In my attempt to find out the truth regarding Elliott Smith’s death, I have tried to talk to many people, and it has never been easy, his close friends having stayed almost completely mute on the subject since his death.
In 2006, I managed to talk to someone who was not one of his friends but a musician who has had a close encounter with Elliott, when both of them were working with David McConnell at Josie Cotton’s Satellite Park studio in Malibu. He was and still is in a band called Plasticsoul, a wink to the Beatles’ Rubber soul, which can give you an indication about the type of music the band plays. To my big surprise he accepted to meet with me in a coffee shop where we talked for about an hour, although he did most of the talking.
He was around when Elliott was working with David McConnell in the Malibu studio that gave the name to Elliott’s last album since it is effectively located ‘in a basement on the hill’.
What he told me about Elliott was not really pleasant to hear since Elliott was doing massive amounts of drugs at that time, Plasticsoul repeated this many times just to make sure I would be prepared for the rest. Elliott was taking unbelievable amounts at that time: crack with heroin with prescription drugs with klonopin (people take that to prevent seizures) with other stuff I don’t know, with alcohol,… I couldn’t believe what Plasticsoul was saying. I knew Elliott was a junky at that time, but the description was beyond what I had imagined. It’s a miracle he survived after this type of treatment.
When Plasticsoul met him in the Malibu studio, it is an understatement to say Elliott was in pretty bad shape, half Charles Manson, half Gollum (Plasticsoul’s own words), he weighed around 80 lbs (the number he threw at me) and had hallucinations all the time because of the crack he was taking.
During his 2002-3 concerts, many people had noticed that Elliott had round marks making a swirl line on his left arm. Plasticsoul told me it was cigarette burns Elliott, while under the influence of a lot of crack, had inflicted to himself because he wanted to burn insects and worms he thought were crawling on his arm. He described me Elliott as a very crazy person, because of the drugs of course, and it was scary to listen to all this.
When Plasticsoul first encountered Elliott, he was entering the studio and Elliott got really angry, asking him ‘what are you doing here? You shouldn’t be there!’ being a complete drug-induced paranoiac at the time, and wanting to fight with him. That guy was much bigger than Elliott, especially at that time, so it seems really ridiculous Elliott wanted to fight him, but he got really mad, and only his girlfriend at the time (Valerie Deerin, not J. Chiba) was able to interfere and prevent the fight.
Plasticsoul told me that David MacConnell has hours and hours of recording that are not on the final album ‘From A Basement On The Hill’. He even said he thought the songs he recorded there are much better than those on the final album, suggesting Elliott’s family eliminated a lot of songs because they were too rough, too scary, too much about drugs or abuse… Basically he was telling me that the album ‘From A Basement On The Hill’ as we know it, is a very clean version of what Elliott had in mind, although the original songs still exist and are in David MacConnell’s possessing. After Elliott’s death it was pretty hard for the family to find out who had what and they probably did not know exactly all the details of the different recordings Elliott had done.
Plasticsoul went further as he told me David MacConnell was letting the digital tape run for hours just in case something good would come up, so he ended up having hours of recording of Elliott doing improvisations, making up new songs and talking,… talking about Dreamworks executives, his stepfather who abused him very badly, his intentions for the record…
During that time Elliott tried to commit suicide with drugs, but he never got successful… as he had become immune to anything and Plasticsoul continued to describe me a very crazy person who was, also very manipulative, proposing David McConnell to use coke to be able to stay up days in a row in order to finish up a song. All this stuff was very hard to swallow. This period was very emotional for McConnell, as he was calling Plasticsoul every night, crying on the phone, saying he didn’t know what to do anymore.
He also told me McConnell never got a dime for all the work he did with Elliott, as he and Elliott had a verbal agreement, and nothing written. Although Plasticsoul didn’t know exactly what happened between Elliott and David, he told me Elliott decided at one point he didn’t want to work with David anymore, because of some ridiculous reason, and McConnell never got paid.
Elliott had fired Jon Brion before working with McConnell, after Brion had already worked on some songs. He and Elliott had a fall out as Brion did not agree with Elliott’s drug use. Plasticsoul told me Brion sold the songs to Dreamworks as a monetary compensation, but Elliott got furious and bought them back from Dreamworks since he really did not want to have anything to do with Dreamworks anymore.
Drugs can sure change someone’s personality and hearing all this was quite shocking and certainly was painting a very different image of Elliott as I had always heard he was a nice and caring person.
I finally asked to Plasticsoul what he thought about Elliott’s death, and he told me he did not know anything about it since he only met him during the David McConnell period, which was about one year before his death. We talked a little about the way he died, and he said he too had suspicions. After all he said about Elliott wanting to kill himself with drugs, he still thought that his death was bizarre and that the police did not care. However he said he had never met J. Chiba, so had no opinion about her.
Before leaving, Plasticsoul told me he had a picture on his computer that Elliott and David took during that time, in the kitchen with all their drugs (and a lot of them) spread on the table, in front of them. He said he had no idea why they took that picture.
Originally published on Rock NYC (July 11 2010)