Friday, March 10, 2017

Elliott Smith, My First Celebrity Death

[ed. See also: Needle in the hay: Elliott Smith's incomparable brilliance lives on.]

Sunset Boulevard is a long road. It goes on – and on – for 22 miles, following a path stamped out by cattle in the 18th century that now cuts between Downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood, reaching the ocean at what was once the ranch of the silent film producer Thomas Ince. Ince was known as “the Father of the Western”, and by the time he died in 1924, he had made more than 800 pictures (150 two-reelers in 1913 alone). A photograph from around this time shows him in a cap and thick, checked jacket, his eyes looking to his right with a glare as quiet and fearsome as Vito Corleone’s.

Ince had just turned 44 when he boarded a yacht owned by William Randolph Hearst, where the newspaper magnate, his mistress Marion Davies and film celebrities including Charlie Chaplin had gathered for his birthday party. Within 24 hours, Ince was dead. According to Hollywood lore, the LA Times ran the headline “Movie producer shot on Hearst yacht!” in its morning edition, but dropped it come the evening. The official cause of death was heart failure, but rumours about the “true” circumstances of Ince’s demise still circulate – a recent example being the Peter Bogdanovich film The Cat’s Meow, in which Cary Elwes plays the doomed film-maker, shot by Hearst in a jealous rage.

When public figures die, it becomes everybody’s business. Death is ordinarily a private matter, but for the famous – who live as characters in some collective fantasy – it can be another excuse for public speculation, for public myth-making. After David Bowie’s death last year, fans and journalists interpreted the video for his single “Lazarus” as a cryptic message about the illness that killed him. It was a reasonable supposition, since the song begins with the lines “Look up here, I’m in heaven”, and the video shows the singer in a hospital bed. According to a BBC documentary that aired in January, however, Bowie came up with the video’s concept before receiving his final diagnosis. It was all just a weird coincidence. But listening to the song and Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, today, I find it hard to escape the sense that here is a transmission from beyond the grave.

The myths surrounding the lives and deaths of stars can overpower the often mundane reality. Bobby Kennedy probably had nothing to do with Marilyn Monroe’s barbiturates overdose on 5 August 1962 – but faced with a choice between glamorous tragedy and sad fact, many choose to believe the former, however fantastical.

The singer-songwriter Elliott Smith was a very different kind of star to Bowie, or Monroe, or even his peer Kurt Cobain. Both Cobain and Smith killed themselves mid-career after long periods of drug dependency (Smith was “clean” at the time of his death in 2003), and both were significant figures on the Beatles-ish pop end of 1990s alternative rock.

But where Nirvana transfigured misery into an exhilarating, cathartic squall, Smith turned it inward. Even as a grungy rocker in his early band Heatmiser, he sang as if every word were some shameful secret, as if his whispery voice were the voice in our heads when we are most alone. Smith was signed to the major label DreamWorks Records in 1997 and was nominated for an Oscar for his song “Miss Misery” the following year (it was used in the Gus Van Sant movie Good Will Hunting), but somehow the usual glamour of fame and success never stuck to him. He always came across as an underdog. And to his fans, myself included, his music felt like personal property. It didn’t belong to pop culture at large. It belonged to us.

All music is, of course, performance, and I’m pretty wary of those claims of “authenticity” that still pass for so much music criticism. (How many reviews of the Sharon van Etten album Tramp obsessed over how “she was essentially without a home over its recording process”?) That Smith recorded most of his early albums, from 1994’s Roman Candle to 1997’s Either/Or, on rudimentary tape equipment gives his music a self-consciously uncommercial sound, which translates upon listening as more “genuine” than that of slick, studio-made work. But it’s an aesthetic effect – a lo-fi style that is no more or less valid than Nile Rodgers’s sparkly productions for Madonna, or Steve Albini’s keeping-it-real recordings for, say, Nina Nastasia.

Nonetheless, Smith traded on this image of emotional honesty and privacy that seemed always at odds with his status as a relatively well-known public figure. He appeared on MTV, on late-night chat shows such as Conan O’Brien, on magazine covers and on several major movie soundtracks, the most notable being Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums and Sam Mendes’s American Beauty. Perhaps his deliberate rejection of the myths of stardom was a myth in itself – sort of like the barroom pick-up line about having no pick-up line.

All of this complicated our ability to deal with Smith’s death back in 2003. At least, it complicated it for me. When I first heard that he had stabbed himself in the chest and died, something in me shut down. I’d been bemused by those who had mourned Princess Diana so lavishly in August 1997 – “How could anyone cry about the death of a stranger?” I’d thought. But Elliott Smith felt personal. He was a personal public figure, if that makes sense. It was as if I’d lost a part of myself.

by Yo Zushi, New Statesman | Read more:
Image: Justin Hampton via: Amazon