Poet Nelson Gary, who reads his poem very fast at the beginning of Elliott Smith’s song ‘Coast to Coast’, once explained a few things regarding the song: ‘Originally, the song was called ‘Circuit Rider’. A circuit rider is a preacher who goes from coast to coast, spreading the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ […] He [Elliott] also explained to me that the circuit rider, who the song is about, is in love with two women. The circuit rider feels extraordinary guilty and depressed with his heart severed in two, but he is also elated with the amount of love he shares with these women […] He confessed to me that the song’s central complexity of emotions was autobiographical.
There are many fuzzy things about Elliott’s life and in particular his love life during his last years appears to be extremely complicated. What exactly happened in August 2002 is unclear. Elliott posted a few messages on his fans message board on August 8th, and because of the Blether reference (an old Scottish word) people thought he was still with Valerie Deerin, his Scottish girlfriend, who has been seen supporting him at shows:
‘I’ve had a sick feeling for a long time, but you will see LP6, IN LEGAL FORM (not that I care if people bootleg it). also, thanks for the photo album of letters and 2nd double disc. some of you sing better than me, of course. this record is not being held up by my (quite good) management or, some kind of corporate crap. I’m getting healthy after a bad time. 2 songs left to pick now from 40. i haven’t died, y’know? (wished I had for awhile.) THIS MESSAGE APPEARS COURTESY OF THE BLETHER, but is from (h)hhelliott (i am not the blether, but i know…them.) sure seems like a lot of people on this thread running around with arrows in their hats. love to you all, m’friends. peace, (h)hhelliott (elliott)’
From the ‘I’m getting healthy after a bad time’, fans had concluded he had started a rehab treatment.
It is well documented that he started a rehab treatment at the Neurotransmitter Restoration Center in August 2002, and according to what we know (Ben Nugent’s bio and Liam Gowing’s Spin article) moved in with Jennifer Chiba just after his treatment, fall 2002. By then, he and Valerie had split up. However, it looks like Chiba was in his life before the rehab episode, when he was still dating Valerie. This part may bother a few people who are used to a clean-cut story, he dated Valerie Deerin, then Jennifer Chiba, but the reality is much foggier than this!
Music engineer Robert R., who recorded an album at Elliott’s studio in August 2002, told us this story, and he was certain Elliott was talking about Chiba: ‘Elliott had disappeared for 2 to 3 days, and used the fight with his girlfriend as an excuse somewhat. We thought he was just coming off of a drug bender. He looked horrible. So once we finally got into the studio and we were hanging out, he told us the story about how she chased him around with a knife during an argument’.
This happened before his rehab treatment, and without even mentioning the chilling vision he is describing considering the way he died, Elliott was talking about Chiba as his girlfriend.
Nelson Gary also said: ‘Elliott was a complex person. His relationships with Val [Valerie Deeerin] and Jennifer [Chiba] added considerably to the complexity of his life. He had a choice about the people with whom he involved himself, and he made them. NO one forced him to be with Jennifer. Most of the people I know preferred Val. I liked Val. I never knew Jennifer.’
It is unclear when he broke up with Valerie, but we have to consider he was more or less involved with both of them at the same time, and there is even a rumor that the two women got into a fight at one point.
When he moved in with Chiba, ‘Smith was in need of care more than romance’, writes Nugent, and from what several people have said, Elliott had no romantic relationship with her for a number of months after his treatment. They finally got romantically involved, and you have to wonder what Elliott was thinking if she was chasing him with a knife a few months earlier!
According to someone close to Valerie, he allegedly ‘wanted to move to Scotland and marry Valerie’, it is unclear when he formulated this thought, but it seems to be after Valerie’s departure from Los Angeles, after ‘He sent her back to Scotland’ as Schultz writes in his book. So what was going on in Elliott’s mind?
Valerie has stayed completely silent since Elliott’s death and has not talked to anyone on the record… But one thing is sure, she didn’t give up on him that easily and even attempted to see Elliott after one of his last shows in Brooklyn in June 2003, ‘I was with Valerie Deerin at the last show that Elliott played in Brooklyn, a few months before his death,’ told one of his Hampshire College old friend. ‘A terrible row took place between her and Jennifer Chiba. Jennifer falsely accused Valerie of attacking her.’… ‘Later, Jennifer would not let her come backstage with me and my other friend. Jennifer loudly and falsely accused Valerie of attacking her (it was patently untrue as I’d been with her the entire time and nothing of the sort took place). Elliott gave me his number to give to Valerie so he could talk to her privately later, and then we all spent the night at my friend’s loft together.’
This shows Elliott was still interested to see Valerie whereas he was officially with Chiba. But it gets even more complicated than this.
I met a female musician who also had a few things to say about Elliott’s love life maze. She was interested by Elliott, but could not even get close to him: ‘His last two girlfriends were awful, soul sucking vampiric witches who didn’t want him around anyone who would talk sense into him,’ she told me . ‘Valerie and I got into a fight, she would basically call every girl that was Elliott’s friend prior to her, groupie stalkers . I went off on Chiba too once and told her she’s not doing Elliott any good locking him up in her bird cage and then I punched a table she was sitting at the roost and stormed out, it was always drama back then… I had my own connection with him… and I felt he was dragged away by these succubus bitches, I have never dated him though. ’…
Another time, she explained a bit more: ‘We were friends for a while, see each other at the roost or 3 of clubs and always have a hug, a laugh, sometimes go back to his place on Griffith Park blvd afterwards, and then he got with some Scottish girl , and she was possessive and jealous and hated any female, and I lost touch with him . Then he resurfaced a bit when Jen stole him away … I would leave him voicemails he never got… mind you, I was seriously in love with him at the time, wrote some songs about him that he really liked and we had a really nice connection but it got ugly with me and Jen and she kept him away .’… ‘A year later right before he died , I was at Spaceland up in the smoking section with my boyfriend, Elliott came up to me with those braids in his hair looking really ragged.. and he said this. ’I really miss when I met you at the bar, the times we used to hang out but I’m trapped in somebody’s life and I don’t think I’m going to get out’ and then he mumbled something about cops being after him… and that he really hoped to see me again at that point I was like pfft whatever vibe to him cause I was just like, I have a dude now and you’ve been a real jerk letting that girl control your life’.
Elliott had apparently already two girls in his life, why was he trying to hook up with her? She even mentioned two other girls more or less involved with Elliott at the time: ’There was this other girl too, Michelle, she was really close with Elliott, she was his good friend, I think they may have had a thing but she got pushed aside when Jen came around… and there is even another girl called Alex, she dated him too .’
So many girls around, and nothing look like the clear story told in books and articles. To add to the confusion, Elliott even reconnected with a girlfriend in France, just before entering rehab. May be Elliott was confused, may be he could not choose where his life should be, and was changing his mind all the time. At the end, I am not sure he really chose to be with Chiba as Nelson Gary says, but will we ever know?
Originally published on Rock NYC (July 14 2015)