Many people regularly ask me why it’s so important for me to know how Elliott Smith died. But isn’t it obvious? Aren’t the cause of death and the circumstances around it always relevant when we think about a deceased artist? People always say, we want to celebrate his life and his music and not his death,… sure, but death is part of life, it is attached to Elliott Smith’s persona and there is no way it doesn’t affect the way we look at his music and life.
People are so uninformed about the way Elliott died that it is scary. But nobody should be surprised by this, it’s true for everything these days, the more information there is, the less people know. All the information about his death is out there, all over the internet, but still, you stumble on comments on YouTube or after articles in major publications, like this ones:
‘It was in fact ruled a suicide after charges were dropped against her….’
‘he commit suicide no doubt. He was a sad guy, and he stabbed himself in the through the ribs, which is a very painful way to die. Kurt Cobain could’ve been murdered. Elliott Smith, not a chance, someone saw him do it.’
I don’t know where these people get their information, The Smoking Gun showing the autopsy report is still online but it’s true there is a lot of confusion in the media. Still, misinformation is one thing, and these are not the comments which bother me the most. The worst comments fall into several categories. First you have the ones which draw a direct conclusion from his lyrics, like for example:
‘If you have done your research as much as you say you have, you’d know that Elliott had tried to kill himself before by jumping off a cliff, his lyrics very often reflect suicide and that he’s not afraid to die.’
What a poor analysis of anything that Elliott has written! But the thought is so commonplace on the internet that it reinforces my desire to discover the truth. Too many people want the simple equation, ‘lyrics interpreted as sad = suicide’, to be true. I would even say that these people are in love with the idea. In his interviews, Elliott has always been clear that his songs were not diaries, ‘It’s less about me and more about what might be interesting about my situation. If we were really going to talk about my specific life then I couldn’t do that. The songs are like little movies that you can watch if you want, they’re not supposed to make people feel like I do.’ But I know, he spoke more than 10 years ago and his voice is fading away…
Secondly, you find comments coming from people who have a problem with suicide, and who end up accusing Elliott of the worst. He becomes the coward whom everyone should blame and hate for what he did:
‘I just have a serious problem with articles that try and glorify people who kill themselves. This was a drug addict who killed himself. It’s tragic. Absolutely. And I liked Smith’s music. It’s one thing to die of an overdose, like Joplin or Hendrix. But this wasn’t the case. Smith, like Cobain, had obvious mental problems. Smith’s death wasn’t a tragedy like Lennon. That was a tragedy. Being shot in the prime of your life with a new baby and wife. Smith’s death was a tragedy because a man who had severe problems – mental and drug – either didn’t know where to turn for help or thought he was beyond help. But let’s not romanticize the guy’s life. He stabbed himself to death. Think about that. Not a quick shotgun or jump from a high building. He stabbed himself. That not only inflicts a lot of pain, but is not the quickest way to go.’
‘Seriously? HE killed himself. Due to drugs. Why is he being celebrated?’
‘Maybe if he didn’t kill himself I’d have more respect for the man, I like his tunes though, stupid dude ridding the earth of awesome tunes from a dumb argument with a girl- my opinion depression is not an illness it’s a state of mind you can easily get yourself out of depression but all these docs mind fudge you into thinking there’s no hope take these pills…’
Obviously these people are idiots, who not only don’t understand what suicide is, but also insult Elliott’s memory,… and as someone who tries to read all the comments I find, I see this a lot!
When he was alive, Elliott said it many times, he hated the myth people have created around him, just listen to him:
‘I don’t want to perpetuate the myth. It doesn’t have anything to do with the music… Well, it does. There’s some stuff about doctors and infirmaries and stuff on the new record and it does have something to do with that, but I don’t want to perpetuate the notion that if somebody plays music they must be fucked up or crazy. mostly I don’t like that whole myth because if you’re a kid and all you can ever hear is that people who are in your favorite band are really weird and unlike everybody else, it seems like you have to be unusual to make good music.’
‘I don’t think it [the tortured artist myth] is glamorous in the least. It winds up being another part of your cartoon costume, because then it’s supposed to stand in for actual life – not that it matters what my actual life is. I don’t have any desire to try and put across my life to people.’
Why it is so important to know how Elliott Smith died? Isn’t it obvious? For all the reasons above! As my suspicion has grown bigger every day with my research, I want more than ever the truth to come out, because all the clichés that people come up with are damaging for Elliott’s memory and his work.
Originally published on Rock NYC (February 16 2015)