The whole experience was very weird and surreal, I hate to be the center of attraction, and I was for a while, I dislike arguing with people in public, and I was, I really was!
I went to William Todd Schultz’s lecture about his book ‘Torment Saint’ at Skylight books on Saturday night, and I didn’t know exactly what to expect. When I arrived, there weren’t a lot of people, and this kind of reassured me first as I was going to make a fool of myself in front of them, asking all the tough questions… Not long before 5 pm, I noticed Jennifer Chiba and her large entourage sitting right behind me, and I soon recognized Gil Reyes who made the documentary ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’ among others. First, Schultz gave us a little talk about what he called ‘Elliott Smith prehistory’, or Elliott’s years in Texas and Portland, when he was still a child and a teenager. He made us listen to very early and never-heard-before instrumental recordings (provided by Elliott’s buddies from Texas) showing us pictures of Elliott in 7th or 8th grades, comparing songs Elliott recorded with his first band ‘Stranger than Fiction’, with songs he recorded later on for ‘XO’ or ‘Figure 8’ – it was obviously the same songs reworked and arranged differently – and all this was very cool and nice. Schultz is a soft spoken guy and he is apparently knowledgeable and passionate about his subject,… I expected him to read excerpts from his book as it is often the case for this kind of events, but he had instead prepared a power point presentation and all these recordings.
Then came the Q&A, and I let some people asked the first ones, ‘What drew you to Elliott Smith?’ Schultz said he discovered Elliott through his daughter, and immediately liked him, as Elliott is a ‘genius songwriter’. He added he found the songs consoling, not sad at all, even euphoric, whereas Elliott was very loveable, compassionate, smart, with a great sense of humor, happy, alive, and not a sad sack at all! For him, it was the perfect combination, he loved the art, and really liked the person, a dream for a biographer. There was another question about the unreleased songs and Schultz explained he couldn’t understand why there were so many difficulties to release all the songs, since there are so many great songs we haven’t heard yet, such as ‘Stickman’ (actually fans have shared demo recordings of the song on message boards). ‘There are 2 sides of the family, the Welches in Texas and the Smiths in Portland and they both have to agree; one year and half ago, another record was about to be released but at the last minute the Smith side didn’t want to do it’, he added.
Talking about the family, I was decided to ask my question: ‘Did you talk to the Portland family?’ And Schultz had some sort of convoluted answer. ‘It’s a tricky question to answer. It’s not true that I didn’t talk to his family, but it’s also a little less untrue that I did talk to his family.’ He said he interviewed a lot of people off records, adding ‘I know that some people on blogs or whatever said ‘Schultz never talked to his family’, ‘how could he write a book when he never talked to his family’, he was suddenly taking such an angry voice, and was looking straight at me, I guess he knew who I was at this time? ‘But it’s not true that I never talked to his family’, he repeated. He can’t say exactly what he has done, ‘but it’s not true that I didn’t talk to his family’, he repeated again… he seemed to be totally pissed off that some blogs reported this… but I was asking about a specific side of the family, his father side! So I asked him directly about his father. He said Gary Smith was the very first person he contacted when he decided to write about Elliott, ‘we had very courteous and polite email exchanges’ he said and he had actually some hope that Gary, who has never talked to anyone before, would talk to him. But Gary finally said he wasn’t emotionally ready to do so, adding that although it had been 10 years, it was still agonizing to talk about it. So he never talked to Gary Smith, and the Portland family has never been on record, I guess Schultz talked to the Welch, and very probably to Ashley Welch only. But he was left with this tough question: could he write a book without talking to the father? And he decided it was doable, justifying himself by saying his own parents know him far less than his good friends, and compensating by the fact he had talked to so many people who really loved Elliott and were very closed to him (in Portland, Texas, and LA). At the end of his long answer, he repeated once again it was not true he never talked to his family, visibly very upset about all this. Then I asked him about all the people who have been very reluctant to talk about Elliott, people like Jon Brion, Joanna Bolme, Autumn de Wilde who aren’t in his book. ‘It’s almost a policy that they don’t want to talk about him, he answered, adding he totally understood despite the fact he would have liked to talk to some of them.
Regarding the question of abuse, Schultz said it was a really tough and complicated question, Elliott’s Texas friends said his stepfather was an asshole but they also said they had never seen him doing anything abusive to Elliott, never got the sense that something like this was going on, and only saw verbal disputes between the two. Schultz didn’t really want to take a stand, he declared that Elliott started to have these memories in the last years of his life, but they could have been false memories? ‘There is no way to be certain about what happened in terms of abuse during these early years. I really don’t know what happened, in the book I considered all possible sides and reported on what people had told me and it’s up to the reader to decide.’
