Elliott Smith: ‘Under The Radar’

The 10th anniversary issue of Under the Radar has a 6-page article about Elliott Smith, and, after reading it, I would say it reads like a companion of the article published in Spin magazine in 2004, without Jennifer Chiba’s interview: everything is there again, the traumatizing childhood, the drug abuse, Elliott’s wit and humor, his rise to success with his Academy Award nominated song ‘Miss Misery’, and the open question about his death.

If Under the Radar rightly glorifies itself to have had the last Elliott Smith’s interview (although it was pure hazard), the article follows the same old paths that many other magazine pieces have before, rehashing the same old stories without bringing anything new to the picture.

But if there is one thing to repeat, it is how unexpected his death was. At the beginning of 2003, the magazine did an in-length interview with Elliott and they reiterate in this new article the fact that he had cleaned up and was looking up for the future:

‘If anything, his statements over those days, several weeks apart, offered the first evidence that Smith had turned a corner on years of substance abuse and depression and made a place of sobriety and stability for himself in the modest Echo park bungalow he shared with his girlfriend.’

They go over his long list of projects: his newly equipped New Monkey studio, his desire to broaden his technological repertoire and to experiment with psychedelic noise, his desire to restart his charity for abused children, the rehearsal in preparation for his performance at All Tomorrow’s Parties, opening for Iggy Pop and the Stooges (some heroes of his), his phone call to his old friend Larry Crane, looking for help for his upcoming album.

And the article briefly talks about the mystery around his death:
‘The circumstances surrounding his death remain clouded by disagreement. Some believe he took his own life, others believe he was murdered, and still others say that he killed himself but was so impaired from either the unconventional rehab process or the four different prescribed drugs noted in his toxicology report that he was vulnerable to making dangerously impulsive decisions.’

But this is where any article mentioning his death should go and ask questions instead of always repeating the obvious. Who are these ‘some’? Are people that afraid to speak up about it? And what are these believes based on? Believes never satisfied me anyway, the truth is not a belief, and the truth never seems to interest magazines enough so they try to pursue it.

In the article, there is nevertheless an interesting quote from David McConnell, the producer and musician who worked with Elliott in 2002. It was a period when Elliott was taking massive amounts of drugs, smoking tons of cracks among other things. However, McConnell says:
‘I don’t think Elliott really wanted to die. There are people who I think are truly in so much pain that they want to end their lives. I don’t think that was his situation. I don’t think he was going to call Dr. Kevorkian to end his life because he was suffering so much. I think he was in a lot of pain, and I think he was trying to reach out to the universe somehow. And I think that he talked about ending his life a lot, and that was a byproduct of his drug use and the fact that he felt like shit. But he was such a sweetheart, and I don’t think he wanted to die. I don’t think that he wanted to do that to anybody. I think Elliott knew enough good times in his life and knew enough good people that he knew that there was something there to live for. I just think he was in a really dark place, and he was searching for something. He was searching for a way out. And he did talk a lot about [suicide], and he romanticized it, I think, a little bit. But it just didn’t seem like he wanted to die. I think he had too much curiosity and passion for life…. It just seems more like an existential exercise than an actual desire to die.’

Existential exercise? The ‘there is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide’ quote from one famous existentialist seems to totally apply here. I agree with McConnell, there is a lot of this existentialism in Elliott’s misunderstood lyrics, a lot of philosophy, Elliott was into Samuel Beckett and Michel Foucault, and isn’t ‘Either/Or’ author, Søren Kierkegaard, regarded as the father of existentialism?

Truth has to be pursued, and I just wish some magazines or newspapers would try harder.

Originally published on Rock NYC (November 14 2011)

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