No easy way out
Amid the lingering doubts about Elliott Smith's cause of death and the release of new merchandise, the question remains: would he have signed off on his long-awaited album?
By Kimberly Chun
'THERE'S GHOSTS HERE . I know there is."
J. would know. Born and raised in a 1909 Craftsman bungalow on winding Lemoyne Street high above Echo Park, J. lives across the way from the late Elliott Smith's last residence not quite a heavenly resting place, not quite a crash pad designed to raise hell. It's where Los Angeles Fire Department paramedics rushed last October to keep the Academy Award-nominated singer-songwriter's twice-lacerated heart beating for an extra hour or two after the 34-year-old was found with a kitchen knife in his chest.
J. liked Smith, though like many of his neighbors with the possible exception of Whiskey Biscuit, the band who live down the street he didn't know him well. Yet there may still be time to change that. J. says that he's sure he once saw his long-dead grandfather roaming the halls of his house looking for a late-night snack, that his washing machine goes on by itself, and that he and his girlfriend hear disembodied voices.
"But I haven't seen Elliott around," J. says, taking another drag off his cig, the tails of his security guard uniform dangling. "Could be he doesn't want to come back. I mean, to do that to yourself, twice, you really got to have balls and got to be determined. I didn't think he wanted to be here. He always slow dragged it, you know what I mean?"
Old and new haunts
Here in polyglot, old-new, rich-poor Echo Park whose very name evokes the ghostly remnants of the Latino and American Indian haunts that once lay where nearby Dodger Stadium now stands you're more likely to come face-to-face with a wild coyote scampering down the street than you are to a somewhat more domesticated Hollywood weasel. And Smith's still tangled and unresolved end remains fraught with bittersweet ironies he likely would have appreciated.
Like an echo, Smith is here but not. His Oct. 21, 2003, death, almost universally reported as a suicide at the time, now officially hovers in that nebulous "undetermined" realm as homicide detectives have yet to close the book on his case. Meanwhile, a year after Smith took his last breath, his music and legend, shaped by the worldly, weary vocals and plaintive lyrics that made him an indie icon in the post-Cobain era, have returned in a big way.
The new Smith-related "products" include a biography, Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing (Da Capo), by former Time staff reporter Benjamin Nugent. Although Elliott Smith Olympia, Washington, a concert DVD of his 1999 Yoyo a Go Go solo acoustic performance, is now in limbo, caught up in contractual negotiations with his label DreamWorks, Strange Parallel, a documentary by Steve Hanft, screened at a starry Smith tribute in L.A. last year, and avant-garde film legend and fellow Echo Park resident Kenneth Anger reportedly has a film about the musician in the works. And fans continue to find inspiration in his music, putting on memorial concerts in such far-flung locales as Cork, Ireland, and Sydney, Australia, and generating recordings such as Treble and Tremble (Palm Pictures), by Smith friends Earlimart, and the upcoming, untitled disc of Smith songs by classical pianist Christopher O'Riley.
But the centerpiece in this Smith revival is his final studio album, From a Basement on the Hill (Anti-), set for release Oct. 19.
Yet like the events that shaped the life of Smith who had grappled with substance abuse, attempted suicide, and said he was abused as a child the new album comes rife with tumult and sadness, pitting family against friend and lover, longtime star producer against recent engineer. In short, Smith's experience post-life is just as jumbled as it was when he slouched his way onstage at the Academy Awards in ill-suited Prada duds and sang "Miss Misery," from Good Will Hunting, to the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Jack Nicholson.
On one side is Smith's family, which includes his parents, Bunny Welch and Gary Smith, and half-sister Ashley Welch. They hired producer Rob Schnapf who previously helmed Smith's Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars, 1997), XO (DreamWorks, 1998), and Figure 8 (DreamWorks, 2000) and who is married to Smith's former manager Margaret Mittleman and Smith's ex-girlfriend, musician and engineer Joanna Bolme (currently of Stephen Malkmus's Jicks), to mix the songs for Basement.
On another side is musician and girlfriend Jennifer Chiba, with whom Smith was living at the time of his death and from whom his family have distanced themselves. Both sides have charities benefiting abused children named in Smith's honor. Then there's yet another element: engineer David McConnell, who worked for three years on Basement with the songwriter.
