So. Elliott Smith went and put a steak knife through his chest this week.


“So. Elliott Smith went and put a steak knife through his chest this week. That’s what happened. One minute we had a world with Elliott Smith in it and the next we didn’t.
When I first heard it I felt sick and frightened, and I was a little confused by my feelings. Usually when rock stars die I feel maybe a little sad, but that’s about it. Sometimes I grab hold of the “how is this worse than thousands dying in some country I’ve never heard of, as is doubtless happening even as we speak?” ring and hang onto that for a while; sometimes, as when brain cancer claimed Chuck Schuldiner, I get a little emotional about it. But usually I am more moved by such two-line items as one sees in the local paper from time to time, the ones about some anonymous fellow who stood in the path of an oncoming train, or whose car flipped into the ditch during a snowstorm, killing all its passengers instantly.

Those stories usually feel somehow more pertinent to me, and sadder, since one reason we fear death is that we worry that all our toil and trouble will ultimately have come to nothing. Those are the stories of what might happen to us if our luck runs out.
But Elliott Smith: well, it’s not just that he was a completely distinct talent, though he was that; when he was at his best, none of his peers could touch him. And it wasn’t just the sordid details, though they didn’t help: fight with your girlfriend, then stab yourself in the heart when she goes down to the store for smokes? Of all the ways to go, this one seems even more meaningless than the rest. It wasn’t how young he was, though seeing “Elliott Smith Dead at 34” made it even harder. If his best work did in fact lie ahead of him, then the world has been robbed at knifepoint and will never get back what might have eased some of its pain.
I think what did it for me was this: even through his ascendance from underground wonderkid to Semi-Public Figure of Renown, he felt like somebody we know. When I saw him on the Academy Awards a few years ago, he looked so much like One Of Us after having stepped through the wrong door that the whole thing filled me with the sort of exuberance usually reserved for when one’s home team has won the Stanley Cup. When I watched him play a very low-key set a Yo Yo a Go-Go a few years ago, he seemed like the only guy in the room who didn’t think it was a big deal. All week people had been calling the Yo Yo offices to make sure they only showed up for the Elliott Smith show, but when he got on stage, he acted like he was just the next guy on the schedule.
Which put me off a little, at the time; isn’t there a certain responsibility to the audience that goes along with Fame? Or was it this quality that made him special, and that made his songs work on me the way they do? I would ask the same questions now, but it would be heartless to do so, and besides, I don’t think they’re at all near the point. Because there is no point. That’s why suicide affects us the way it does. Any sense of coherent narrative suddenly collapses, and you’re left with a story that ends without that here-comes-the-conclusion moment that you know from Charles Dickens or John Irving novels. All that’s left is one’s sense of how bad that final moment must have been, and how impotent one’s desire to somehow step in and make it better really is, and at that point somebody else’s story suddenly becomes our story, and it’s a dreadful thing.
But in the case of Elliott Smith, his story is not “suddenly” our story, at least not for a good number of us. We were already right there with him, cheering him on, hoping that a songwriter of his subtlety and grace could make the major-label career work. We heard about performances where he’d forget lyrics or cut songs off mid-way through, apologizing frequently, and we’d worry. But because he was, in a way, a member of our family, we trusted that he’d pull through: after all, we always manage to pull through somehow, don’t we? But with his final terrible selfish act, Elliott Smith asserts that no, we don’t always make it out the other side unscathed. Sometimes the despair gets to us and we do something rash. There are several implications to this, none of them good.
Which is why, for the first time in memory, I did what everybody else usually does when a rock star dies: I listened to his music and remembered what it had meant to me. All my records are in storage right now, so I bought the self-titled album on Kill Rock Stars from the iTunes store, and I spent much of the week in wonder at just how good he’d been. An amazing guitarist, a remarkably effective singer with a small range within whose parameters he’d learned to work as economically as an outclassed boxer, and a lyricist confident enough to let his images work without unnecessary window-dressing. His albums number among the best his generation had to offer. Many of us would happily sign a contract with the Devil for a gift like the one Smith has now destroyed forever. It’s gone now. And this is sad, and infuriating, and there is nothing for it.
And I do mean “nothing.” I can’t say anything that makes this better for me or for anybody else, and while I’m sure there are stances one can cop that would make it feel a little better, Smith deserves better than that. I hope, perhaps vainly, that his great artistic success sometimes felt as good for him as it often did for so many of us. I am sorry that at the end he was in so much pain. I wish I could have done something to help. I am glad to have the evidence that one of our numbers shone so brightly and was capable of such great things. I despair of seeing any of us rise to the occasion with such apparent ease again. I suppose ‘apparent’ is the key word there. I don’t know. I have no good conclusion this week. I have missed you. I will see you soon.”

John Darnielle (octobre 2003)


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