Liam Gowing Returns To The Scene Of The… Crime?

Liam Gowing’s longer answer to our comment on the 2004 Spin article:


If you read my article [search “SPIN Mr. Misery” at http://books.google.com if you would like a refresher] Alyson, you know that I literally asked, “Was it a suicide? A murder? A freak accident?” Now, I may not have answered those questions to your satisfaction but don’t accuse me of not asking. I spent a yearresearching what happened to Elliott. I did my due diligence and then some. And frankly, I think the results remain the most complete picture of the events leading up to Elliott’s death out there.

When I say I talked to “everyone,” let me apologize for the obvious hyperbole and restate the matter more clearly: I went to great lengths to contact all of the most important figures in Elliott’s life. A few people wouldn’t take or return my calls or genuinely had no comment. But most did speak to me, some for hours. (Please understand that there’s a difference between “declined to be interviewed” and “refused to speak.”) I can’t give you the names of everyone I had substantive conversations with, but I can tell you I had more than 30 on- and off-record sources.

Your jabs at me just reveal your ignorance of my hard work in this area. For instance, you write, “Liam Gowing did not interview Valerie Deerin.” Actually, I questioned Valerie for nearly an hour (paid a pretty penny for it too as it was a transatlantic call). But the conversation didn’t make it into the article because she didn’t want to be quoted and I respected that. It was the same story with a lot of the important people in Elliott’s life, including others you called me out on for not talking to.

And of course I talked to the police and the coroner’s office! I readily admit that Detective James King refused to get into any details, saying only that Elliott’s death was an open investigation and that it was against police policy to discuss open investigations. Fair enough. But I interviewed David Campbell, the official spokesman at the coroner’s office for half an hour. He had not only a comprehensive knowledge of the medical examiner’s report, he had an excellent bird’s eye view of the ramifications and limitations of forensic pathology having been on the job for over two decades. If anything, he downplayed the possibility of Elliott’s death being a homicide.

I asked him how anomalous it was for someone to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the heart. He said, “It is not a common form of suicide, to stab oneself in the chest. It’s not unheard of though.”

I asked him how Elliott could have possibly stabbed himself twice in the chest and he replied, “There was an LAPD detective who was shot and killed. He was shot in the heart. And after being shot in the heart, he stood up, drew his weapon, returned fire and killed the suspect… He actually stood up and returned fire. We’ve had other stories where other people have had injuries to the heart and they continued running and collapsed 30 yds away. So it is indeed a fact that a person can sustain heart trauma and not be suddenly incapacitated.”

I asked him about Chiba’s removal of the knife and he said: “If you saw someone who was still alive and they have a knife in their chest, what would you do? The first thing you’d want to do is to stop the bleeding and you can’t do that if the knife is still there.”

I’m not going to reprint the entire transcript of the conversation for your edification. Suffice it to say I questioned him pretty thoroughly.

But since you suggested that Dr. Scheinin might have more information, I contacted her this week to follow up on her report. She told me, “My gut feeling is that it was actually a suicide,” but explained that it was her job to pick up on anything—even the slightest detail—that might be useful to the police if they decided the homicide angle was worth pursuing.

Of the “possible defensive wounds,” she said they were actually “very small” and said the one on the hand was “a little poke—could have come from handling the knife the wrong way.”

Re. the knife wounds Elliott inflicted on himself on Sept. 12, that incident was nearly six weeks before Elliott died, enough time for even a significant cut to heal. According to Chiba and Robin Peringer (and corroborated by a credible non-“incestuous inner circle” witness who was unwilling to go on the record about it), Elliott had been working the knife on top of scars left from cigarette burns he’d made on himself several years before, so the cut marks may not have been obviously distinguishable from the burn marks. Dr. Scheinin was actually kind enough to revisit her medical examiner’s diary on the matter, however, and found that her exact entry on those marks was “consistent with cigarette burns and/or cutting.”

Again, if you are trying to prove that Elliott’s death was a homicide you could spin these things the other way. The bottom line is that the coroner’s report is not conclusive. You HAVE to look at other information. And the overwhelming amount of other information that I was able to gather pointed to suicide.

There were other things that appeared to point to murder but I have to tell you that they fell apart upon closer inspection. First was the suicide note, which showed Elliott’s name misspelled as “Elliot.” That turned out to be a typo on the part of the coroner’s office.

