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Long road down

Scott Timberg Special to the Daily/Los Angeles Times
Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times | Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD – In a bohemian stretch of Sunset Boulevard that winds through Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood, there’s a stereo repair shop with an exterior that seems, for some, oddly familiar: The coiling red and blue lines on its external wall served as the cover for an album by a battered troubadour named Elliott Smith, a Los Angeles musician who at the time of the record’s release, in 2000, was one of pop’s bright lights – someone who combined dark, sometimes self-lacerating lyrics with melody inspired by the British Invasion.Signed to the DreamWorks label, with a rabid following among critics and musicians, Smith seemed poised to become a melancholic, low-key version of Beck. Fans – for whom an underground musician is often a secret passed from one to another – responded passionately to the delicacy and bedroom-scale quality of his music. It made them feel like he was singing about their lives too.Since Oct. 22, the day after Smith’s sudden death by knife wound to the chest in his apartment, the wall on Sunset has come alive with their remembrances of the musician, who moved to town in 1999 after years of wandering. Now, nearly every space on the wall is covered with a scrawled lyric, a fan wishing the singer well, offering condolence (“I guess you just weren’t made for these times”), or expressing frustration at his unexpected departure. Candles, melted over the lips of wine and beer bottles, broken wooden speakers and arrangements of flowers sit on the sidewalk, still tended each day by tattooed acolytes.Interest in Smith has spread far beyond Silver Lake. Tribute concerts are taking place from Atlanta to Dublin; closer to home, a petition is circulating to turn part of Smith’s Echo Park neighborhood into a memorial. Magazine stories keep coming, and a New York journalist is working on a biography. His family is making arrangements for a posthumous album.A cult musician in life, he seems, like English folkie Nick Drake, Joy Division singer Ian Curtis and alt-country pioneer Gram Parsons, to exert fascination in death as well.Smith’s music, much of which was almost nakedly intimate, often concerned ambiguity, ambivalence: He called one record “Either/Or,” a title he borrowed from Kierkegaard. At least one song, “The Biggest Lie,” which concludes his self-titled 1995 album, is a masterpiece of obfuscation: He sings about a couple that experience joy and sorrow and then concludes, “I just told the biggest lie.””He never lets you on to which part of the lyric he’s lying about – that happiness or the sadness,” Luke Wood, Smith’s DreamWorks A&R rep, pointed out on a local radio appreciation. “And that’s Elliott.” (Wood and many close to Smith, including his family, declined to discuss him for this story.)The ambiguity of Smith’s life has taken on an even deeper meaning with his death, originally judged a suicide but now under investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department for possible foul play. The report by the L.A. County Department of the Coroner refuses to rule on his death because of circumstances “atypical of suicide” that “raise the possibility of homicide,” in the words of the deputy medical examiner.That, says Stephon Lew, the owner of Solutions repair shop, who knew Smith as a customer and friend, leaves the 34-year-old musician’s death “a constant mystery to his fans.”For much of last year – during which, friends say, he seemed to be free from drugs and newly optimistic – Smith had talked with excitement about a double album he’d recorded and hoped to release on an independent label.Yet few people who knew Smith speculate that his death was anything but a suicide. It’s easy to see why: He was a well-known alcoholic, depressive and drug addict whose years in Los Angeles were, reportedly, especially harrowing for him.General audiences know Smith best from his white-suited appearance at the 1998 Academy Awards, where he strummed the song “Miss Misery” from “Good Will Hunting,” shortly before Celine Dion belted out the theme song from “Titanic.”Lovers of left-of-the-dial pop, though, already knew Smith from three records on two independent labels. Those albums – of mostly whispered, double-tracked vocals with gently strummed guitar – are so ethereal as to seem to be coming from inside the listener’s own head. His two major label efforts on DreamWorks, “XO” and “Figure 8,” show Smith playing more sweeping, less insular and in some cases less personal music.Some talk about these records as belonging to another age – perhaps the era of his beloved Beatles, Kinks and Zombies – though their mix of punk attitude, indie rock reticence and, increasingly, pop grandeur would have stood out as unusual in any decade.It may have been the music’s emotional directness – its lack of the hip distance of