“Nothing’s gonna drag me down, to a death that’s not worth cheating.”
It’s hard to hear that line, from Elliott Smith’s 1998 song “Baby Britain”, without wincing, much like Kurt Cobain’s fraudulent declaration in “Come As You Are” that he didn’t have a gun. Sure, Smith dabbled in the morose, but he seemed above succumbing to it, which is what made his songs so likeable. He spoke from experience, but came out okay on the other end. Or so we hoped.
As it turned out, we couldn’t have been more wrong. After the news broke Wednesday morning that Smith had stabbed himself in the chest, reports came flying in that Smith, despite being excited about the new music he had been putting together, was in a bad way, slowly losing his battle with substance abuse, booze, and depression.
Then we went back and re-read the wire stories. Stabbed himself in the chest?
This wasn’t like Nick Drake, who may or may not have been trying to overdose. This was an unmistakable ticket out of here, albeit in the slowest and most gruesome manner possible. And he did it in his girlfriend’s apartment, so he wouldn’t rot for two weeks like Layne Staley. It’s as if he took notes on the “mistakes” musicians before him had made with their deaths, in order to make sure his suicide would be pitch perfect. If that sounds harsh, it’s because it’s meant to; it’s the right afforded to all survivors of suicide. Smith will get off easy if the harshest judgment he receives is mine.
So now the rest of us are left with trying to make sense out of a senseless act, deciphering his lyrics for clues and ways we could have “known” this was coming. Ample evidence seems to be everywhere, and the new songs he was working on (“Strung Out Again”, “Fond Farewell”, “Shooting Star”) only stand to boost earlier songs like “Easy Way Out” and “I Didn’t Understand” (“My feelings never change a bit / I always feel like shit / I don’t know why, I guess that I just do.”). Still, nothing hurts worse than the “Baby Britain” line, because that’s the line (or is it ‘lie’) we wanted to believe the most.
The worst thing about Smith’s death is how horribly cliché it is. He was a unique talent, easily one of the best songwriters of his generation and revered by his peers. (Aimee Mann, who knows her way around a good sad song, was a big fan.) His death, however, reduces his life to a punch line, leaving him little more than another sensitive songwriter who got up to his eyeballs in drugs and, in a fit of self-absorption, checked out. Well, la-dee-frickin’ da, another dead junkie who didn’t get the memo on the perils of drug use. If only Bill Hicks were alive to eviscerate Smith the way Smith deserves and the way that only Hicks could.
Eddie Vedder once said, in reference to Kurt Cobain, that living is the best revenge. When DreamWorks pulls a line or two from the Smiths’ “Paint a Vulgar Picture” and starts to reissue, repackage, repackage Elliott Smith’s unreleased material, remember Vedder’s words. Smith wrote beautiful, brutally honest and touching music, but his songs were most effective while he was still among the living. In the end, he didn’t cheat death; he only cheated us.