Whenever I get some free time (as a new parent, something in very short supply!), I like to read biographies. Not only do I enjoy finding out more about the lives and careers of the people in interest, but I also enjoy finding out what it is that makes them “tick”. Especially people who have lived hard lives and have either lived to tell tales of redemption, or people who didn’t make it out of the dark shadows that consumed their short lives.
Elliott Smith was one of those who was ultimately consumed by personal issues and drug addiction, and who ended up dying at the age of 34. He was, by all accounts, a musical prodigy even at a young age. I wasn’t familiar with his extensive musical discography, but I ended up reading an article about him on the Internet. He struck me as such an interesting character that I ended up downloading his posthumous biography “Torment Saint”, by William Todd Schultz (a fantastic and comprehensive biography, despite the author’s propensity to overly analyze almost every song that he had written). If you aren’t familiar with Elliott, here’s an abridged summary of his life:
-Grew up in a broken home, was a musical prodigy and multi-instrumentalist who was in bands even as a kid
-Went to college, got a degree, moved to Portland, Oregon; where he started the band Heatmiser
-Broke up Heatmiser shortly after getting signed to a major label, starts his solo career
-Gets nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song (Miss Misery, from the movie Good Will Hunting) despite not being signed to a major label, gets signed to a major label shortly thereafter
-Slowly falls into the throes of drug addiction and mental illness
-Ends up quitting all illegal and prescribed drugs, was still an emotional wreck
-Commits suicide (from most accounts) by stabbing himself twice with a knife
Now, people basically made him out to be a modern day incarnation of John Lennon or Paul McCartney. I usually don’t buy into the hype of most artists, the music ultimately speaks for itself. Well, I finally checked out Elliott’s vast musical library, and damn was I impressed. His ear for melody, his ambivalent yet highly personal and incisive lyrics, his usage of dynamics, his skills at using different instruments and multi-tracking his voice…yes, there are many parallels between him and Lennon/McCartney! Except the Beatles had the very underrated advantage of having a genius producer like George Martin. Elliott wrote all of his solo songs, and basically produced them all himself.
His band Heatmiser was one of the seminal bands in the early 1990’s Pacific Northwest scene (I hate to use the “G” word), which showcased his talent for writing catchy melodies and powerful lyrics. And his solo stuff, while mostly acoustic, was no less powerful. In fact, it is quite honestly some of the most painfully honest and powerful music that I have had the pleasure of hearing.
If you aren’t familiar with his songs, his albums XO and Figure 8 are as good as any a place to start. While you’re at it, check out some of his Heatmiser work as well (all of these albums are floating around on YouTube). If you are drawn to the tortured singer/songwriter persona as I am, or just appreciate well-written music, then you will hopefully enjoy it as much as I do!