The Truth About Elliott Smith: An Article From The Oregonian

In January 2010, Margie Boulé, a journalist for the Oregonian, wrote an article entitled ‘The truth about Elliott Smith’, in which she tried to give a more accurate portrait of the songwriter, denouncing the myth created around his image of trouble and depressed artist. She managed to interview Marta, Elliott’s stepmother, who had never publicly spoken about him to my knowledge. For that reason the article is precious, especially because Marta is saying that what bothers Elliott’s family the most is the misperception that Elliott committed suicide by stabbing himself.
Strangely, the article has now disappeared from the journal site but was archived on several sites.


The truth about Elliott Smith

A record label in London, Domino Recording Co., wanted to donate $5,000 to a Portland charity called Folktime in memory of its late recording artist, Elliott Smith. Folktime had been chosen, the note said, because while living in Portland Elliott had belonged to the group, which provides artistic and socialization opportunities for people with chronic mental illness.

Elliott Smith was a prolific singer-guitarist-songwriter who went to high school in Portland and started his music career here. A musical virtuoso who became famous for his haunting lyrics, Elliott had solo recordings featured on the soundtracks of major Hollywood films such as “Good Will Hunting,” “American Beauty” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.”

In 1998, Elliott’s song “Miss Misery,” which had been featured in “Good Will Hunting,” was nominated for an Academy Award. Elliott performed the song on the awards broadcast, but he didn’t win the Oscar.

He performed on “Saturday Night Live,” “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and “The Late Show with David Letterman.” He was signed by David Geffen and DreamWorks.

Elliott was a successful creative and performing artist right up until his death in 2003. After he died from stab wounds in his chest, it was written in many places that Elliott had committed suicide. After all, he’d written so many dark lyrics. He’d threatened and, some said, he’d attempted suicide before.

So: a nice donation to a local mental health group, from a record company far away, in memory of a famous, troubled local musician who’d once benefited from the group’s services.

It sounded like a nice little story.

The trouble is, most of it was fiction.

“Once you get to a certain level of fame, it’s incredible the things people say that aren’t true,” says Marta Greenwald, Elliott Smith’s stepmother. Elliot lived with Marta and his father, Gary Smith, when he was growing up in Portland.

In spite of the stories you may have heard, that Elliott Smith was troubled all his life, Marta says her stepson was far from a depressed, struggling teenager.

“Elliott had a very middle-class upbringing here in Portland,” she says. Contrary to some published accounts, Elliott never ran away from home, never lived on the streets, never used the services of Outside In.

In fact, Elliott was a National Merit Scholar who played clarinet in the school band and was in a high school rock band called Stranger Than Fiction.

Four years later, in 1987, he graduated from Hampshire College in Massachusetts with a degree in political philosophy.

He returned to Portland and began playing with the local rock band Heatmiser. “They were incredible for many reasons,” says Jeremy Wilson, who met Elliott in the early ’90s. “They really rocked.”

Jeremy, who played in the Portland band Dharma Bums, became a friend of Elliott’s and helped connect him with the Frontier Records label in L.A., which signed Heatmiser.

Accounts of Elliott’s life have mentioned lifetime addictions to drugs and alcohol. But Jeremy says, “We all drank beer at times, but I never was aware of anything even remotely close to (heavy) drug use” back then.

Nobody’s denying that Elliott had trouble with drugs, alcohol and depression later.

“He did struggle with those things,” says his stepmother. “That’s all true. But other things that have been written” are not true.

“He was a really complicated guy, but he wasn’t just a sad sack. He had a great sense of humor, and some of his music is very light.” And while Elliott was sometimes depressed, “he wasn’t always in that state.

“People like to construct a personality, particularly after someone has died,” Marta says. “They like to be simplistic and say, ‘This led to this, which led to this, which led to that.’ But that reduces the complexity of who they really were.”

The misperception that most bothers Elliott’s family is the idea that Elliott committed suicide by stabbing himself.

“The coroner’s report ruled the death inconclusive,” Marta says. “There’s an open police case; it was never ruled a suicide. They couldn’t determine if it was homicide or suicide. … That’s important to the family.”

And the donation to Folktime in Elliott’s name? The recording company gave $5,000 to Folktime because Elliott’s father, Gary Smith, is a psychiatrist in Portland. “My husband has been a supporter of Folktime for a number of years. He thinks they do wonderful work,” Marta says.

But Elliott never belonged to Folktime. “He knew nothing about it,” Marta says.

So why did Folktime think Elliott had been a member? “I assumed he was,” says Tom Brady, Folktime’s executive director. “We didn’t know he had a family here locally. Why else would a record company be making a donation to us in his name?”

Still, “if Elliott knew about this, he would be pleased,” says Gary Smith, Elliott’s dad. “He was never there, but it still fit with his sensibilities.”

— Margie Boulé

Originally published on Rock NYC (December 13 2010)

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