Ghost In Every Town – The Haunting Of Elliott Smith
By Wallace Wylie
The front cover is stark and tragic when inspected, but its muted tone makes it easy to miss what is going on. A featureless figure is leaping from one rooftop to another. Suddenly one realises there is a second figure who has obviously made the same leap as the first figure but has failed to reach the other side. They are falling to their death while the first figure looks like they will (probably) make it to the next rooftop.
The image is an apt metaphor for the life and artistic message of Elliott Smith. It graces the front cover of his self-titled second album, perhaps also his bleakest. Smith’s songs were populated by back alley losers, moving in a moonlit world of cashed checks, track marks, and bad luck. Smith himself seemed to manifest himself in this world as some kind of phantom omnipresent narrator, sympathetic to the protagonist’s human failings but also possessing an unflinching critical eye that allowed him the emotional distance to observe, but not get caught up in, the ensuing drama. While Smith struggled with alcoholism and depression his entire adult life, he at least seemed to posses the strength of mind to avoid the dark mistress who seduced so many of his most desperate characters, the ghostly white lady, Smith’s epithet for heroin. That he did indeed succumb to the white lady’s advances represents the great tragedy of Smith’s life, which throws a sickening question mark into his entire artistic purpose. How did grim determination in the face of life’s many obstacles turn into some kind of no holds barred self-destruction manifesto? What tipped the balance in favour of Smith’s unapologetic, gloating nihilism? Elliott’s suicide means that there will never be a definitive answer, but if we examine his life and art, perhaps we can find some respite from the permanent midnight of Smith’s world, which his artistic spirit seems condemned to forever inhabit, and reclaim some of the hard-headed determination to endure that threw broken light on even the blackest events of his songs.
“I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
If any one phrase seemed to sum up Smith’s life it was this Samuel Beckett quote (Smith was a fan and in his darkest days took to writing the title of one of Beckett’s short story collections on his arm in black marker). He had all the ingredients of a truly miserable childhood: parents divorce, Mother moves him to another town, Mother gets remarried to a stereotypically violent, bullying stepdad whose taunting slights on Smith’s sense of manhood tortured him to the end of his days.
Steven, his birth name, moved to Portland aged 14 to be with his father and it was there he entered his own private world of home recording. After graduating from college Steven became Elliott and he soon found himself in a loud rock band named Heatmiser who, for all their attributes, remain a footnote to Smith’s main artistic endeavour: his solo career (he stated that he always felt uncomfortable being in a rock band because, having grown up in a household filled with angry shouting, the last thing he wanted to do was scream). Though Heatmiser’s fame was growing, it was Elliott’s first solo release Roman Candle which elevated him beyond moderate indie success. His subdued delivery married to his intricate finger-picking and literate lyrical attributes were a revelation in ’94, as the American music scene revelled in the artless soul bearing and rock dynamics of Grunge, or took refuge in the ironic distance of nerdy indie rock. Here was an artist who did not shy away from his own unhappiness, but whose lyrics did not make you cringe with embarrassment.
Each release both built from and made an artistic leap from the last, resulting in both an Oscar nomination for best song (‘Miss Misery’) and a major label record deal with Dreamworks. 2000’s Figure 8 seemed to appeal to all bases. Intelligent, well produced, and bristling with hooks and catchy choruses, Smith toured Figure 8 heavily and hopes were high for that mythical crossover hit that took Elliott from respected independent songwriter to universally recognised genius and hitmaker. Ultimately it didn’t happen. Though sales were healthy, there were hints that Dreamworks had expected the album to perform a little better. The tour wound down and fans were eager to hear what the ever prolific Smith’s next move would be. Then, nothing. Smith appeared to all but drop off the face of the earth. Live performances became sporadic and fans began to notice a tendency for him to forget lyrics. Even darker rumours began to circulate that Elliott was now using heroin.
Struggle was always part of Elliott’s world. From the beginning his songs were the poetic laments of outsiders stranded on the sidelines searching for some spiritual release, be it in the form of drink, drugs, or obsessional love. He took on the roll of astute observer, even when obviously talking from experience (as stated, Smith struggled with alcoholism). Themes began to emerge in his songs, recurring side characters like Charlie (his bullying stepdad) and Mary K (representation of the mother whose love Smith ultimately craved and felt rejected by) who inspired two different songs of the same title, ‘Pretty Mary K’, the earlier of which has the protagonist yearning for contact with said Mary K, who is a prostitute on the dockside, but who must pay like all her other clients (this song remained unreleased until after Smith’s death).
