Wobbly and glazy eyed, Elliott Smith tottered onto the Belly Up Tavern stage in Solana Beach on May 22, not saying a word before launching into "Happiness." His was a deep, dark musical hole into which people willingly plunged that night, just as they had before and would for the months to follow.
Smith would be dead five months later.
On Oct. 21 Steven Paul "Elliott" Smith's brilliant legacy of singer-songwriter ingenuity ended as painful and slow as it began. He died of a knife wound to the chest, an apparent suicide. A friend found his body at Smith's Los Angeles home. He was rushed to the hospital and pronounced dead an hour later.
Tributes and praise began pouring immediately into his L.A. neighborhood of Silverlake and across his online community, as fans and mourners lament their Demigod of Sadness.
Smith was a magnum-sized ball of sensitivity hurled down the anguished, gaping fissure of reality-and as his friends are now realizing, he was never fully equipped to handle that journey.
Hiding behind their thick-rimmed glasses and vintage T-shirts, a shitload of hipsters are crying Elliott Smith tears right now. Little gals with Converse high-tops and ragged demeanors are contemplating the inevitable death and what it means to burn out or fade away. To these very hipsters, and many others, Smith took the shag haircuts, the clothing fads, the ironic sarcasm and every other bullshit pastime and made it not matter.
But to the sad-eyed girl waiting in line behind you at the coffeeshop, Oct. 21 was a sad day no matter how you looked at it.
Smith was religion to many, a preacher of misery to which any and all could relate. He had a carnivorous cult of fans. An explosive songwriter and even more volatile personality, Smith was guarded about his personal life and especially protective of his purported drug use.
A skeletal exterior and desperate demeanor didn't help to squelch the rumors. Song titles like "Everything Means Nothing to Me," "I Better Be Quiet Now," "Bottle Up and Explode!" and "Ballad of Big Nothing" serve as stark reminders of his imbalanced creativity.
One can only imagine the sweet relief that he imagined death to be-but as comedian Margaret Cho wondered last week, "What is heaven like for you, Elliott Smith?"
Smith was born in 1969 in Omaha, Neb., and spent a creatively rich childhood in Texas and Oregon, where he began composing music. He was a National Merit Scholar in high school and a philosophy and political science major in college. Smith rarely stayed in one place for long-Texas, Oregon, Massachusetts, New York, back to Oregon and then off to L.A. as an adult. The band Heatmiser held his creative attention after college, and it was during this time that he began his solo career.
In 1997, filmmaker Gus Van Sant asked to use Smith's music for the film Good Will Hunting. Smith complied and the subsequent hoopla launched him into the glaring spotlight. His song "Miss Misery" jumpstarted the film's most poignant scene and earned him an Academy Award nomination.
"I never, ever thought I would be in a place like this," he stuttered before the ceremony that day, "but I'll take it." What followed would be duly noted as the beginning of Smith's unease with the world he found himself in-an onstage performance of "Miss Misery" alongside Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood led him to later strike the song from his live repertoire.
Smith released five full-length albums-Roman Candle, Elliott Smith, Either/Or, XO and Figure Eight-and before his death he had begun work on his sixth, From a Basement on the Hill. While his releases were varied, echoes of Nick Drake and The Beatles held every release together by a thick stream of melody and lo-fi intimacy.
In April, Smith was booked to play San Diego at the Belly Up, but canceled due to "health reasons." He returned a month later for a make-up date. Bitterly reflective and melancholy, he muttered to himself throughout the evening and chattered with audience members in a disjoined dialogue in between fits of his tender folk-rock.
He fired through hits like "Between the Bars" and "St. Ides Heaven," later ending his set with a wistful version of "Say Yes" to thick applause.
As the crowd of fans spilled into the street, a man remarked to his female counterpart, "The way he looks in there, I'd be surprised if he lived through the end of the year."
The girl wasted little time with her response, as if it had been something she'd thought about before.
"I think Elliott Smith would be perfect for heaven," she said. "I hope it makes him happy."