McConnell says the version of Basement expected in stores isn't the one Smith would have endorsed. For one, McConnell explains, at least three of the tracks "Shooting Star," "A Passing Feeling," and "Let's Get Lost" were considered completed before Schnapf and Bolme mixed them further.
"Obviously Elliott did not get his wishes," McConnell says over the phone from Satellite Park, his Malibu studio that provided the title for Basement. "He did not get to use the mixes that he wanted. The family obviously got artistic control over finalizing the project, so it was up to them, and I think they just decided to go with the familiar."
Working from three years of notes, McConnell says he helped the family initially sort through the masters before he got the feeling that "there were too many cooks in the kitchen" and left. But McConnell says he made it clear he was ready to help them finish the album "if they wanted it done to their son's liking, how he instructed me that he wanted it."
But according to McConnell, the family instead turned to Schnapf and Bolme, "for probably more emotional security than anything."
The family, he adds sympathetically, doesn't "really know anything about the music business. They're obviously going through an extremely emotional time, and it's the hardest.... But I don't think they had their facts straight.... They had a relationship with his ex-girlfriend and a relationship with his ex-producer, and I think they were very comforting."
Smith biographer Nugent corroborates McConnell's theory. According to the author, after breaking with Mittleman, Schnapf, and previous producer Jon Brion, Smith asked McConnell to preserve the intentionally rough-edged songs they had mixed: " 'Whatever happens to me, don't let anybody clean this up. Don't let them put it through Pro Tools. Make sure it's released like this,' " he quotes Smith as saying during the Satellite Park sessions.
"Half of the album, as far as I can tell, was made with David McConnell in this sort of druggy phase, and half of it was made afterwards in Elliott's own studio [New Monkey in Van Nuys] after he moved in with Jennifer, and there's these two very distinct moods, and the songs sound very different," Nugent explains over the phone from New York City, adding that Smith's preferred opening track, "Shooting Star," was moved to twelfth on the album, and other potentially close-to-the-bone songs such as "Abused" and "Suicide Machines" were left off entirely. "Rob Schnapf is a really brilliant guy, and he did a great job with the album, but Elliott Smith pretty explicitly did not want Rob Schnapf being the producer on the album. So in a lot of ways, it's kind of astonishing," Nugent says.
McConnell believes that if Smith had completed the album, it would have floored listeners.
"I think people's jaws would have dropped.... They'd think he was even more profound than they realized," McConnell says, "because artistically, the direction that he was going in, he would have definitely had the next White Album, and it would have been the most talked-about thing this year, musically. It would have just been this combination of this insane experimentation with beautiful song structure, everything that's beautiful about him, mixed with this insane kind of drug-induced, emotionally charged ..."
He searches for the right words: "There was something else coming out of him on that record, coming from deep inside, something that I don't witness when I work with most artists. It was definitely magical; it was scary it was all those emotions in one."
Describing Smith as an "equipment junkie," McConnell says the songwriter was searching for a new sonic approach, inspired by the warm tones of '60s and '70s albums, and experimented with degrading the sound to make the songs "more human, less robotic." The pair would regularly record through devices like baby monitor microphones and detune the guitars. He says one drunken experiment of sampling a toy ostrich wound up on the final album. "We forgot about it, and then it ended up on the record!" he says with a laugh. "We just meant it as a joke."
Nonetheless, the easygoing, quick-to-chuckle McConnell is far from bitter, lightly repeating a recent quip on the final mix delivered by his girlfriend, '80s new wave vocalist Josie Cotton: "She said, 'It's kind of like taking a van Gogh painting and touching up sky because it looks a little off.' "
But the controversy over the making of Basement is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to conflicted feelings simmering under the surface after Smith's demise. Considering Smith made a kind of brave, poignant pop art out of probing the most painful truths, and fictions, in his life, his world remains shrouded in mystery the kind that romantic rock legends like Kurt Cobain and Gram Parsons are made of. Ascribe it to the wishes of his family; the cliquish, protective, and intimate nature of the Northwest music scene; or the rumors of failed interventions, snubs, and severed ties once Smith moved to NYC and finally L.A., but a reporter is hard-pressed to gather comments positive or negative from old bandmates and cohorts.
