to his live performances and the relationships in his life. He became increasingly paranoid, and isolated himself in his Los Angeles home.
When he did perform, it was clear he was struggling. His appearance -- unshaven, greasy haired, thin and gaunt -- was evidence of his growing problem. He would forget the lyrics onstage, fumbled the chords while playing his guitar, and often expressed his inability to remember his own songs.
Even in the depths of his depression and addiction, Smith sought help multiple times, even an experimental drug treatment program.
"To vanish into oblivion is an easy thing to do"
In 2003, things began to look positive for Smith. He had been working diligently on his new album, which was nearly complete, and he had successfully stopped using drugs for months. He also stopped drinking after his 34th birthday, and started to go without meat, caffeine, and sugar.
Smith would not be able to finish the album, however. On October 21, 2003, he got into an argument with his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba. According to Chiba, she left the room and, shortly after, she heard a scream and found Elliott with a knife in his chest. She allegedly pulled the knife out, at which point he fell to the floor, and she then called 911. Within two hours, Elliott Smith would be pronounced dead.
According to the official autopsy report, the coroner could not conclusively rule it a suicide or homicide. The report also found that Smith was not on any illegal drugs or alcohol at the time of his death.
The case was left open. A possible suicide note was found which read, “I'm so sorry - love, Elliott. God forgive me.”
A Lingering Memory & Smith’s Legacy
After his death, his last works were released in an album called From A Basement On The Hill by ANTI-Records in 2004. Throughout the next decades, there would be an endless collection of biographies and articles recounting the artist’s life and music. In 2007, a collection of his unreleased work going back as far as the mid 90’s would be released, called New Moon, which was put together by Kill Rock Stars.
Smith had a passion for helping children and wanted to work with groups that helped those who suffered from abuse. After his death, his family began raising money through the Elliott Smith Memorial Fund, which supports Free Arts for Abused Children, a Los Angeles-based non-profit that specializes in providing arts programs to children in foster homes; as well as Outside In, a Portland-based non-profit that helps Portland’s homeless youth.
His family explained the choice of these programs saying:
“Elliott was vocal about helping abused kids, and those are largely the population that Outside In serves, though it is not a requirement. Outside In hits close to home -- their facilities are actually RIGHT across the street from Lincoln High School, where Elliott went to school. Finally, Elliott knew of Outside In and had actually agreed to do a benefit for their needle-exchange program. Sadly, he never got the chance, but now we have an opportunity to give to this organization is his name.”
Elliott Smith continues to have a lasting effect on the world of music, and has a special place in the hearts of millions. His music is still listened to, with his Spotify page alone bringing 1.5 million monthly listeners. He has influenced countless artists, and has touched the lives of so many.
His Biography ends with Shutt saying, “The sun of Elliott's art still lights up our skies. We raise our eyes and it's 2:45 a.m., but the darkness has words and we're looking at a moon like a broken light bulb, high on the amphetamines of the fragmented emotions his words have released in us. Ultimately, beauty is its own excuse for being.”
“It’s just a fond farewell to a friend who couldn’t get things right.” - Elliott Smith, “A Fond Farewell”