Other things that seemed to suggest homicide as reported in the press were simply the result of rushed or sloppy journalism. In a Blender article, Ariel Levy played up Largo owner and Jon Brion associate Mark Flanagan’s speculation of foul play [“I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else did this. He was doing drugs with lowlife scum. He was around a lot of creepy people — some very negative, dangerous people.”] without immediately noting that Flanagan (like Brion) hadn’t spoken to Elliott in over two-and-a-half years or that Elliott had stopped using street drugs more than a year before his death. SPIN’s Jon Dolan also erroneously insinuated homicide by misquoting Earlimart’s Aaron Espinoza as saying, “It didn’t make sense at all. I saw him the night before he died; he seemed fine,” when Espinoza hadn’t seen Elliott in weeks. (Yes Alyson, I spoke to Aaron Espinoza as well, face to face.

And please don’t now condemn me for failing to include all of the aforementioned in the SPIN article. Unlike you, I had a word limit to deal with and had to make hard choices about what to present within the confines of the printed page. (In fact, David Campbell’s comments and much of the aforementioned were a big part of the first what-happened-to-Elliott-Smith article I wrote—for the LA Weekly, more on that below—a 13,300-word behemoth, which then-Music-Editor John Payne wanted the Weekly to print in four-part serial but which then-Managing-Editor Joe Donnelly judged too long and too biographical in nature for them to run. So I was subsequently forced to cut the word-count nearly in half. I chose to focus on what I’d determined to be true rather than to expend too many pages disproving what was not.

As for the Smith/Welch family, they first “declined to be interviewed,” then told other contacts not to speak to me based on the questions I’d been asking (I’ll let you wonder how they knew what I’d been asking), then removed the song “Abused” (with its chorus “I’ve been abused / abused / abused”) from the final mixes Rob Schnapf had prepared for the “From a Basement on the Hill” record, then threatened to sue SPIN for libel if they published my article. (They didn’t, of course, because my article was solid, but the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil posture they took works against the notion that it was Chiba who was hiding something.)

Re. the interviewees that were featured prominently, remember that this was not an article about Elliott’s life, unfortunately. This was an article about Elliott’s death. So I focused primarily on the people who were in Elliott’s life in Los Angeles, the people that saw him every day, the people who knew what was going on at the end.

As to your suggestion that I was the “the only person who believed Smith’s relationship with Chiba wasn’t on the precipice and about to fall,” I offer you the following from Robin Peringer, who was Elliott’s best friend: “He and Jennifer were planning on being married and he was excited about having a child with Jennifer. I know one hundred percent Elliott wanted to marry Jennifer.”

As for Elliott’s relationship with her being imperfect, even dysfunctional at times, I suspect they fought like any couple. In fact, I know they did—in ways that suggest the very same pattern of behavior Chiba described in her account of the argument that took place on Oct. 21. “I’ve been at their house when they would get upset with each other and she would lock herself in the bedroom,” recounted Elliott’s drummer Scott McPherson. “And he took it really hard. She just wanted to be left alone for a minute.
“But I was outside of the room once when that happened.” McPherson continued, “And I saw how he really isn’t okay with that.”

Accepting your suggestion that they were on the verge of breaking up, which is not mutually exclusive with a marriage proposal (I don’t know about you but I’ve seen quite a few maybe-getting-married-will-fix-our-relationship proposals out there), I would say that it points to suicide at least as much as murder, probably more so. Eyewitness to Elliott hitting “bottom” and giving up street drugs during his breakup with Valerie Deerin, Andrew Morgan actually alluded to that in his interview with me: “He [Elliott] was miserable having to end his relationship [with Deerin]. He kept saying he just couldn’t break up with someone again.”

But look, for the sake of completeness, let’s say (hypothetically people, I’m not actually suggesting this) that Chiba or a local drug dealer with a score to settle (which was another theory I encountered) or some other third party murdered Elliott. Would that invalidate my article or make the facts I brought to light any less true? Not even a little bit.

And you missed my point about independently corroborating Chiba’s story of Elliott’s marriage proposal. The point is that I scrutinized everything she told me and was actively verifying things along the way to see if she was lying to me. Now, I didn’t have her attached to a lie detector or pumped full of sodium pentothal. But I have to tell you, everything she told me checked out.