much ’90s indie rock – that inspired what Spin called “a passionate, almost masochistic, fandom.”The passion is now scattered by Smith’s unresolved death.”When someone that big dies – and for the people who loved Elliott his death was as big as Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison – there’s a sense of wanting to figure it out. It’s a way of displacing bad feelings,” says Blake Sennett, a friend and guitarist for the band Rilo Kiley.Benjamin Nugent, a New York-based freelancer who’s working on a book tentatively titled “Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing,” says the Smith cult comes from “the depth of his songwriting, the timeless artistry and skill,” as well as its sense of personal connection.”His songs provided at least the illusion of great intimacy with the artist,” Nugent says. “I think people make the mistake of thinking they afford more intimacy than they do. The real Elliott Smith is a lot more hidden.”The real Elliott Smith was shy and troubled but powerfully intelligent and, at times, enormously fun. With his jet-black hair, trademark wool cap, tattoos of the state of Texas and Ferdinand the Bull, he was a frequent sight at Silver Lake bars and clubs.Smith was born in 1969 in Omaha, Neb., grew up near Dallas, where he lived with his mother and stepfather, years he recalled as unpleasant. At 14 he moved in with his father in Portland, Ore. After graduating from Massachusetts’ Hampshire College, where he studied philosophy, and mulling a career as a firefighter, he started a band called Heatmiser and later drifted to Portland, Brooklyn and Washington, D.C. He once said he never stayed put for more than a week or two.Rob Schnapf, who co-produced Smith’s last three albums, described Smith wearing wigs while recording “XO” and loving Schnapf’s backyard croquet set. “He would kick my (tail). He would invite himself over to destroy me.”Smith told his live-in girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, an art therapist, that Kafka’s dour “The Hunger Artist” would help her understand him. But she emphasizes his sense of humor, how excited he got reading a book about the strange properties of zero. “He would read parts of it out loud and it would make us both laugh,” she says via e-mail, “the way it was worded, what a nuisance zero was to the world of mathematics.”Friends talk about his generosity: Chiba, who met the musician in 1999, recalls Smith emptying his wallet every time he came to a freeway exit with homeless people, shedding 20s and 100s. He saw himself, she says, as “a champion of the underdog.”Whoever Smith really was, his musical success was matched with hard living.In the last few years of his life, there were news reports of crying jags, rough fights, several interventions for alcohol and drugs, at least one suicide attempt and medication for depression and hyperactivity.Even so, the coroner’s office remains inconclusive about his death; its report describes “the absence of hesitation wounds, stabbing through clothing, and the presence of small incised wounds on the right arm and left hand (possible defensive wounds). Additionally, the girlfriend’s reported removal of the knife and subsequent refusal to speak with detectives are all of concern.”Chiba, who told investigators she had a fight with Smith right before his death and found a brief suicide note, says she has spoken to police multiple times and prefers not to comment further on the coroner’s report.She says that while Smith was healthy and happy in his last months, he was dealing with “traumatic memories from his childhood” and “biochemical imbalances … due to the gradual discontinuation of various psychotropic medications.”No drugs were found in Smith’s system besides prescription medication.Smith’s solo career, Nugent says, started with quiet, understated music performed “when grunge was still going on and when he was in the Northwest and in a hard rock band.” While it’s hard to point to a specific group that bears his stamp, his biographer says, “He was greatly admired and listened to by other musicians,” and alternative rock has followed the thoughtful, retro road he paved.”He was extremely restrained; he didn’t make the kind of brash, anthemic statements rock musicians are often given to,” Nugent said.Danny Preston of the band Wiskey Biscuit, a neighbor who performed several of Smith’s songs at a November tribute show, says he really got to know Smith while learning to play his music.”He has parts that fool you every time,” keyboardist Preston says, describing weird chords, tricky bridges and deceptively simple patterns.At a festival in Long Beach two weeks after Smith’s death, several musicians, including Iggy Pop and Modest Mouse, performed songs by Smith and there was a tribute by Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow leading Smith’s old band.”It’s gonna stay with people a long time,” Preston says of the impact of Smith’s music. “It’s gonna be timeless.”


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