Long road down

Times Staff Writer

In a bohemian stretch of Sunset Boulevard that winds through Silver Lake, 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 Echo Park 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 Echo Park 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.

Master of ambiguity

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 KCRW-FM 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 LAPD 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.

Wood argued on KCRW that the mythology of his depression and drug use grew inflated beyond reality since the singer used them as metaphors for love, relationships and other topics. Smith himself once dismissed his image as that of a "gloomy cartoon," and some of his music was more wistful than morbid, closer to the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" and George Harrison's songs than to Goth.

But there's no doubt that he had a dark streak.

"Give me one reason not to do it," Smith sings in an unreleased song called "King's Crossing."

In his heaven, Smith once said, George Jones was always singing.

Ethereal indie records

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."

For Smith, it was something of an embarrassment. ("I didn't intend to play it," he told Under the Radar magazine last year. "But then they said that if I didn't play it, they would get ... someone like Richard Marx to do it ... maybe Richard Marx is a universal scare tactic.")

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. Joe Pernice of the chamber pop group the Pernice Brothers calls Smith the finest songwriter of his generation.

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.

"Even with metaphors, I've always felt Elliott's lyrics are as open and honest as anyone would be with a close friend," says Charlie Ramirez, who runs the Smith website sweetadeline.net and describes fellow fans as "brokenhearted." Smith's lyrics, he says, "made me feel like someone understood, and it was really comforting."

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."

Troubled and generous

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 like Largo.

Smith was born in 1969 in Omaha, 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."

And he enjoyed break-dancing and moon-walking -- "he loved to dance and was great at it" -- and had a favorite T-shirt that said "Bust a move."

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."

Sennett spent weeks recording an album in Smith's Van Nuys studio with its state-of-the-art equipment, 1940s Swedish microphones and a 1960s mixing board like the one George Martin used with the Beatles. Smith didn't charge the guitarist a dime. "He said he built the studio with the intentions of letting it be a free space for musicians."

The studio and the possibilities of studio technology increasingly fascinated Smith, and he was known to stay there experimenting past midnight, staying up for days at a time.

Whoever Smith really was, his musical success was matched with hard living.

In the last few years of his life, there were press 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. The Jan. 6 coroner's report is almost as ambiguous as an Elliott Smith song: "Detectives believe that this death is possibly suspicious, however, the circumstances are unclear at this time."

Neither the coroner nor the Los Angeles Police Department has issued any new information. "The case has been classified as an undetermined death," Jason Lee of the LAPD's public affairs department said without elaborating; investigating officer James King did not return calls.

Of Smith's last three years Schnapf says, "I'm not gonna go there."

Focus on songwriting

Smith's music -- which won fans from Beth Orton to Beck to Bright Eyes to the Kinks' Ray Davies -- was so personal that its influence on other musicians is hard to trace.

Classical pianist Christopher O'Riley, who interpreted Radiohead last year, is now performing and recording Smith's music. Despite his melodic and lyrical gift, he says, Smith was too musically sophisticated to be influential. "It's not like you can emulate that."

But Nugent, his biographer, thinks Smith's example gave alternative rock an important new direction. "What he did was return indie rock to '60s songwriting, both conventional and unconventional. The rest of the 'cool' rock world was moving away from that. In the early '90s, rock conventions were almost heresy -- the idea was to get away from anything that resembled a pop song."

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, Nugent 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 says. "In a way he was an anti-Dylan. He loved Dylan's music and covered 'Ballad of a Thin Man' in concert, but he took it away from strident stances and into a personal, ironic place. And he was different from Kurt Cobain because he was not into youth slogans or grandiose statements."

Danny Preston of the band Wiskey Biscuit, a neighbor who performed several of Smith's songs at a November tribute show that may become an annual event, 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 he learned for the concert. Preston's other band, Future Pigeon, now performs Smith's "Waltz #2" and gets an emotional response from fans afterward.

At the All Tomorrow's Parties 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."

Creative control

By most reports, Smith's four years in Los Angeles were fraught. His earliest concerts were brooding but effective alone-with-the-guitar events, while his DreamWorks tours often saw him with a full band and a more extroverted style. By the end, his playing could be unsure and his between-song banter disconnected.

After the tour for 2000's "Figure 8," a bigger, more lavish record, Smith went through a bad period. "Nothing was very good," he told Under the Radar magazine. "It touches on drug use. I got caught up in that for almost two years." He cleaned up about a year before his death, at Beverly Hills' Neurotransmitter Restoration Center, which flushes a patient's system with amino acids and saline solution.

The trouble wasn't all physical. According to musicians who knew him, the pressure of a major label -- to sell more records, make videos and tour more often -- sometimes became too much for him, and Barlow has said that Smith's last record was rejected by DreamWorks. (Wood disputes this and has called the album "a sabbatical" from his DreamWorks contract.)

In a 2003 interview with Filter magazine, Smith expressed aggravation with "other people [telling] you what songs should be on it." "He was very frustrated with DreamWorks," says Wiskey Biscuit's Preston. "He wanted out of his contract long before that."

The new album, which includes enough material for a double record, has been described as a summing up of his career. Titled "From a Basement on the Hill," it comprises a mix of stripped-down, guitar-and-vocals numbers with sumptuous arrangements that friends say recall the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds." Smith described it to Under the Radar as "impressionistic" and "a pretty big departure."

"Lately I've just been making up a lot of noise," he said of a song that "has no structure in and of itself." Some of the songs, available in pieces on the Internet, sound likely to satisfy fans of his austere, beatific early work. Smith's family will soon choose a label for the release.

"It will help people to hear him say goodbye personally," says Rilo Kiley's Sennett. "But people are still reeling."Besides his music, Smith's legacy includes the Elliott Smith Memorial Fund, which helps fund a foundation for abused children, and the possible Echo Park memorial.

Rick Fein, who began the petition for the memorial, was inspired by Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon memorial in Central Park. He hopes future generations will be "inspired by the incredible harmonies, the 'wall of sound' that he mastered, and of course the lyrics."

Will the new material, or the memorial, ease fans' pain? So far, the shrine on Sunset hasn't.

"When they come to the wall, they're not happy coming," says Solutions' Lew, who watches fans come and go. "They're not happy leaving. You're left with these mixed feelings."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 18, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction Elliott Smith -- An article in Sunday's Calendar section on the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith incorrectly stated that Iggy Pop performed a Smith song at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival. Pop dedicated a song to Smith but did not perform a Smith song. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday February 22, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction Elliott Smith -- An article in last Sunday's Calendar on the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith incorrectly stated that Iggy Pop performed a Smith song at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival. Pop dedicated a song to Smith but did not perform a Smith song. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday February 22, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction Elliott Smith -- An article in the Feb. 15 Calendar section on the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith incorrectly stated that Iggy Pop performed a Smith song at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival. Pop dedicated a song to Smith but did not perform a Smith song.
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