As a so-called member of LA’s incestuous inner circle of rock musicians (hardly but thanks for the, uh, compliment), I may not have been the hard-nosed investigative reporter you would have liked to handle the subject. But how about giving me a little credit for what I brought to the table? For starters, after covering Elliott’s live shows for the LA Weekly then bringing him onboard to play the Weekly’s Music Awards Show then writing his obituary and spearheading the tribute article for LA Weekly, I not only knew his music and his story, I’d spent quality time with the man himself and had gotten to size up a big chunk of his LA-based friends, family and musical collaborators—whom I found to be a solid group of people. They knew I was a decent guy who adored Elliott and frankly, I’m not sure they would have talked to another reporter about the sensitive issues I covered although, honestly, I wasn’t really “tight” with any of them at the time, including Jennifer Chiba.

So when the coroner’s report came out, I said “holy shit” just like everyone else, wondered if she did it, and subsequently followed up on any leads I encountered that fit the hypothesis. But as the months wore on and I continued asking questions about Elliott, and Chiba told truth after truth, admitting to embarrassing, illegal and professionally ruinous behavior in the process (re. her own past drug use and depression issues), and all the folks in LA who had the balls to go on record with me told me about the heart-wrenching issues Elliott was dealing with as he got sober—all while the Smith-Welch family was refusing to discuss any of the allegations of abuse that Elliott had made at the end of his life, then trying to intercept the subject before it could reach the public record (not merely through legal posturing but by withholding some of Elliott’s music)—I began to see a picture that was a lot bigger than just the coroner’s report.

Now, no one’s denying the importance of the police and coroner’s investigation. But the police-beat investigative role you expected of me had already been handled by Christine Pelisek of the LA Weekly, the local paper I was writing for at the time. In fact, my role in all of this actually began as a reaction to Pelisek’s reporting, which focused almost solely on the coroner’s report and the police investigation. (http://www.laweekly.com/2004-01-01/news/the-elliott-smith-mystery/ and http://www.laweekly.com/2004-01-08/news/the-final-moments-of-elliott-smith-s-life and http://www.laweekly.com/2004-01-15/news/another-view-of-elliott-smith/

Pelisek herself got the ball rolling by calling me to solicit all of my Elliott-related contact information—for a cover story the Weekly was going to do with or without my help—which I refused to offer up without permission. That same day, I believe, I got a call from Elliott’s soundman and close friend Fritz Michaud who was frustrated by the sudden single-minded interest in Elliott’s corpse by people who knew nothing of Elliott’s life and work (not to mention the personal issues he’d been grappling with). He said, and I’m paraphrasing here: You knew Elliott. You know everything wasn’t suddenly hunky-dory with him just because he quit using [street] drugs. Why don’t you write the article? And knowing that a lot of Elliott’s close friends wouldn’t talk to another writer, at least not in the same level of detail that they would discuss things with me, I figured that stepping up was the right thing to do, that anything less would have been an abdication of responsibility.

So I subsequently accepted a commission for a story on the death of Elliott Smith from LA Weekly. It was only many months later, after the Smith-Welch family’s attorney had threatened my editor at the Weekly with the potential of a libel suit—a threat so chilling that the Weekly had their own lawyer go over every word of my article and suggest changes I was unwilling to make, that I brought the article to SPIN, whose editors had the guts to run it essentially as-is.

And I did my best to be objective in the course of writing it. But as you go about your work and you see a pattern emerge, even an objective approach requires making sense of things. When a person (or a group of people) consents to being interviewed, and gives you his most painful recollections on the record, and is willing to attach his name to something that is controversial and disturbing—a subject that he knows is destined to be parsed, questioned, attacked and discussed for years to come in forums just like this—that person gains a certain credibility with his interviewer. And when another person (or group of people) avoids being questioned on that same subject, or speaks only on condition of remaining anonymous—refusing to back up or simply accept attribution for his responses—or tries to have the topic quashed before it can even reach the public record, that person diminishes his credibility with his interviewer.

In other words, there’s a difference between prejudice and judgment. Jennifer Chiba and all of Elliott’s friends who believed his death to be a suicide earned my trust with compelling evidence—which, believe it or not, I corroborated with a variety of “dissenting voices,” who unfortunately wished to remain nameless but were well outside the concentric circle you accuse me of solely relying upon—that built and built toward Elliott being in a pretty bad way on October 21.

