Exclusive Extract: Elliott Smith & Torment Saint

Ten years after the singer’s death, author William Todd Schultz pens the first biography on the man who wrote “Miss Misery”. Here’s an exclusive extract from the book…

I was standing on the concrete floor of storage locker 2010, near the Silver Lake portion of Los Angeles, surrounded by songwriter Elliott Smith’s things, and wondering where to turn to find him. He was here somewhere, but he was gone too, eight years gone, simultaneously present and absent, a strained melody. To the left was a plastic tub filled with T-shirts, many worn in performances. His personal vinyl records – Elliott Smith, Either/Or, XO — still in cellophane wrappers, were filed neatly in a cardboard box, five or six copies of each. Books piled up nearby, underlined and with notes in margins – Physicians’ Desk References spanning several years, various fiction titles, an analysis of the effects of abuse on young boys. A bag beside the books contained prescription bottles, medications still inside — Serzone (for depression), Klonopin (for anxiety and seizures), Strattera (for ADHD).

An electric guitar leaned on a stand, amplifiers and mixing boards ran up the right wall. Then there were his writings, scribbled on the backs of legal documents, on napkins, on random torn-off sheets of paper and Pee-Chee folders. I sat down and read through a hastily written but still lucid treatise on existence and nothingness, another on the failure of language to capture experience (“Language is like Legos: fun to work with but less useful”). Songs were also included, handwritten, in nascent or variant versions, original drafts to “Say Yes,” “King’s Crossing,” “Between the Bars,” and “A Distorted Reality’s Now a Necessity to be Free,” the last on sketch paper with what looked to be a cigarette burn in the centre. All these things reposed, the life’s debris, its residue, the possessions of a person no longer around to animate them. Outside it rained hard; it would do so all day and night.

There are too many Elliott Smiths to count, too many anybodys to count, self a bulging multiplicity. There’s Texas Elliott, Portland Elliott, New York Elliott, Silver Lake Elliott. There’s Elliott in a basement on a hill, underground with a stellar view. There’s Elliott between bars, Elliott in the studio, Elliott in his Prada suit, “dollared up in virgin white” at the Oscars. He’s clean, he’s wasted; he’s paranoid, he’s lucid; he’s fragile, in search of some situation where he’s better off than dead, or he’s a butterfly, spending the day higher than high. He’s drinking fortified green concoctions for his health, he’s extinguishing lit cigarettes on his flesh. He’s alive in the music and he’s dead, finding no good reason not to do it.

Which of these Elliotts is true, and which false? Are some more real than others, closer to the core? Those who never knew him, or knew him slightly, or only heard his music, which is all that remains now, are left with one, inevitably final option. We are interpreters. We are pattern finders. That is biography. It’s the connective tissue between facts. It’s the plot inferred, spread over messy, desultory life. It’s a true fiction. One approach was suggested by Elliott himself in the song “Stickman.” Spin the world on its flipside, and “listen backwards for meaning.” It may be the only path. It’s not possible to listen forward anymore.

Photography courtesy of
JJ Gonson

Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith Smith by William Todd Schultz (Bloomsbury) is out October 10th, 2103