One exception is Earlimart leader Aaron Espinoza, a drinking buddy who played on a few Basement sessions. He was so stunned by his onetime idol's death that his group, which includes Smith's live drummer Scott McPherson, halted their tour after hearing the news. "It was huge, totally," Espinoza says, reluctant to exploit his association with his friend. "It completely affected everybody. We pretty much stopped touring for the most part because of that. We just went back home because it didn't seem like there was any point at the time."
Nugent chalks up the almost overwhelming silence to a quasi-investigative story on Smith that came out shortly after he began working on the book in January. "His family felt pretty burned by the Blender article [in January 2004], and there was sort of an agreement throughout his friends not to talk to anybody after that," he says. "It was like a curtain that went down."
In the six months he spent writing the book, Nugent said he was shocked by a few testimonials he gleaned from Smith's friends, including the assertion by Bill Santen that Smith had been far from a junkie when he wrote his so-called 1995 heroin album, Elliott Smith. That changed, according to Nugent, during Smith's three-year stay in L.A., when the songwriter ran himself ragged with workaholic all-nighters fueled by black-tar heroin, crack, and sometimes speed, experimenting with equally rough sounds and attempting to reconnect with his memories of childhood abuse. Nugent says McConnell also told him Smith tried to commit suicide several times.
"He really put himself through the psychological wringer in order to produce a certain kind of art," Nugent says. "It was such an interesting attempt to use emotional turmoil to your advantage as an artist."
But was Smith's painful and violent death purely of his making? It was an end eerily reminiscent of the finale of Michael Haneke's film The Piano Teacher, based on a novel by Elfriede Jelinek, who received a Nobel this year. According to the police, Chiba said the couple were in the middle of a heated argument Oct. 21, when she locked herself in the bathroom. After she heard Smith scream, she emerged to find him standing, gasping, with a knife protruding from his chest. After pulling the blade from his body, she said she tried to apply CPR and first aid, assisted by a 911 operator, but neither her efforts nor those of emergency room surgeons saved Smith's life.
House of spirits
Back in Echo Park, a stop into the neon-drenched, sprawling House of Spirits liquor store down the hill, on the edge of Filipino Town, yields few answers. The young Asian woman behind the counter just laughs at the idea of a spectral songwriter stopping to pick up a bottle of Scotch to chase the Klonopin.
At the very least, Basement turns out to be a beautifully evocative disc, if less chaotic than some might have hoped. From the opening "Coast to Coast," Smith's sampling experiments, here of evangelistic radio transmissions, surge to the fore, threatening to overwhelm the close of the song. Tracks such as "Shooting Star" and "Strung Out Again" give off glammy, jagged reflections, pierced through with boozy, coming-down-fast guitar. Like any good album, the more you listen, the more pleasures you find, and like those '60s and '70s rock albums Smith loved, the louder you play some songs, the better, and more complex, they become.
"The new record is probably the most sad because it doesn't sound like a man at the end of his rope," says O'Riley, who is preparing for next year's tour playing Smith's songs. "It's just a very, very bright light. It's an amazing record! In terms of development over the course of several records, it's sort of his Abbey Road."
One wonders if matters might have escalated to White Album proportions if, as Nugent says, Smith's loved ones had worked out their differences and wiped away the lingering mysteries. Yet, he muses, "I think it's an impossible task to figure out what Elliott wanted because he said x and y at a particular time, but then he went into a very different phase of his life. But since Jennifer Chiba doesn't get along with most of his family, there hasn't been a lot of communication between the people he was with toward the end of his life and the people who were actually responsible for finishing the album." At press time representatives of the family hadn't responded to requests for an interview.
Back at Smith's last home, an extremely pregnant young Polynesian woman meets you by the mailboxes above the steep driveway and leads you to the apartment door amid a cluster of featureless stucco buildings. The gravel crunches as you shift your weight between your feet and summon the courage to ring the bell. The number is scratched in ink on the door. A lamp beams behind the blinds.
"Who's there? What do you want?" comes a woman's voice, wary and spooked.
Then nothing. The bright light goes on abruptly overhead, as if now on guard.
An art therapist and once a member of a band called Happy Ending, which Smith was said to be recording before his death, Chiba still lives in the apartment she shared with her late boyfriend, and why not? She lived there for years before he moved in. Still, you shiver under the watchful gaze of the neighbors or something. Did Smith want to be here? And now does he have any choice?