Jennifer Chiba said that ‘Suicide machine’ was the last song Elliott Smith was working on, just the night before he died. How bizarre and convenient it is to say that a song with suicide in its title was Elliott’s last work, if you want to convince people he effectively committed suicide.
The problem is that the song is not about committing suicide, it’s an angry song about how people want to ‘turn him into a suicide machine’, it’s a revolt and a fuck-you-all song, like so many others, like ‘Pictures of me’ which includes lines like ‘So sick and tired of all these pictures of me/Completely wrong’.
There are two ways to see this:
• Either she said the truth and it was the last song he recorded, but in this case his mind was not into suicide at all, it’s ironic, sarcastic and not a depressing song. Rather he addresses to people’ expectations of his work and personality, since he must be this sad guy writing depressing songs, who wants to kill himself. The music of the song is upbeat and translates very well the irony of the whole thing. Although the lyrics are opened for interpretation as always, the line ‘Baby got a place in the sun selling people shade’ could well be using a light/shadow imagery to explain this situation: he has a place in the sun, he got his time of fame and celebrity, by selling sad songs (the shadow, the shade) to the public: this is what people expect from him.
Nothing depressing there, but a rebellion against his image that he is too well aware of: ‘I know what you want/I got what you need’. So it’s a failure at trying to make him depressed and suicidal just before he died.
• Or she did not say the truth, he was not working on this song at the time of his death, and it is just one more attempt to reinforce the idea of suicide in the mind of the people who would not pay close attention to the lyrics. Suicide in the title gives a pretty strong impression that most people will take for what it is. Even his family did not take the risk to put this song on ‘From a Basement on the Hill’, probably because of the title.
But in this case it is also a failure because it is a lie.
I should also add that this song was written way before he died, probably during the time he recorded his ‘Figure 8’ album, but he was constantly reworking on his songs. ‘Suicide machine’ was first recorded as an instrumental called ‘Tiny Time machine’, obviously without the lyrics, which leaked as a ‘Figure 8’ demo. Even some lines of the ‘Figure 8’ album such as ‘Everyone wants me to ride into the sun’ in ‘Color Bars’ translates the same idea.
In any case, ‘Suicide machine’ has nothing to do with the way he died and I am tired of people who try to find what they imagine to be the truth in the lyrics of a song.
Originally published on Rock NYC (July 13 2010)