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- Posted on Jun 18th 2010 5:00PM by James Sullivan
Life itself was too harsh for Smith, whose exquisite songs first attracted an unlikely following at the height of the distortion-drenched grunge era. After almost a decade of making uniformly superb records, Smith died of stab wounds to the chest, presumed to have been self-inflicted, on October 21, 2003.
Steven Paul Smith was born in Omaha in 1969. When his parents divorced, he moved with his mother to Dallas, where he never found his place. An antagonistic relationship with his stepfather would later show up as the cryptic subject of several songs. As a teenager, he got into countless fistfights. A neighbor shot Smith's cat after it got into the trash.
During high school, he moved to Portland, Ore., to live with his father, a psychiatrist. There, he started making music. In his first band, Stranger Than Fiction, the punk-influenced kid took the stage name Johnny Panic. Around this time he also began calling himself Elliott, thinking Steve to be a jock's name (and perhaps hoping to avoid confusion with Journey drummer Steve Smith).
After attending college in Western Massachusetts, Smith returned to Portland with new friend Neil Gust, with whom he formed the rock band Heatmiser. Despite an indie track record notable enough to attract the attention of Virgin Records, "after a couple of years we realized that none of us really liked this kind of music," Smith would recall.
Permitting a friend to submit a demo of his quiet solo recordings to the Cavity Search label, Smith hoped to be invited to cut a seven-inch single. Instead, the label offered to put out the entire tape as his debut album, 'Roman Candle.' In the grunge era, he once said, playing acoustic music felt like "crawling out on a limb and begging for it to be sawed off." Yet Smith's songs were instantly well-received, and he went on to record two albums for Kill Rock Stars, one self-titled (1995) and the other 'Either/Or' (1997), with a name inspired by the existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.
No longer taking "day jobs from hell" – chimney sweep, ditch-digger – Smith signed with the major label DreamWorks, which would release the last two albums during his lifetime, 'XO' and 'Figure 8' (the latter recorded in part at Abbey Road). But success was no fun for Smith. As he once explained about a new tattoo of Ferdinand, the pacifist bull of the beloved children's book: "He just wanted to live outside the system."
Often struggling with depression, as well as alcohol and substance abuse, Smith was under near-constant surveillance by his friends, who did not take his periodic threats to kill himself lightly. Once, in a drunken stupor, he jumped off a cliff, badly hurting himself when he fell onto a tree.
Amid his troubles, this cult hero had one surpassingly surreal moment in the spotlight, when his song 'Miss Misery,' from the soundtrack of the Gus Van Sant film 'Good Will Hunting,' was nominated for an Academy Award in 2000. In an angelic white tuxedo, with seemingly unwashed hair, Smith appeared on the worldwide Oscars telecast. However, the Best Song honor went to 'My Heart Will Go On,' sung by Celine Dion, who gave words of encouragement and a hug to a nervous Smith before his performance.
As he struggled to work on his next album, released posthumously as 'From a Basement on the Hill,' all signs pointed toward a desperate situation. After aborted sessions with producer Jon Brion, Smith threatened to kill himself if DreamWorks didn't let him out of his contract. At a Beck/Flaming Lips concert in L.A., his new hometown, Smith got arrested for brawling with police, who mistook him for a homeless man.
Meanwhile, his songs couldn't have telegraphed his intentions any more clearly. Filmmaker Wes Anderson chose 'Needle in the Hay' to accompany an attempted suicide in 'The Royal Tenenbaums'; Smith cut a song called 'Suicide Machine' during the 'Basement' sessions, covered Blue Oyster Cult's 'Don't Fear the Reaper' in concert and recorded Cat Stevens' 'Trouble' for another soundtrack. When he did take his own life, his girlfriend told a producer, "I don't understand – he was so healthy."
Elliott Smith's body was cremated. In an interview, this exceptionally sensitive songwriter once expressed his aversion to being buried. "I would prefer to walk out in the desert and be eaten by birds," he said.