‘I don’t think it is pretty clear he was abused’ added Schultz, ‘That’s true he wrote songs about it but that doesn’t prove he was abused’…’if you write a lot of songs and even name this person Charlie, it sounds very much like abuse, indexing something real, but on the other hand, writing a song about abuse could be a more metaphorical portrait of something that didn’t happen, so this is tricky.’
Then he evoked the letters his stepfather wrote to Elliott in which he said that he was sorry, that he had changed and hoped Elliott could forgive him and have some kind of relationship with him while insisting he had never sexually abused anyone. At the end, Schultz can’t decide where is the truth, however, he also mentioned another friend from Texas declaring ‘there are things that I know from Texas that I will never tell anyone’… and if this isn’t enough to rise the biggest red flag, I don’t know what Schultz needs.
After the Q&A, I was the first online for the signing, and I continued to bother Schultz a bit. I know I had pissed him off already, so why not continuing? I decided to rebound on his metaphor for the abuse part, and asked him if he thought it could be the same for the suicide part: Elliott talked and wrote about suicide a lot and it could be a metaphor too? I was just trying to get to the core of the subject, the question of his death hadn’t been discussed and it was the elephant in the middle of the room. ‘Did you read my last chapter?’ he said. Actually this was the first thing I read in the book! I told him I wasn’t convinced by his demonstration, and I could tell he was even more pissed off, offended and upset. He said he interviewed Dr. Scheinin in depth and she had refuted one by one all the elements that have been described as bizarre for a case of suicide. I told him that it was very rare to stab oneself in the chest like this, he answered that no, it wasn’t rare. Then the possible defensive wounds? Scheinin told him they weren’t actually defensive wounds (although they are stated ‘possible defensive wounds’ on the autopsy report), and if there had been defensive wounds they would have been found in large number. The stabbing though the shirt? Again, not rare according to Schultz, and much easier to do when people are wearing a t-shirt instead of a buttoned shirt. I pointed out he dismissed this part in the book based on the fact that Elliott would have never been caught with his shirt off, and that Elliott actually paused shirtless for a photograph, and then I realized Schultz felt I was really attacking him and his suicide theory. He was mad, I could tell… he said that Scheinin wanted to rule it as a suicide, but she was careful to do it because of the family? I don’t buy it, isn’t it even worse to imply it was a homicide, since in this case you imply someone did it? He seemed so convinced Scheinin wanted to determine it as a suicide, whereas this was not at all the impression I got when I interviewed her. Then the last argument, ‘there is not a friend that I have interviewed who doesn’t think it was a suicide!’ Again, I pointed out I have talked to people who don’t believe it was a suicide! He seemed to be more and more pissed off, probably already regretting to have come to LA to argue with this crazy woman… What can I say, you can’t sell me stabbing in the chest as a current form of suicide, and Schultz was particularly mad at me because I wasn’t impressed by his Scheinin interview.
He finally signed my book and I was about to leave when Gil Reyes called me ‘Alyson!’ I was only half-surprised he knew me. Last time I saw him, he was on stage during this Q&A after the screening of his documentary, but this time he had decided to be very friendly. He wanted to make peace with me and asked me if I wanted to take a coffee with him, and even talked to J. Chiba. What? Would she accept an interview? May be… Reyes told me that ‘there was no need of all this’ probably referring to all my posts on rock nyc, and he seemed to be eager to burry the hatchet – hey, he banned me from his facebook page! In any case, he still wanted to convince me J. Chiba was totally innocent, saying he talked to someone from the police (of course he can’t reveal who this person was) who told him the police thought it was a suicide. I have a hard time with that considering the fact I talked to detectives King and Morris and they couldn’t say anything about the case. And suddenly he talked about the cut, the one on Elliott’s arm, and comes up with a story I had never heard: Elliott could have done this to himself when falling on the balcony. Really? How many explanations do you want about these cuts? First there was the sneaky insinuation they were due to self-cutting, and now this? But he looked like a guy who wanted to play the mediator between me and J. Chiba and I finally talked to her. I had met her before, at the Getty when there was a homage to Elliott, then at this Q&A and she finally remembered me, ‘you asked me these questions at the Q&A’ she said. I asked her if she would do an interview, and then a young guy who was standing there, took her by the shoulders, and stared at me saying ‘she will think about it’ on a borderline menacing tone. Okay, she can think about it, but this is her chance to come clean! I gave her my number and I am waiting…
Originally published on Rock NYC (October 14 2013)