Elliott Smith’s life, as well as his music, was filled with contradiction, conflict and ambiguity. Any biography of his tragically abbreviated life and career would have to fully engage the thorny, oftentimes frustrating details of Smith’s self-destructive tendencies and obfuscated personal drama. Benjamin Nugent, however, makes little attempt to illustrate his subject beyond the realm of simple hagiography.
The problem seems to be that Nugent is a dedicated fan of Smith’s work. Throughout the course of the book he is much more interested in explicating Smith’s pseudo-biographical lyrics than in doing any of the metaphorical legwork required to come to any sort of decisive conclusions regarding Smith’s life. It doesn’t help that the bulk of Smith’s family, as well as a large percentage of his close friends, confidants and girlfriends refused to speak to him. The end result is a book which offers a damningly perfunctory portrait of it’s subject.
Elliott Smith, despite his significant talent, was a very sick man. He was burdened with depression and a proclivity towards addictive behavior, the former of which dogged him for the majority of his adult life, while the latter tendencies began to dominate towards the end. But reading Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing reveals that Elliott’s most glaring character deficiency was an essential selfishness of spirit, a self-centered hunger for attention that caused him to alienate his friends and exacerbate his destructive tendencies. Nugent, however, chronicles Smith’s behavior with the jaundiced eye of a true fan, downplaying the unpleasant facts of his manipulative personal interactions in favor of musical details. The fact that Smith repeatedly threatened his friends with heroin addiction before even taking his first hit of the drug speaks volumes to the surreal heights which Smith was willing to go to win sympathy and attention from his already attentive friends. The details of Smith’s actual voluminous drug use are rather conveniently glossed, leaving the reader ultimately very confused as to just what Smith actually took.
Nugent also overplays Smith’s overall significance to pop music during the mid-to-late 90s. It hardly does him a disservice to point out the very obvious fact that Smith was a minor celebrity in a marginalised rock scene: he was hardly the great standard bearer for acoustic rock during the “Dark Ages” of the ‘90s. Certainly, I can understand Smith’s importance to Nugent (Nugent inserts his own experiences with Smith’s music into the narrative at a few points), but some very basic objectivity is lacking here. Additionally, whenever the book strays away from the details of Smith’s life and into an attempt to describe the musical climate of the late ‘90s, Nugent’s lack of discernable comprehension of any genre besides Beatle-based indie pop is galling.
Ironically, the same week I received a copy of Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing, I also received my December 2004 issue of Spin, featuring a 10-page examination of Smith’s final days, written by Liam Gowing and featuring interviews and statements from pretty much everyone who refused to speak with Nugent. In the space of ten pages, Gowing does a much better job of encapsulating the steps leading to Smith’s inexorably tragic death and the subsequent aftermath among his family and friends. I feel a bit odd recommending a 10-page magazine article over a 230-page book, but the former will definitely give you a much sharper, more concise and infinitely less mewling portrait of the artist in decline. Nugent almost literally refuses to engage in any discussion of Smith’s mysterious death beyond the bare facts of the forensic report. This lack of detail on such an important subject is somewhat bizarre.
Ultimately, Nugent fails on a very basic level to discriminate between his privilege as a fan of Smith’s unforgettable music and his responsibilities as a journalist writing an objective study of Smith’s life. The picture that emerges from Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing is murky, indistinct, and woefully incomplete. It is well and good for a fan to wax poetic about the contradiction, conflict and ambiguity in Smith’s music, but a biographer must at least make an attempt to cut through the thick underbrush of character and find the core of clarity at the subject’s heart: otherwise, why bother?