Unraveling the mysteries of Elliott Smith’s troubled soul

Los Angeles TimesDecember 11, 2013 

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    “Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith” by William Todd Schultz; Bloomsbury (368 pages, $27)

Ten years ago this November, singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, then 34, died in a Los Angeles bungalow from two knife stabs to the chest. According to William Todd Schultz’s “Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith,” a clear-eyed and devastating new biography of the gifted and troubled artist, his death, likely a suicide, was inevitable. The only questions were how and when.

Smith is most widely known for the use of his somber, melodic music to soundtrack Gus Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting” and a white-suited performance during the 1998 Academy Awards of the song “Miss Misery.” Since his death, his legacy, already sprouting while he was alive, has grown.

The Smith in “Torment Saint” embodies an archetype: depressed artist filled with demons and dedicated to documenting and (hopefully) exorcising them through music. As the singer, thoughtful and well-spoken, explained of his craft, “You gotta get out there and show what it’s like to be a person; that’s what I’m gonna do. It might be good or it might be bad, but I’m gonna show what it’s like to be a person.”

He did so through a series of intimate, half-whispered records that rejoiced in grand melodies simply presented. Starting with 1994’s lo-fi masterpiece “Roman Candle” and continuing through his final studio album, “From a Basement on the Hill,” posthumously released in 2004, Smith gracefully ascended to become a grand composer, signed to a fledgling DreamWorks Records, an artist able to take over Capitol Studios for days on end.

Illuminating his world through insightful interviews, Schultz strings together recollections from classmates in the Dallas suburbs where Smith grew up, college friends during time spent in Amherst, Mass., bandmates from his years in Portland, Ore., with the ’90s post-grunge band Heatmiser, girlfriends and business associates. Through it all, Smith’s life seems to teeter on a precipice.

His promise was obvious, as were his troubles, so much so that friends devoted hours to nursing Smith as he wallowed in depression.

Schultz devotes much space to the music, chronicling tracks and references through the voices of those nearest to him (many of whom became subjects of songs).

But Smith’s life constantly drags the story back from the sublime as Schultz describes a man immersed in drug addiction. At his lowest point, Schultz reports, he carried his pills onstage in a toiletry bag, his habit costing him an estimated $1,500 a day.

The final chapters are hard to bear as Smith slurs his way through concerts, quitting songs midway through and obsessing over a studio soundboard while maintaining a death wish.

Schultz with unblinking eye describes a man unstable and paranoid – convinced, for example, that DreamWorks Records had bugged his house and was following him in white vans – lost to psychosis and desperately trying to hold on.

Because of extenuating factors, Smith’s death wasn’t ruled a suicide but “undetermined,” a detail that has led to various misguided conspiracy theories as to girlfriend Jennifer Chiba’s role. How could a person stab himself not once but twice with a newly sharpened kitchen knife? Were two small wounds on his hand and arm defensive? Why didn’t he take off his shirt before pushing the knife through his rib cage?

Well aware of this, Schultz solidly examines each angle, speaking with the forensic pathologist/deputy medical examiner who filed his death certificate, interviewing Chiba and others. He lays out his case with great care, well aware that Smith’s fans, obsessed as some of them are, will pore over his text.

But the author of this portrait, one as heartbreaking and well-crafted as one of Elliott Smith’s songs, need not have worried about a bow-tied ending. In “Torment Saint,” Schultz has made clear with precise writing and even pacing the many ways in which Smith’s fate had long ago been sealed.

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