elliott smith's uneasy afterlife
written by r j smith, taken from new york times - 7.18.04

los angeles

in a recording studio last month, rob schnapf, a bearded, baseball-capped producer, and joanna bolme, a black-haired indie rock bassist, were sitting around listening to the latest elliott smith song, called "let's get lost." the voice pouring out of the speakers sounded familiar, conversational. it was the voice of a friend. snapshots taped up around the room showed smith in a lighthearted mood: making a silly face in one, eyes closed in another.

as mr. schnapf, who worked with smith in the 90's, and ms. bolme, who dated him for a while, know, smith had a goofball sense of humor and a well of curiosity.

to his fans, however, he was better known for his sorrows. his reputation was built through songs about drug addiction, love and his uneasy connections to listeners fumbling with uneasy connections in their own lives. but it was cemented last oct. 21, when elliott smith died of knife wounds to his chest, in his apartment in the echo park neighborhood in los angeles. he was 34.

in addition to a passionately devoted army of the shy, and a girlfriend, jennifer chiba, smith left behind dozens of songs recorded in the last four years of his life and meant for a double cd titled "from a basement on the hill." over the last few months, mr. schnapf and ms. bolme have sifted through some 45 hours of that music. working together with smith's family, they are mixing and mastering the material for release
on oct. 19.

that's just the latest tribute, commercial or otherwise, that has been undertaken since his death. memorial concerts have been staged from athens, ohio, to leeds, england. the indie rockers sparta have recorded "bombs and us," a song about smith. a new york-based journalist named benjamin nugent is writing "elliott smith and the big nothing," a biography slated for fall release. the classical pianist christopher riley, fresh from gussying up the music of radiohead, is recording a cd of smith's compositions. and some 10,000 fans have signed a petition to the los angeles city council to turn a strip of public land into hallowed ground, à la strawberry fields in new york's central park. at the other end of the spectrum, some opportunistic vendors responded quickly to the news of smith's death by spamming fans with ads for commemorative t-shirts.

some of these posthumous offerings have been loving, others crass. but one way or another, elliott smith will sell a lot of merchandise this year.

usually, when new music is tested out on studio speakers, the moment is pregnant with excitement. but listening to "from a basement on the hill," it just felt like a wake with great tunes.

"it'd be a lot easier if he'd be around to help us," ms. bolme said.

mr. schnapf added, "i was kind of hoping he'd show up."

as smith sang, however, the sadness that flooded his five cd's swamped the room. "i'm burning every bridge i ever crossed," he sang, "to find some beautiful place to get lost." by the last line, two opposing things are true: smith is dead, and smith is here.

in the months since his death, a sadly familiar thing has happened, too. smith has gotten the baudelaire treatment, achieved a heightened status as a fallen martyr, the kind too sensitive to live. perhaps that's inevitable, given the unusual role he occupied in the lives of his fans: his gentle, smart songs connected with people who felt shoved to the margins of their lives; now they are left to figure out how songs that made them feel saved did not save the man who sang them.

all of this posthumous scrutiny is something smith would have loathed, as much as he loathed the starmaking juggernaut. alive he fled the spotlight; now where's he going to run?

loath to violate their friend's wishes, and aware of the intensity of this music and the meaning it has for smith's fans, those working on "from a basement on the hill" seem a little spooked by the responsibility they've taken on.

"i have a very paternal, protective feeling," says mr. schnapf. "i didn't want anybody mucking it up."

do they feel like they are protecting a legacy? "no," says ms. bolme. "it's not like he wrote a bunch of bad songs that need our help."

mr. schnapf thinks a moment, then answers differently. "in a sense, yeah. i'm just thinking i'm helping a buddy out. trying to, anyway."

lucrative trickles of outtakes and rejected songs have followed the deaths of artists like tupac shakur, who seems more prolific now than when he was alive, and nick drake, whose archivists just discovered a "lost" song that should probably have stayed that way. but mr. schnapf and ms. bolme say that "from a basement on the hill" is the end of the road.

"we want this to be the last living body of work," mr. schnapf says adamantly. "this is his last record."

it won't ultimately be mr. schnapf's decision, however. smith's family has a lot more unreleased material, and they have made no such guarantees about their intentions.

smith was underrated as a musician, but "let's get lost," which will be the second track on the new cd, takes wing on his deft guitar picking. his debt to "blackbird," the singer-songwriter john hartford ("gentle on my mind") and piedmont blues are all in place, as disarmingly friendly playing gives way to dark thoughts. there is a kind of california pop, the most famous kind, that is rich with ebullient harmonies and billboarded emotions. at the time of his death, smith was exploring a sound he jokingly called "the california frown," an inverse of beach boy optimism. gloomy and intimate, the songs are smith at his best, though there's also a strong hint of the confusion and instability that haunted his final days.

putting the record together wasn't just emotionally hard; it was often tough to figure out smith's musical intentions. in a 2003 interview in the fanzine under the radar, smith described his concept: the cd would begin conventionally, with traditionally structured songs, but would start getting weird midway, until it ended in bouts of noise and distortion.

that's a fair description of his four years in los angeles. he arrived at the peak of his skills, but he was smoking crack, using heroin and haunting bars where he'd abruptly disappear if somebody recognized him. his last year was punctuated with bouts of paranoia and weirdness; friends found him more remote than ever, and not always capable of making sense. one police report described him wandering the streets draped in a blanket.

months before he died, smith checked into the beverly hills-based neurotransmitter restoration center, which proffers an unorthodox technique for treating addiction. he claimed it was working, and no traces of narcotics were found in his system after his death. but something went horribly wrong.

what, exactly, occurred on his last night remains a subject of as much debate as the decline that preceded it. his death was reported in the press as a suicide. but a medical examiner's report released in january stated "the mode of death is undetermined at this time." officially, the police are still investigating.

poetically, at least, the case sits about perfectly right where it is now: the ambiguity, the lack of resolution among equally sad possibilities, are material right out of one of smith's songs.

it's a wretched, unsatisfying kind of ending for his fans, which is probably why many reject it. on a web site about smith's legacy, devotees have written in suggesting that smith lives — they know it's so because he's come to them in dreams. others have suggested that the psychic john edward should be hired to contact the singer in heaven. meanwhile, conspiracy theories flourish regarding the role of his girlfriend, jennifer chiba: smith adored the beatles, and his followers have obligingly cast her in the role of yoko ono, destroyer of their hero.

those who knew him first-hand don't seem much clearer about why things ended as they did. at the studio where "from a basement on the hill" is being assembled, it's been the end of a long few weeks, well into the last night of work now, and the talk turns to smith's last days and the effect los angeles had on them.

"los angeles didn't do anything to his songwriting," ms. bolme says. "he's still elliott. i just knew a lot of people were wondering what was going on."

staring into the distance, mr. schnapf adds: "i'm not going there. you can find trouble anywhere if you look hard enough." i ask them what working on this record means on a personal level. the idea that it's bringing closure to his life seems obvious — so obvious that it can't be true.

"no, it doesn't resolve anything," says ms. bolme. "the resolution is that it's unresolved."

suddenly she starts crying and bolts from the room.

"certainly any closure i get is not going to be from working on a record," says mr. schnapf. "you hear the music, and he's right here."

rj smith is a senior editor of los angeles magazine.

thanks to mully