I Didn’t Understand
An Angry Goodbye to Elliott Smith

I was going to write about a number of things this week.

First, I was going to recap the last Red Sox game of the season, and blame not the curse but Grady Little for losing us our best shot at a World Series since the ’80s. I was going to talk a bit about how surprised I am that I like the new Barenaked Ladies album, especially considering how lousy their last couple have been. I may have mentioned music in advertising, and perhaps might have shared a humorous anecdote from the workplace.

But then I heard that Elliott Smith died.

Well, perhaps “died” is not the right term. Smith’s body was found on Tuesday with a knife sticking out of his chest – a knife, police are presuming, Smith himself put there. They’re calling it an “apparent suicide.” Smith was only 34.

This is one of the things that sucks about being me. Most of the artists I really admire are relatively obscure, beneath the public radar. Most people I know have never heard of Elliott Smith, or if they have, they heard of him through me. His death doesn’t affect the general population one whit. And here I am, with all this rage and pain and no one to share it with.

So. A quick primer on Smith, in case you need it. Simply put, he was one of the best songwriters of my generation.

Elliott Smith started his career in a noisy band called Heatmiser. They made three noisy records before they broke up. Smith’s heart was hardly in it, however, and at the same time he launched his solo career with two lo-fi masterpieces, Roman Candle and Elliott Smith, that featured little more than his hushed voice and his gently picked acoustic guitar. But it was his songs, those unpredictable, meandering songs that garnered all the attention.

A third album, Either/Or, caught the ear of director Gus Van Sant, who finally put Smith in the spotlight by using several of his songs in the film Good Will Hunting. You may remember that that film earned a bunch of Oscar nominations, including one for Best Song. The song in question was “Miss Misery” by Elliott Smith, and he looked uneasy and out of place as he performed it at the Oscar ceremony. It’s as if people were asking, “Who is this funny-looking little man, and how did he get up on stage?”

The songs again won the day, as the Good Will Hunting soundtrack brought Smith to the attention of DreamWorks Records, a company known for sticking with artists for creative reasons, not financial ones. Given a major label budget for the first time, Smith delivered XO, one of the best albums of the ’90s. Really. No joke. It’s a big, buoyant, sad, longing master stroke, and everyone should hear it. Many Face Magazine readers were surprised, and none more so than my editor Bennie Green, when I named it the best album of 1998.

If his follow-up, Figure 8, is not quite as good – it’s a little too long, a little too self-righteous – it remains head and shoulders above the work of most songwriters Smith’s age. These are eloquent, majestic songs that couch deeply felt pain in endlessly inventive melodies. Smith never seemed to run out of new ways to twist lines and phrases, and it’s both his attention to songcraft and his penchant for the dark and lonely that led to comparisons with Nick Drake. Sadly, now that comparison seems even more apt.

And yes, I’m heartbroken and sad, but mostly, I’m pissed off. The reasons some have given for Smith’s apparent suicide include chemical dependence and frustration with work on his planned double album From a Basement on the Hill. I say that’s cowardly, pathetic bullshit. Chemical dependence can be overcome. So can artistic frustration. So can a perpetually broken heart. Far be it from me to question Smith’s motives, but his actions in this case were weak and selfish.

Yeah, I’m talking to you, Elliott. Congratulations, you made the world worse. We’ve already seen so much death this year, and to add to it on purpose, and to deny the world your gift, is just unforgivable. I mean, just look at Warren Zevon if you want a comparison. Here’s a guy with immeasurably less talent – don’t argue, it’s true – who, when handed his death sentence, worked until he couldn’t see straight anymore to share his gifts one last time. You had everything in front of you, and you threw it away at 34 with a knife to the heart. What the fuck?

You were alive, Elliott, and nothing is ever hopeless while you’re alive.

So, just a few things I want to say. First, thanks for five great albums, especially that fourth one. I’m sure we’ll get to hear the songs you were working on since then before long, and I look forward to one last visit with your immense talent.

And one more thing.

Fuck you. Fuck you, Elliott, for pissing it all away, and for giving us one more stupid rock and roll martyr. Fuck you for giving up, and through your actions, for making other people want to give up. Fuck you for tainting your beautiful art with your cowardice. Fuck you for making me feel bad for you anyway.

Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.

I’ll miss you.

See you in line Tuesday morning.