I just finished reading William Todd Schultz’s Torment Saint, the poignant, sad, troubled biography of Elliott Smith. To borrow a well-worn title from another less tragic contemporary (David Eggers), Smith’s music and legacy is truly the Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Of course the tales of depression, drug abuse, and sad lyrics are nothing new to anyone familiar with the myth of Elliott Smith, but as I turned each page of the book, I realized that Smith is someone I would have liked – even with his insufferable self-loathing. Clearly this was another case of an artist who enjoyed making art for art’s sake and when that art was co-opted for mass consumption and all the pitfalls that accompany corporate success, it was simply too heavy to handle – insert Kurt Cobain here.
I say I would have liked him because I put myself by his side as I read about the places he wasted time, the people he associated with, the records he owned and the type of women he was attracted to. I’ve lived in Portland, OR for the past 4 years and I too have spent a little time in Dots (his bar of choice), scoured the dusty vinyl bins of Music Millennium, a favorite record store and shuffled down the same sidewalks of SE Portland written about in the book.
I didn’t live here in Portland when he did, and quite frankly I wasn’t a massive fan (yes, I had XO and Either/Or – great records) but I WAS part of the same “scene” he was reluctantly lumped into. I wrote independent record reviews in a column called The Vinyl Verdict, interviewed 90’s ‘indie’ bands, attended countless shows in many cities and had deep fondness for the eruption of music coming out of the Pacific Northwest in the early-to-mid 1990’s. I’ve met several of the people mentioned in the book – his friends, bandmates and fellow Portland musicians, so I feel a small (yet cautious) sense of understanding of the environment where he created arguably his finest work.
It seemed that those around him during his many years in Portland would tell me I’m crazy to think that being close to him would have been easy. I don’t imagine even for a moment that I would have understood his struggles with deep depression, alcoholism and occasion narcissistic behavior. I would have probably kept him at arm’s length – my way of dealing with things/situations I don’t understand – but as I sit here writing this with XO playing in the background, I can see what he saw through his lyrics. The Rose Parade, the sidewalk cracks of Alameda – its all part of my Portland experience too. These are the things I notice as well.
Where am I going with this? Hell, I don’t even know. I do know that Smith was trying to exorcise some of these demons through his music. I have artist friends who would swear their art has saved their lives. It’s real. I believe that. I finished the book with a sense of frustration and sadness. I suppose that’s the outcome anytime you learn the tragic details of a life ended by suicide. I have to wonder what else he would have accomplished? In this era where Bon Iver shares the stage with Katy Perry I have to think that Smith would have been back at the Oscars or Grammy’s again – confused, reluctant, in another ill-fitting suit.
If you’re prepared for it, Torment Saint is as well-crafted and heartbreaking as any Elliott Smith song. Check it out.