Remembering Elliott Smith

On the 10th anniversary of his death, Joey Spehar of The Morning Mix and Andy Cook of The Block Party discuss the life, music, and legacy of Elliott Smith.

In the beginning, there was nothing. Then, Elliott Smith’s mother gave birth to him, and within 6 months, his parents split. He and his mother moved to Texas, which he hated. At 14, Elliott decided to move up to Portland, Oregon to live with his father. He got a tattoo of the state of Texas on his arm, not out of support for the state, but to remind himself how far he had come from the place he hated.

In 1994 he released his first solo album, Roman Candle. “You can tell it’s not a fully realized or developed release,” Andy says. The album was really just a collection of 8songs that his girlfriend at the time had suggested he send to Cavity Search Records as a demo. “Pretty quickly, at least in the Portland area, quite a bit of buzz came about around this release, even more buzz than there was around his band Heatmiser.” Heatmiser would break up pretty quickly after then, but Elliott Smith continued to put out new music.

Musically, Smith’s style differed from what was popular at the time in Portland. You could find the grungy guitar scene everywhere, but Smith played music inspired by the Beatles and the Zombies. Half of his audience at any time would be enjoying it and the other half would just say, “this isn’t what we do here.”

In 1998, Elliott Smith got an awesome break that he didn’t seem to fully appreciate. He was asked to compose a song for the film Good Will Hunting, and to contribute a couple songs from his catalogue to the soundtrack. He eventually was nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Song, but he was beat out by Celine Dion for "My Heart Will Go On". Despite that, he performed at the ceremony in a white suit with greasy, moppy hair. This was the first time many people ever saw him.

Drugs became a huge part of his life in the early 2000s while he was on tour for Figure 8. When he got back and tried to play music, it was evident that he wasn’t well. He didn’t look good, and he could hardly play guitar at times. His friend Jon Brion confronted him about his problem, and Smith totally scrapped the album they were working on. Smith severed their friendship, and continued to smoke an alleged $1,500 worth of herion and crack a day.

On October 21st, 2003, Smith died from two stab wounds to the chest. The autopsy was inconclusive as to whether the wounds were self inflicted or if it was in fact a homicide. It’s a mystery that will continue to baffle fans of his for generations. “It’s happy to think about his music and all the joy it brought me and still does to this day, but in another way it’s horribly sad. It’s another rock and roll chichè of someone that just couldn’t handle life. It’s unfortunate, but that music that he did record, it’s stuff I go back to constantly,” concludes Andy.