Elliott Smith And The LAPD, Round One

November 25th 2002, Elliott Smith attended a Flaming Lips/Beck concert, a promising double bill, at the Universal Amphitheatre in LA, and strange things happened. I had a ticket for this concert too, and, although the place is quite big, I ended up seating a few rows behind him, his girlfriend and his sister.

The Flaming Lips came first, and during the interruption, I saw Elliott and J. Chiba leave their seats, probably to get some beers, or something of this sort, but, to my surprise, they never came back. I was thinking they had gone backstage to meet the Lips?? But what about Beck’s set?
The story of what really happened during the concert was revealed later on, when, in April 2003, Elliott had to cancel a show in California due to an adverse reaction to painkillers he was taking. The following was posted on his website:
‘Elliott suffered a severe injury in November which has progressively gotten worse. He has continued playing shows despite the chronic pain and subsequent treatment issues. He recently had an adverse reaction to a new medication prescribed to him and he is now undergoing different treatment for this injury. At this time he is hesitant to reschedule or schedule any shows until he feels confident that the treatment is healing him and that it will enable him to play shows. He would like to express his sincere regret for any inconvenience that the cancelled show caused anyone. He will reschedule, it’s just a matter of when, and that is better assessed with the help of his doctors in the next month or so. (4.26.03)’
It turned out that Elliott had got into trouble during this Flaming Lips/Beck concert. At the Lit Lounge show, 2 months later (January 2003), Elliott told the audience between songs that he had been beaten by a cop last November,…very badly…’blood came out of my ear.’
According to some reports, a security dragged a man out of the theater for refusing to leave a seat that wasn’t his. Elliott approached the guards, who were harassing and trying to handcuff the man on the ground, and decided to get involved. They warned him off, but Elliott refused, so they started struggling, and Elliott kept going even after being hit with pepper spray. ‘The subject closed his eyes,’ says the report, ‘but continued to hold on to me and grapple.’
According to some people, they were off duty police officers working in their own time for the theater, they didn’t identify themselves as police and Elliott just saw several guys hassling one single man and decided to intervene.
As a result, Elliott was not just simply sprayed with pepper spray but severely beaten by these men. He was handcuffed, arrested by the LA Sheriff’s department, charged with unlawfully obstructing a peace officer, and he and J. Chiba spent the night in jail.
Strangely, in January 2005, when Magnet magazine interviewed David McConnell, who worked on the first recording Elliott did of the songs now released posthumously as ‘From A Basement On The Hill’, McConnell said he was at this concert and recalled what happened this day: ‘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.’
David McConnell added a few comments about Elliott and his relationship with authority: ’I never met anybody who hated cops more than Elliott. To hear him talk, you would have thought he was a gangster-rapper.’
I don’t know if this is a little bit exaggerated, McConnell had a tendency to do so in some interviews, but the result was a severe beating and a back injury.
One of Elliott’s friends, Ross Harris who directed some of his videos, and among them ‘Miss Misery’ (which, serendipitously, shows a policeman following Elliott in the streets) posted a while ago some comments in his youtube section to answer some fans’ questions. He explained that, less than 2 weeks before his death, Elliott was still in severe physical and emotional pain. He had his collarbone broken and was hurting when swallowing, speaking and breathing. I have always found this strange since the broken collar bone do not figure in his autopsy report, so who knows what exactly he was suffering from, but he had been seriously injured, and this is what matters.
In March 2003, this announcement was posted on Elliott Smith website:
‘If anyone was at the Beck show at the universal amphitheatre on November 25, 2002 and witnessed the incident between Elliott Smith and the LA sheriffs, please contact:
Edward Rucker
(310) 576-6242
(310) 576-6247 – fax
1717 4th St. 3rd floor
Santa Monica, ca 90401
Thank you!’
Edward Rucker was of course Elliott’s lawyer and they were looking for some witnesses. Rucker did plead not-guilty on Elliott’s behalf on March 2003. But in July 2003, he pled no contest to disturbing the peace (opposed to the original charge which was unlawfully obstructing a peace officer) to avoid jail time, and was asked to perform 80 hours of community service and to pay a fee of $150. But a probation and sentence hearing was set for July 2004.
During the last months of his life he was haunted by the incident, worried of going to jail, as it was still possible he
could have been incarcerated even on the lesser charge. At the time, he was hoping to win the case and leave LA because cops there were ‘criminals’.
Because of his past drug abuse people had a tendency to connect this incident with a junkie behavior, a reaction of an addict who could not control himself anymore. The story cannot be more different, Elliott was defending someone abused by the police and he had already cleaned up by November 2002.
Elliott had a very bad opinion of the police before this awful experience and I can only imagine how he felt after. Was it a sign? A sign that the police would also mess up the case that costs him his life? Or may be the police did not want to pursue his case because he was the guy who was arrested for assaulting one of them?
Originally published on Rock NYC (June 21 2010)
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