“Eleven years ago today, Elliott Smith stopped making music. Thousands of miles away from the grim crime scene of his death, I was a fifth grader at the peak of awkwardness. Puberty hit me with that feeling of alienation that is difficult for adults to reconstruct. Pictures of me at age 11 display the old sources of my middle school woes: an expander had pushed my upper palate wide open, stranding my two front teeth so far apart that people asked if they had been pulled. I had just started to reluctantly wear itchy, uncomfortable bras, and several months later I would become one of the youngest girls in my grade start my period. As I navigated the same daily horror of being a chubby nerd with bad hair, Elliott Smith stabbed himself in the heart in Los Angeles.
Or so we think. Smith’s death remains a cold case. The cuts on his hands and arms and lack of a hesitation wound scream murder to some, but his then-girlfriend firmly maintains her innocence. Either way, fans feel his loss sharply. In the aftermath of his death, his lyrics have gained eery resonance. “Nobody broke your heart,” he sings in “Alameda.” “You broke your own / ‘Cause you can’t finish what you start.”
At 11, I was still six years away from hearing Elliott Smith’s whispery music for the first time, but I knew his name from the spines of CDs that lined a shelf in my aunt’s hallway closet. As I slowly grew into less awkward years, the rubbery wire between my headphones and CD player became a lifeline. I spent hours every weekend lying on my bed listening to Radiohead or Beck (who later performed at a tribute concert in the horrifying aftermath of Smith’s death). I worked my way through classic indie albums, and I took comfort in participating in a group of unknown, distant listeners. Although I had yet to plug into social media, I knew that somewhere, far away from my school of pop music-loving, chick flick-watching, Twilight-reading peers there existed other people who loved poetry and syncopation and stepping beyond the superficiality of commercial pop culture as much as I did.
Elliott Smith entered my consciousness in a darkened movie theater on a December afternoon. The movie, “Up in the Air,” was one of the first R-rated movies I saw after turning 17. His soft, whispery voice underwhelmed me. But for weeks after, “Angel In The Snow” (which plays during the scene in which Clooney and Vera Farmiga frolic in surprisingly adorable middle-aged flirtation) stuck in my head. Sitting in the cold hallway of my high school while my friends around me laughed and timidly flirted with their first boyfriends, the old loneliness I had felt during my awkward middle school years washed over me, matured and springing from new sources. And that’s when Smith’s music first became woven into my heart.
As I grew older, loneliness and independence defined my high school experience. The bedroom where I had listened to indie albums on repeat for hours became the scene of voracious reading, philosophizing with my best friend, and some early takes at the writing and web design that are now my sanity-saving outlets. Gaining confidence that was still haunted by complicated social anxieties, I drifted into a group of hippies and burnouts during my first year of college. Responsible even in my rebellion, I would nurse a single beer and wait two hours before driving home late at night during breaks, watching the streetlights flash yellow as “Either/Or” or “XO” played through my car speakers.
Smith’s songs are bittersweet and uncertain, the antithesis of a country song that will tell you everything is all right in a fake Texas twang or a pop song in which the cheerleader gets her football player. They lack the fiery politics of rap and the avant garde trickery of electronic sampling. But he puts words and music to range of difficult emotions, and his lyrics have helped me to discover a vocabulary for feelings that I couldn’t quite explain.
Having now almost exhausted the catalogue of the studio albums, I’ve also spent hours and hours on YouTube, hunting live recordings of Smith that live on after his death. There is a dark side of indie culture that often sours this kind of web surfing—that hipster snark of negativity and exclusiveness that is always the backlash of social awkwardness and difference—that surfaces sometimes in the byways of YouTube comments. “Fuck anyone who came here because of ‘One Tree Hill,’” they spit indignantly. “How dare you compare Bon Iver to Nick Drake. Go listen to the radio, asshole.”
But I’ve found that Elliott Smith’s fans are different. A few years ago, I happened upon a chilling comment in which a listener wearily admitted that he was contemplating suicide and that Smith’s music helped him to hang on for another long day. In a comment that was added over a year later, another concerned listener replied to the dark confession and asked, simply and compassionately, “Are you all right?” Others commented with well wishes for recovery. And eventually, in a tender game of Internet Marco Polo, that fan who had wavered on the edge of death responded and let everyone know that, for now, he was okay.
Of course, fascination with Smith’s well-documented drug use and the uncertainty of his death are topics of debate among commenters. The fan-created photo slideshows that accompany many YouTube videos show a man whose skin is rough and pitted, with hair is in constant need of washing and clothes that don’t fit quite right. The few photos where he’s grinning show a different man, lit up from within. But in the community of fans he left behind, we love his imperfection and we use his music to love ourselves a little more than we did before.
His life and his work beg larger ethical questions. Given Smith’s violent death, is it wrong to savor the sadness in his songs? Of the 34 years he spent among us, many were rotten with childhood abuse, drug use, and thoughts of suicide—yet by as many accounts, Smith was also an intelligent, gentle person who was more than just the troubling circumstances fans debate today. As with any celebrity who dies in a haze of mystery and violence, there is an alluring voyeurism to considering the darkness of Smith’s experiences, but it is also important to consider him holistically, as a complex person whose life was filled with friends, family, and mundane moments, and as a serious artist who worked hard to perfect his craft.
For me and many other fans, Smith provided words for previously indescribable feelings, a sophisticated ecology of emotions that is always underpinned with hope. The songs he left behind are like the pulse you feel throbbing through a bruise, reminding you with every beat, “I’m alive. I’m alive. I’m alive.”