THE OTHER DAY marked the ninth anniversary of the death of the singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. I have no more appreciation for him than you have, if you’re a fan. I have no better way of describing his particular brilliance—the singular beauty of his melodies, harmonies, lyrics, playing, and devastating emotion—than anyone else. I love almost every song he recorded.
He killed himself on October 21, 2003. He was 34. I had a four-month-old at the time, a baby girl who was the result of a hard-won pregnancy I was very afraid of losing. She was sleeping in a bassinet when I opened up my email and saw a message from a friend titled “Elliott Smith, R.I.P.” This is where I should say that, having just brought new life into the world, I was shocked and dismayed that a man should decide to end his own precious existence on this earth. But really, that’s not the way it hit me. Instead, I felt more of a terribly sad “of course, of course he did,” even at the same time that I was heartbroken and feeling bereft that from that moment forward there would be no new music from Elliott Smith.
The odd thing about pregnancy and childbirth is how close they can feel to death at times. In that pregnant or postpartum condition, there is an almost mystical understanding of the fragility of life and of the spectacularly fine line between a heart beating and a heart stopped. There is such slippage between those two states and yet we go on most days not thinking about it at all. I was still in a slightly dreamlike awareness of this at the time that I heard about Smith.
Of course you couldn’t get around the absolutely shocking way he did it—death by stabbing himself. It signifies such violent self-hatred. It also suggests incredible will and force and determination. It was clear for years that he was a man suffering from drug addiction and depression and self-loathing. That material had been famously mined in his songs (and there was no way around its seeming autobiographical), and his friends had all become acquainted with his demons. But on the record that had most recently come out before his death, Figure 8, more light and hope had filtered through. There was a swell and lift to some of the songs, a kind of ecstatic breaking through. In the song “Happiness” he sings, over and again, “What I used to be will pass away and then you’ll see/That all I want now is happiness for you and me.” It was hard to imagine a more beautiful sentiment.
This is where I should say that a person so wildly gifted, and one who was actually enjoying some success, should never have hated himself so much. But by now we ought to know it doesn’t always work that way. A crowd of awestruck admirers, night after night, couldn’t fix his problems. Those who identified with his special brand of deep melancholy (“Between the Bars,” “Waltz # 2,” “Everything Means Nothing to Me,” the list could go on and on) could do no more than cheer and relate to and thank him for, as they say, putting it out there. On his record that was released posthumously, From a Basement on the Hill, he was firmly back to the self-loathing. The record can be heard as a chronicle of self-destruction. It should be simple for us to love ourselves, but it isn’t. You hear this again and again on that record, in the plainest terms. “Pretty (Ugly Before),” one of my favorites, makes the struggle clear: “Sunshine, keeping me up for days/There is no nighttime, only a passing phase/And I feel pretty, pretty enough for you/I felt so ugly before/I didn’t know what to do.”
It’s as though he just couldn’t shake the burden of being himself, a notion that puts me in mind of Delmore Schwartz’s poem “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me.” The poem describes the self (the bear) that won’t let a person be free, “a stupid clown of the spirit’s motive.” The heavy bear, it seems, followed Smith everywhere.
This is where I should say that the bright spot is what Elliott Smith gave us. And that one’s absolutely true. There’s no other way to look at it now, nine years on. I go back again and again to his music and marvel at it. I think of him as a friend I never knew. I remind myself that he’s the man who wrote that line in “Independence Day”: “Everybody knows you only live a day/But it’s brilliant anyway.”