Elliott Smith’s College Classmate Discusses Their Last Meeting And The Circumstances of His Death

A few weeks ago, someone who attended Hampshire College with Elliott Smith contacted me after reading one of my posts. After a few email exchanges, she told me very interesting things, and in particular she told me about the last time she saw Elliott. She had known Elliott for sixteen years and she is one of these friends who strongly think that more should be done to uncover the facts surrounding Elliott’s death. Needless to say, she isn’t not one of these friends interviewed by W T Schultz, and absolutely convinced it was a suicide!

Recently, she even told me I could quote her, even with her name, adding she wasn’t insisting ‘on remaining anonymous’, and having ‘nothing to hide. I certainly applaud Serena Williams (her real name) because not too many people have the guts to do so! This is what she told me about the night she wanted to meet Elliott backstage after his show in Brooklyn, New York in 2003. That night, she was accompanied by Valerie, unaware at the time she was Elliott’s ex-girlfriend:

‘It was just too much of a coincidence that in that small window of time she was in town and that I met her, and we both happened to know Elliott, and I just happened to be going to his show…and just happened to have a plus one. She was so excited to go, just giddy with happiness. I had never met her before…it just seemed so unlikely that she actually had been in this serious relationship with him as well.  But I never understood why there was such an explosion once we got to the venue either.  From my own experience, Valerie was very personable and kind and she was not capable of hurting a fly, so the fact that Jennifer accused her of “assault” was just really bizarre and seemed entirely out of context.  Now it makes a lot more sense to me.’

She finally met with Elliott backstage after the show:

‘When I spent time with him alone that last night Jennifer Chiba was not there for most of it but he never talked about her as a serious girlfriend to me, rather he seemed to be weary of her and he apologized profusely for her behavior. She basically yanked him away from me in the middle of a conversation and brought him into another room next to the one we were hanging out in backstage (or downstairs in this case). We could actually hear her screaming she was so loud, and she was insisting that Valerie had assaulted her. It was crazy. And if that were really the case, then why is it not in the new book that is out?  Being assaulted is far worse than being called “a whore”. ….but she won’t say it now because it never happened. She made us all leave, breaking up the party because she was so angry and she seemed to think I was responsible for having brought Valerie knowingly.  She told my friend “if he sees her he’ll kill himself” which also seemed psychotic of her. And yes…Elliott was happy to see Valerie, but Jennifer wouldn’t let them near each other. That’s why he gave me his phone number– so she could get in touch with him later.’

I don’t think I need to add anything, this echoes so much the story told by Nelly Reifler here, and the other one told by Joanna Bolme in Q magazine [‘I was going to go after the show, but [then girlfriend] Jennifer Chiba threw a fit and made him leave.’] Serena added:

‘Other friends of mine had similar experiences with Jennifer though.  She seemed very intent on keeping Elliott away from his old friends.’

Serena described Valerie to me as ‘a very mild mannered, easy going person and not at all a control freak’, whereas she had this to say about Jennifer Chiba: ‘she was not wholly successful at controlling Elliott as he still gave me his number to give to Valerie to get in touch with him after Jennifer screamed and yelled and accused her of assault. Still, Jennifer was the type to cause a huge fuss if things were not going her way whereas Valerie was not like that.’

‘It seems that this Jennifer character has got away with a lot and this has all gone unchecked. She seemed to be a dreadful type of person, but I really only had that one experience with her. I just happen to think that certain things don’t seem to add up, and she also proved she was capable of being a very cool liar and a huge drama queen.  The other thing that struck me was that Elliott did not seem that into her.  He did not seem invested enough in her to kill himself over anything she would say or do.’

‘The angry actions of Jennifer Chiba seemed to be par for the course, but he did not seem to take her that seriously. She did not seem to be able to control him when it came to him doing what he wanted to do, though she certainly did try.  I also will mention that Valerie was not “on drugs” and Elliott was more sober than I’d seen him in years…he was on many anti-depressants which he showed me. There were several….literally a whole backpack of them.  But he was in very good form.  I’m not sure what happened in the next few months’.

Valerie told her ‘she had to break up with Elliott because she couldn’t deal with his drug issues’ , and it seems logical that Valerie wanted to re-connect now that he was doing better as Serena said:

‘Elliott was not as hopeless and helpless as she’s [Jennifer Chiba] made him out to be. She also asserted that he was terribly unstable because he had gone off all of his medications, yet anti-depressants were still found in his system, so that can’t be entirely true either. He was working on an unfinished project (and it’s unlikely he would have just said “fuck it” for that alone).  He seemed hopeful and positive when I last saw him (It may have been June but somehow I thought it was later than that–more like August or early September).  It’s so convenient to use his past bouts of depression coupled with his music as evidence of his suicidal tendencies.  That’s the trouble.  He has the image of a gloomy, sad guy (which he was only part of the time, whereas most of the time he was a lot of fun). It was so easy to make his death out to be a suicide from the legacy he created.  I have a strong hunch that Jennifer Chiba knew this and continues to use this to her advantage and it’s exactly how she has been able to manipulate the story in her favor. They weren’t together for that long, but I knew him well for sixteen years, and I feel strongly that more should be done to uncover the facts.’

