Elliot Smith: Beyond the Persona

Leaving behind spectacle and sensation, Torment Saint offers a compassionate and measured portrayal of late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith.

“There is no next Elliott Smith,” writes Todd William Schultz in Torment Saint, his biography of the much-lauded and now-legendary singer-songwriter. Smith, who came to prominence as a solo artist in the mid-‘90s, was known for masterful and introspective songs that touched on love, loss, and sadness. In Torment Saint, Schultz offers us a thorough profile and analysis of Smith’s life, self, and work that at once affirms both Smith’s uniqueness and his irreplaceability.

It has been just over ten years since Smith died on 21 October 2003. At the time, the indie and mainstream music worlds were predictably aflutter with shock and awe: Smith, widely known for long-term struggles with substance abuse and depression, had been doing alright. He had recently quit using substances, had taken up a self-detoxing regimen, and was voraciously writing and recording songs for a double album (the posthumously released From a Basement on a Hill).

News of Smith’s death quickly traveled throughout the mainstream and independent press in a story that is now well known yet repeatedly retold. That afternoon, Smith and then-partner Jennifer Chiba got into an argument at their shared apartment in Los Angeles. Chiba locked herself in the bathroom for respite, as she’d done before, and re-emerged when she heard screaming. She found Smith with a knife in his chest, having stabbed himself twice. He died that day.

It is here, with the end, with death, drugs, and destruction, that most narratives about Smith begin. The story of Smith’s death is told, again and again, in the context of an increased and increasingly dangerous dependency on legal and illegal substances, a dependency exacerbated by a nearly lifelong depression. Most accounts of Smith document the story of a prodigious and gifted singer-songwriter whose artistic vision and creativity were fuelled by drugs, misery, and the constant lure of suicide. Smith is often portrayed as tortured and tormented, always on the precipice, yet wholly dependent on the continual presence of self-destruction to motivate his songwriting.

Over the past decade, numerous versions of Smith’s story have emerged in an attempt to not only eulogize the artist, but to also shed light on the tumultuous years of his life and ultimately his death. Some of these include: Autumn de Wilde’s renowned book, Elliott Smith (2007); Benjamin Nugent’s Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing (2009); the new documentary Heaven Adores You (2014) and the less recent biopic Searching for Elliott Smith (2009).

When talking and writing about Smith, it seems that the predictable “tortured artist” narrative has almost become institutionalized, much like it has with artists such as Nick Drake, Ian Curtis, and Kurt Cobain. What can William Todd Schultz, psychologist and purveyor of what he himself calls “Inner Lives”, add to the cacophony with his book Torment Saint? What has not already been said?

Writing to avoid another, simplistic repetition of the prevailing narrative, Schultz, a professor of psychology at Pacific University, offers us Torment Saint. This biography of Smith is Schultz’s way of asking “what set [Smith] apart”, of finding out how and why he was “not like any one else”. So, where many accounts of Smith focus on tragedy, self-destruction, and death, Torment Saint primarily attends to life. Schultz offers the bulk of his pages to Smith’s early years in Texas and formative years in Portland. By shifting his attention to Smith’s comparatively healthier years, Schultz provokes another version of Smith: that of a prolific, funny, kind, caring, and creative individual.

Through candid interviews with close friends of Smith, as well as via occasional commentary from Smith himself, we learn of Smith’s protective nature and of his deep sympathy and compassion towards those he held close. Schultz takes us through Smith’s musical self-education and diverse influences (in his early years, The Beatles, The Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jackson Browne; in his final years, My Bloody Valentine). Smith actively and fervently studied popular songs through repeated listens for structure, singing style, and lyrical content.

He was a self-taught guitarist, vocalist, pianist, and drummer. He entered into long discussions about songs and songwriting with his bandmates in Portland-based quartet Heatmiser (his project before starting to tour as a solo artist in and around 1993). Through analyses of his songs, Schultz emphasizes Smith’s “incredible melodic sensibility” and “sophisticated” musicality. Smith’s songwriting and recording processes were nearly constant; he would often write while watching muted television.