As for my relationship with Jennifer Chiba, she went from a friendly acquaintance I knew through Elliott to a very heavily scrutinized interview subject during the writing of the SPIN article—one I would have gone after in print if any of those “dissenting voices” had gone on the record and actually given me something usable. If, at that time—when I was simultaneously seeking out people who disliked her to dig up any dirt on her, and talking to other contacts to double-check the things she told me—she referred to me as a friend, I can only say I’m touched to have acquired the appellation. I surely did not deserve it.

As for Chiba supporting Elliott’s decision to leave his longtime psychiatrist, Dr. Bert James Schloss, that is absolutely correct. But she was certainly not the only one of Elliott’s friends who encouraged Elliott to leave the care of Dr. Schloss.

Take David McConnell. Of Schloss, McConnell actually said, “The guy who was prescribing [Elliott] drugs was a lunatic… Anybody who would prescribe those combinations of drugs, you have to wonder about.

“One day [Elliott] asked me, ‘Will you go with me to my therapy session?’ We talked about our relationship for an hour, and at the end of the appointment another prescription was handed out. And I thought, ‘My God, isn’t fifteen enough?’”

And Chiba wasn’t “trying” to convince Elliott to see her own doctor at the time of his death. Elliott had already found a talk therapist—not Chiba’s doctor—and had scheduled his first appointment (for Oct. 24, sadly, just three days after he died). As for Chiba’s doctor, Dr. Abigail Stanton had, in fact, already taken over Elliott’s medication management weeks before Elliott’s death, after Elliott voluntarily left the care of Dr. Schloss.

This was all part of Elliott’s plan to wean himself off of prescription drugs—which he told plenty of people about. Now this was a potentially dangerous course of action with serious repercussions. (Remember that Elliott’s toxicology report indicated that the prescribed medications in his body were at therapeutic or subtherapeutic levels—i.e. levels below his most recently prescribed dosage. In other words, Elliott may have actually been skipping some of his meds. And this is someone who’d already drastically reduced the amount of anti-depressants he’d been taking in the weeks leading up to his death.) But that was Elliott’s choice.

And your statement that Elliott and Chiba’s argument on October 21 was about seeing a doctor actually conforms to what Chiba told me on the record:
“We had plans that day to go to my doctor. He was going to give me a ride. And he said he didn’t feel good. But then he changed his mind. He kept changing his mind, like, ‘Okay, I can drive you.’ ‘No, I can’t.’
“We got into a petty fight… I just got impatient and frustrated and started crying and went into the bathroom and told him to leave me alone.”
Finally Iman, assuming that  either you or Alyson  left the first comment under Ellen Carpenter’s SPIN.com post about my article (Editors Note: If my name isn’t there, I didn’t write it) , submitting that Chiba had told someone that she thought Elliott was joking with a fake knife—as evidence that she was lying—I have one more thing to add. Elliott was a practical joker. I talked about it in my article… about how Elliott liked to stick $100 bills in the shoes of sleeping homeless people, how he once did “the robot” from the door of a club all the way into the parking lot, how he liked to do funny impersonations or perform “pratfalls,” pretending to trip and fall or suddenly just collapse on the floor.
Not that many people saw this behavior. “I always thought of it like the cartoon with the little frog,” Scott McPherson told me about it. “The guy finds the frog and he pulls out a top hat. And the guy wants to show his friends—like, ‘Hey look at this!’—and then the frog just goes back to being a frog.

“Backstage, I’d see Elliott moonwalking and Elliott doing Mick Jagger and all this crazy, crazy shit. And then he goes out and sits and is just stoic.”
But it would not be the slightest bit out of character for someone who knew Elliott so well to think for a split-second—to rationalize information too horrible to process instantly, to hope really—that Elliott was pulling a gag, even one so terribly dark.Wouldn’t you wonder more about someone who would immediately think, “Oh, of course, Elliott’s just stabbed himself”?

I’m sure I haven’t answered all your challenges to your satisfaction. You may find more inconsistencies or evidence of bias in my analysis. You can surely use the things I’ve told you as ammunition by twisting my words to prove your own ends. And lots of people will agree with you. I’m sure I probably come off like some smug Gerald Posner-type arguing the uncool and oh-so conventional notion that Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy.But I hope that you will take the length of this response as an indication of how seriously I took my inquiry into Elliott’s death and not merely as a defense of my writing. While we’re on that topic, I would like to submit a request: Stop casting aspersions on my work. If you find it lacking in scope or perspective, then write your own article. Maybe you’ll even get the cops to open up about their investigation.

Originally published on Rock NYC (July 30 2010)

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