This is what she had to say regarding the child abuse story, often used as a story that would have aggressively resurfaced in Elliott’s memory towards the end of his life, to explain his suicide:

‘And this whole thing about the sexual abuse of his stepfather does not for some reason ring true to me.  I know he hated his stepfather.  We talked about it a lot as I also have a stepfather that I had a terrible time with.  It’s very possible that Elliott had some repressed memories surface regarding abuse, but I’m doubtful at the validity of how much they played a part in his depression.

‘why this would become intensified at the end of his life is dubious. I mean–he always felt like that.  So that he suddenly became upset about repressed memories of sexual abuse seems possible, but not to the extent where it would have made him suicidal.’

‘These memories did not drive him to kill himself and seem to be exaggerated for effect. Basically, I think that ANYTHING that Jennifer Chiba has to say is not to be trusted.  Unfortunately it seems as though she has been able to leak a lot of inaccurate information to the press to make Elliott look worse off than he was, so she will look better.  As I mentioned before, she did not seem to be able to totally control him. He was going to do what he was going to do regardless of what she wanted.’

Overall, this is what she said about Elliott’s personality and apparently complicated love life:

‘I don’t think that Elliott had any ONE true love.  He was too complex to be simplified in that manner.  He could love a lot of people, but he tended to drive away the people who he truly cared about who also cared for him in the end, which is pretty common with most people who indulge in drugs. It’s basically standard self destructive behavior. He wasn’t this doom and gloom kind of guy most of the time. He was very smart (he studied philosophy in college and was an excellent student)…he also liked to joke around. He was really sympathetic, and you could talk to him about anything, but he wasn’t so overly depressed that he would have taken his own life unless things were really really really bad. The last time I saw him he was so excited to be sober, and he was ready to embark on some new things.  The only thing in his life that seemed to be a problem at that time was that horrible girlfriend of his and yet she’s the one saying he was going off the rails.’

Beside Valerie, Serena knows a lot of Elliott’s ‘famous’ friends such as Marc Swanson and E.V. Day, and she mentioned their resignation and lack of involvement:

‘I guess people are just too exhausted, sad and confused to know how to proceed and they have accepted there is not really anything more that anybody can do to get the criminal justice system to investigate this on a grander scale. There is a sense of helplessness that pervades over the whole situation.  Everyone I know who knew Elliott is protective of him to some extent, but most of us didn’t see him very much near the end of his life, and I think nobody knows what to really think.’

‘When he died it was very difficult for me to accept that he had killed himself.  It just didn’t seem to add up, and had he decided to take that route, I didn’t think he would have stabbed himself in the heart.  I immediately got in touch with Neil Gust (from Heatmiser) because I thought Neil would know. But Neil was very bitter and angry.  He told me that Elliott was beyond repair, and that it was entirely plausible that he had killed himself.  Since I thought that Neil knew Elliott better than anyone, I had no choice but to believe him (Neil is a great friend of mine, and I hung out with both Neil and Elliott throughout my college years and saw them a few times after they had moved to Portland).  However, in retrospect I don’t think that Neil had been in touch with Elliott right before he died, and he may have based his perceptions on things that had occurred before. He was also still very pissed off at him for several personal reasons.  But at the time I supposed that if Neil affirmed that suicide was probable, then his words were not to be taken lightly, as he knew Elliott much better than I did.’

‘Frankly, most of Elliott’s old friends were not a big part of his life shortly before he died.  Accounts vary, but it’s common knowledge that he was not doing very well.  A few of my friends staged an intervention with him at one point, and he never really forgave them.  But he still was accessible, and he still would see us whenever there was an opportunity to do so.  I never felt completely cut off from him, and I don’t think anybody ever was unless they decided to cut themselves off as in the case of Neil.’

One thing is certain, Serena is convinced much more should be done:

‘I was very angry at how terrible the police investigation had gone.  I maintain that there is more to the story than what Jennifer Chiba has stated, and she was such a nasty liar, it is beyond me why there has not been more dissent.’

‘I think what needs to happen is that Jennifer Chiba needs to be questioned and interrogated.  People who lie change their stories all the time and it is likely that there would be inconsistencies with her story again. ‘

‘It’s a lot easier to shrug your shoulders, and say, “well–there is nothing I can do and Elliott MIGHT have done it, so what can I do”?   It’s less painful to think that he willingly killed himself than to think that he was murdered, and that his murderer got away with it. So, it’s simply easier to accept that he did it.’

I let you the judge, I agree with what Serena had to say and praises her courage to talk publicly!

Originally published on Rock NYC (December 11 2013)

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