Despite the gut-wrenching darkness of the subject matter, Smith also possessed what seemed like an unbreakable spirit, a willingness to continue no matter what. He would balance out the lure of heroin’s false release (‘Needle In The Hay’) with a stinging rebuke to users (“You idiot kid, your arm’s got a death in it”). Perhaps he always walked that tightrope of recognising heroin’s appeal while also sensing its obvious dangers, but something obviously changed and his wariness was to transform itself into an unabashed, taunting endorsement of junkiedom. Newer songs emerged in Elliott’s live performances from the Figure 8 tour and beyond which seemed to confirm that Elliott was now using. While the results could at times be astounding (‘True Love’ stretched the “Love as drug/Drug as love” metaphor to its limits without breaking it), they sometimes produced appalling lapses in taste, a la “It’s Christmastime, and the needles on the tree, a skinny Santa is bringing something to me” or “It don’t matter cos I have no sex life, all I wanna do now, is inject my ex-wife” both from the should-have-been-much-better-lyrically ‘King’s Crossing’.
Even songs that didn’t deal brazenly with the subject of drugs showed Elliott’s once superior lyrical skills seriously flagging, with the truly awful “So disappointing, so first I put it all down to luck, God knows why my country don’t give a fuck” from ‘A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free’ perhaps taking the prize as the worst line Smith ever penned (never mind that we have no idea what he means by “country” or what it doesn’t give a fuck about, when the work “fuck” is echoed by backing singers on the album version released after Elliott’s death we rightfully feel that something has gone terribly wrong). That many of these songs were rewrites of earlier material also indicated an artistic crisis in Smith’s life, as heroin use seemed to have both sapped his creative energies and weakened his once high lyrical standards.
The question remains, what turned Smith from a somewhat distanced observer to a helpless user?
The first finger of blame is usually pointed toward the record company. An easy target, especially given the fact that Smith indicated in an interview not long before his death that the record company were out to harm him. The fact that he also displayed paranoid delusional qualities to the interviewer, maintaining that every white van that he saw was a record company stooge following him, would seem to indicate that Elliott’s observations were perhaps not to be trusted at this point in his life. He certainly tried his hardest to make Figure 8 sell, and when it didn’t do as well as projected there was perhaps a feeling of “What more can I do?”. I wonder, though, if Elliott was not somehow brought down by the dangerous artistic notion of the authentic. Was he driven by some twisted guilt to use heroin in order to fully authenticate his own lyrical impulses? Elliott had once stated that, when writing lyrics in bars, he made a point not to listen in for lyrical inspiration, as cannibalising the bar was “not cool”. What if he felt that he had cannibalised the world of the user for his own artistic purposes?
When Smith sings, “The method acting that pays my bills” in the aforementioned ‘King’s Crossing’, it seems to give an insight into Elliott’s thinking. It was not enough that Elliott simply observed the world of the user, he had to use himself in order to make his songs more authentic, hence method acting. The fact that the resultant songs lacked the lyrical insight of his earlier creations makes a lie of all notions of the real and the authentic. A great writer uses his or her poetic imagination to empathise the life of another human. A lesser one must use the prop of a lived experience to enhance their work, but all great works of art must be able to survive free of their creator. Not that a writer must shy away from the autobiographical, but if the art in question must use the realness of the experience which supposedly inspired it as a means by which to hold it up, then the art itself should be judged the weaker for it.
All this of course avoids the fact that Elliott may have started using heroin as an escape from the horrendous depression that seemed to shadow his every step. The lure of heroin is that it has the power to obliterate all other problems. As the character of Frankie Machine states in Nelson Algren’s The Man With The Golden Arm, “There’s so many little worries floatin’ around ‘n floatin’ around, why not roll ’em all up into one big worry? Just like goin’ by the loan shark ‘n gettin’ enough to pay off all the little debts with one big one?” Elliott’s beatings at the hands of his stepfather (plus hints of sexual abuse), his sense of betrayal from his mother, his friends pestering him to deal with his drinking problem, his relationship troubles, all shrunk before the white lady.
Elliott became one his characters, trapped and doomed, something that his literary forefather Algren never succumbed to. In the beginning his unbowed determination to go on marked Smith out as the ultimate underdog. By the end his rationalisations over his obvious self-destruction came across as weak cop-outs in the face of overwhelming evidence that it was doing irrefutable harm. Friends indicate that anyone who tried to stop him from destroying himself were unceremoniously dropped from his life. He was going to do heroin and nobody was going to stop him. After all, we all have our vices, right?
