Elliott Smith’s Supposed Previous Suicide Attempt: Let’s Revisit The Cliff Story

Articles about Elliott Smith very often mentioned that he made several attempts to take his own life, and every single one ends up mentioning this episode of the cliff in 1997: on a dark night, Elliott run and jumped off a cliff in North Carolina, landing on a tree.

The cliff story seems to be the definitive proof that Elliott tried to commit suicide in the past, beside the other assumptions that he tried to OD several times when he was working with David McConnell… since many contradictory statements have been made about this period, especially by McConnell, who knows what really happened? In his book ‘Torment Saint’, Schultz apparently didn’t even interview McConnell but directly quotes Liam Gowing’s Spin 2004 article when he writes that McConnell ‘had him on constant suicide watch’ during that time, and that Elliott ‘tried OD’ing’ by taking large amounts of prescription drugs. The thing is that McConnell also declared this in the Under the Radar 2011 issue:

‘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.’

So? What do we make of these OD episodes? But back to the 1997 cliff story, which has often been used as a proof that Elliott had been suicidal for very long and had tried to kill himself before. Schultz uses it once again as an argument to prove his suicide idea right, when he declared in an interview with the Independent: ‘Being someone who had openly threatened to kill himself on numerous occasions (and had once jumped off a cliff), a verdict of suicide seemed natural’

In his book, he once again quotes another interview, published by Spin in 1999:

‘I don’t like when people talk about all the bad things that have happened to them as if that makes them unique. Because I don’t think I’ve had a harder time than other people.’

‘But, um, yeah-I, uh, jumped off a cliff. But it didn’t work. It was in North Carolina or somewhere. It wasn’t like I made up my mind to throw myself off a cliff. I got freaked out and started running, it was totally dark, and I ran off the edge of a cliff. I saw it coming up, and it wasn’t like, ‘I’m gonna throw myself off this cliff and die.’ It was just, ‘Ground’s coming up. Who cares, whatever.’ I landed on a little tree, punctured my, you know, body. It just made a really ugly wound.’

Liam Gowing’s 2004 article in Spin, ‘Elliott Smith: ‘Mr. Misery’ had to say this about the episode – and the exact same thing was reprinted in the ‘revisited, 10 Years After the Singer-Songwriter’s Controversial Death’ version published for the 10th anniversary of his death:

‘In 1997, Smith was recording his last indie album, Either/Or, an intimate, lo-fi collection. Yet the process brought him little joy. ‘I recorded so many songs for it’, he later told the magazine Under the Radar, ‘and one or two of them sucked. Then three or four of them sucked. Then they all sucked and everything I did was terrible’. Instead of enjoying the buzz his new songs generated on tour, Smith ended up drinking heavily and jumping off a cliff in North Carolina, miraculously landing on a tree that broke his fall. After an unsuccessful intervention by friends at a Chicago hotel, he ended up in an Arizona psychiatric hospital.’

In his book ‘Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing’, Benjamin Nugent actually gave more details about the story:

‘Elliott was kind of in a funk, just sitting around and playing music but not much else, and it was like ‘come on, we’re all going to drive down to Raleigh’’, says [Dorien] Garry. ‘And I really figured out that something was wrong when he got on the turnpike and we stopped at a restaurant and he was like, ‘is there any place to get alcohol here?’ and it’s like, ‘on the new jersey turnpike? no, you’re lucky if you can get a decent cup of coffee. No. Not at all. Come on, you can make a ten-hour drive without a drink.’ he just wanted to be anywhere but in his own skin at that time.’

‘On the first night of the two-night celebration, they were giving a friend a ride home from the party, and Smith had been drinking. In the North Carolina countryside, they stopped to let Garry’s friend out of the car.’

‘It was pitch black and we were in a little cul-de-sac, and [Smith] just got out and started running,’ Garry remembers. The first to go after him was Tim Foljhan, a sometimes back-up musician for Cat Power who made his own music with the band Two Dollar Guitar. He and Smith had hit it off, and by the time Garry got to the spot in the darkness where they’d disappeared they were both off a cliff — Smith had run over the edge and Foljhan had followed him. ‘[Smith] landed on a tree and the branch went into his back,’ says Garry. ‘He wouldn’t go to the hospital and we took him back to the hotel, and it was like ‘what the fuck is going on?’ I felt responsible. It was my friend that I bring on this, everybody’s fun happy road trip.’

‘At the show the next day, he was kind of, said sorry he put everybody through that, and bandaged up his back – the last thing he really wanted to do was to make a spectacle of himself and have everybody freaking out.’

So does this really look like a suicide attempt? He was drunk, running in the dark, without even knowing there was a cliff, it rather looks like a stupid thing done under the influence of alcohol, without thinking about the consequences….

The most astonishing part of this whole thing has to be Schultz’s conclusion, ‘a verdict of suicide seemed natural… being someone who had openly threatened to kill himself on numerous occasions (and had once jumped off a cliff)’. What? How can he say this when he reports Dorien Garry’s detailed opinion about the story?

‘As they came to a stop Elliott threw open the back door and bolted. ‘He was incredibly drunk and embarrassed by the crying, Garry says, ‘And I don’t think he even realized what he was doing.’ The impulse was simply to run, to put some distance between himself and the car and the people in it. To be alone, in other words. Gary recalls, ‘There was a drop-off at the end of the cul de sac that Elliott did not even see, no one could see it.’ So, without clear intention or any true sense of what he was in for, Elliott ran off the cliff, landing on a tree that stopped his fall and punctured his back badly.’

And Schultz continues by writing that ‘Garry’s sense is that ‘by no means was that a suicide attempt. He didn’t know there was a cliff there, none of us did. It was just a mistake. I think he thought he was going down some kind of hill where he could be by himself and sit down and get things together’.

In conclusion, it’s time to put this cliff story to rest, I don’t want to see another article using this episode as a proof Elliott had tried to kill himself in the past. It was clearly not a suicide attempt, Elliott was drunk and upset with the people who were in the car with him. He run and he didn’t know there was a cliff! He didn’t want to kill himself, and the irony is that, despite the fact it is clearly stated in his book, Schultz still uses it as an argument for suicide in interviews!

Originally published on Rock NYC (November 18 2013)

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