Where other accounts have only briefly noted it, in Torment Saint, we read in detail about Smith’s gregariousness as well as his wry sense of humour. Schultz’s work introduces us to Smith as a voracious reader who immersed himself deeply in the works of seminal novelists like Beckett and philosophers like Kierkegaard and who studied legal and feminist theory at Hampshire College.

Torment Saint uniquely complements rather than corrects the extant stories of Smith because it offers us personhood over problems and paranoia. Schultz is indeed at his best when he intellectually probes to disrupt the dominant “myths” that surround Smith: that of the “DIY god”, the “troubled troubadour”, or the “death-obsessed existentialist pop star” who, to his continued detriment, refuses both help and treatment.

Yet, Schultz’s biography doesn’t draw out the so-called man behind the songs by avoiding discussion of Smith’s long-term ill mental health. Throughout, Schultz pauses to consider the tragic circumstances that galvanized Smith’s depression and in turn his creative output.

The trauma and depression that fuelled Smith’s uninterrupted musical productivity over the years is often attributed to abuse of an indeterminate nature at the hands of Smith’s stepfather, the now-infamous Charlie Welch. Although the two became estranged when, in 1984, a teenaged Smith moved to Portland (to live with biological father Gary Smith), Smith gave Charlie ample space in his songs, both directly (“Flowers for Charlie”) and indirectly (“Roman Candle”). Smith used the space of songs to work through and make sense of Welch’s treatment of him.

In the latter part of the book, Schultz gives ample time to Smith’s growing distress at the possibility that he was sexually abused by Charlie, but recognizes that Smith was unable to determine the veracity of his conviction. Regardless, Schultz demonstrates throughout the profound psychological and emotional impact that Welch had on Smith.

Schultz also spends much time analyzing Smith’s songs and offering possible meanings and interpretations, and he considers their significance in the broader context of both Smith’s life and musical influences. At times, these interpretations, glibly articulated, come off as slightly hackneyed armchair psychology, given that Schultz neither met nor knew Smith. Nonetheless, the insights offer a refreshing approach to music biography that centres Smith’s songs over the presentation of facts.

Torment Saint, however, suffers from a lack of sustained commentary and new insights from those who were close with Smith over the years. Schultz directly interviewed or cites interviews with many people close to Smith during his years in Portland—Neil Gust, Tony Lash, JJ Gonson—as well as those close with him in his final years—Dorien Garry and Jennifer Chiba. However, unlike other writings about Smith, Schultz does not allow them the space to speak at length about their relationships with Smith, nor can he bring in new sources that have yet to speak on record.

In turn, the commentaries cited by Schultz infrequently merit insights beyond those already cited, sometimes verbatim, in other articles such as Spin’s insightful and moving portrayal of Smith’s final years (“ Elliott Smith: ‘Mr. Misery’ Revisited, 10 Years After the Singer-Songwriter’s Controversial Death”, by Liam Gowing, Spin, 21 October 2013. Instead, Schultz, who never knew Smith, takes up the loudest voice throughout Torment Saint, and comes to serve as the authority on Smith through his quasi-psychoanalytic musings on the singer-songwriter.

Schultz provides a detailed and comprehensive account of Smith’s life, work, and most significantly, his identity beyond the persona. Accounts that discuss Smith’s life from 1999-2003, the last four years of his life, place disproportionate focus on his substantial dependence on prescription medications and their exorbitant daily cost. Schultz takes us further, examining how Smith’s worsening paranoia and mounting inability to perform songs in their entirety affected his art. He attends to how Smith’s peculiar and co-dependent relationship with Valerie Deerin, his subsequent relationship with Chiba, his work with producer Jon Brion, and his several attempts at treatment, intermingled with one another and impacted Smith’s music.

By not capitulating to the sensational, Torment Saint is a sensitive portrayal of an artist frequently depicted as sensitive. This is a balanced and complex representation of Smith that eschews both sensationalism and spectacle. Torment Saint is a meticulous account that gives insight into Smith’s life and music by placing misery alongside the more ordinary details of life, such as the events and people that shaped Smith and the social and cultural milieu in which he matured as a musician and songwriter.

RATING 7 / 10