The tragedy is that many of Smith’s earlier songs ranted against what was expected of him, ranted against the mind-numbing lifestyles that so many chose to live (“If I had to be like them I’d rather be no one”). For a while, it was enough to observe from the sidelines, each day mustering up the energy to continue, but when that energy dissipated Smith became what is perhaps the most clichéd image of all, the strung out rock star, the suffering artist. That he was aware of this represents an even deeper tragedy, as his way of dealing with this self-knowledge seemed to consist of a cold embrace of every junkie cliché imaginable. It was Smith’s life, and if he wanted to destroy himself it was nobody’s business, and if he wanted to do it while dredging up the most tasteless, jeering drug references he could muster that was nobody’s business either. I wonder though, if Smith’s most excessive drug pandering was not some kind of public retribution for Charlie, the shadowy stepdad who existed both in Elliott’s songs and in his actual life. “Look at what you’ve done to me. You destroyed me and now I’m going to suffer in front of everyone in order that you should feel real guilt and pain.” Was this Smith’s message to Charlie?
Can the actions of an artist undo the art itself? No. Just as great art survives without the prop of real life, so also it cannot be undone by the life of its creator. We may take the body of work that Elliott Smith produced in his lifetime for what it is, that of a genius. Lacking the blatant innovations demanded of the modernist era, he nevertheless showed an unrivalled grasp of form, refused to hide his vast musical abilities (Smith played almost every instrument on his albums), while at the same time uniquely displaying a keen lyrical insight. Many wordier songwriters, from Dylan to John Darnielle, have rejected the overtly melodic in order that the focus remain the words. But Smith was a master of melody, the only modern songwriter whose gifts equal those of McCartney or Wilson (who both, in a mirror to their lyrical counterparts, spent less time on words, feeling that the overall feel of the song was more important, an attitude which has become gospel to all).While a crippling heroin addiction and eventual death from self-induced stab wounds is enough to make us reassess the work of any artist, his failings should not be viewed as some kind of betrayal, either artistically or philosophically.
Smith submitted to a personal agony that most of us will never have to wrestle with. While it’s easy to focus on the darkness of Smith’s life and message, there is much to find comfort in. Elliott’s last release was a 7″ with ‘Pretty (Ugly Before)’ as its A-side (where again we question whether the feeling of well-being that Elliott revels in is love or drug induced) and an alternative version of ‘A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free’ as its B-side. On this version we find the real Smith. Damaged but determined, hurt but unyielding. Again he is the passive observer, lamenting the human follies around him and feeling justified in his alternative path.
“I’m floating in a black balloon
I must make it through this afternoon
Shape shifting shadow down drifting
Way out of town
And all you ladies and you gentleman
Unhappy where you could have been
You drive people like you drive a car
Till you don’t know where you are
You don’t impress me
I’m sorry that you’re chained to the ground
But no big brother is gonna bring me down now”
It’s easy to see that this could easily be another heroin reference. But Smith’s genius lay in his lyrical ambiguities. Yes, it could very well be about heroin, but it could also be about a general determination not to get caught up in the everyday vanities that inspire others to use and abuse whomever comes their way. It could be about his ever-present depression. The built-in ambiguities allowed Smith to make connections with many lost souls, even those who didn’t struggle with addictions.
Things began to go wrong when his lyrics became clearly about one thing (his heroin use and his justifications for it), or about nothing (there is a difference between deliberate ambiguities and lazy, unfocused writing). But if we look back over his songs, we find in the vast majority of cases not a blustering user intent on his own demise, but a sensitive outsider struggling with notions of self, manhood, happiness, freedom, success, and love. In other words, a real live human being. This is the Smith we should remember and go to for solace and resolve when our worlds close in on us. He ultimately gave what he could, and if he couldn’t outrun his own shadow our world is still richer for his contributions.
Among the cult of Elliott there are many who choose to revel in the darkness, who were drawn in by the gory details of his demise, who wear their distress like a mantle of pride, but for others, it is not the darkness which draws us in, but the chinks of light that Elliott let through, his steadfast, unwavering ability to navigate life’s minefields while trying to remain an essentially decent, honest individual. If his life failed that does not mean that his art did too. We should take this man’s gift for what it is, the chronicles of a desperately unhappy person with no inkling as to how to resolve his problems. That there were some of us who felt stronger, more human and less alone because of his accomplishments is a testament to his great soul, which aspired for more than his short life was able to achieve.