The dreams I did not expect. They hadn’t come with any of the other books or articles I’ve written over the years. Not one nocturnal visit from Wittgenstein, Kafka, Agee, Capote, Plath, Arbus. But I liked what my Elliott Smith dreams implied—some deep power, some watchful presence; maybe even, if I was going to be self-serving about it, an ally. At the very least my unconscious was telling me, “I’m in the game. I’m going to weigh in from time to time, whenever it seems necessary.”
Elliott helped me wash dishes. He was a bank teller from whom I made a withdrawal. We met on the sidewalk near Mt. Tabor in Portland, close to my childhood home, and he smiled, wordlessly. He gave me a gesture of thumbs-up. He wished me the best. On occasion the symbolism was almost disappointingly direct, such as when he climbed into an empty box in which I’d received a mailing of 20 copies of my prior book about photographer Diane Arbus. I had taken to telling friends, not entirely joking, that Elliott had become my best friend. He was there in my head when I was awake, and he was there when I was asleep too. To be properly obsessed is a requirement of the biographer. At minimum, I was holding up that end of the bargain.
Books are omen-riddled enterprises; you register atmospheric reverberations. You invest some moments with meanings they don’t even have as a way of upping the stakes on yourself—a whip you use, to quote Truman Capote, for “self-flagellation.” There were the dreams, for one. And before the dreams, before I’d signed a contract, there was this too: My editor was in town, and we set a date to meet for drinks. The place was on Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland. As I parallel-parked, I glanced off to the right. Elliott Street, coming into traffic at a sideways angle (a lot like Elliott). I smiled as I entered the bar, my editor already there on a stool. Then I heard the music. “Between the Bars,” Elliott Smith. It seemed like a minor miracle. Someone, somewhere, had supplied auspicious visuals and a soundtrack. From then on, everything fell into place.
Dreams and premonitions became a book.
I have to say, I never expected to write about Elliott, but then I don’t believe we choose what we write anyway. It was 2009. I’d just finished two books (which I’d written simultaneously), and I figured to lay low for a while, doing a large amount of absolutely nothing. “Nothing” sounded very good to me. It sounded like something. Then I heard Elliott’s “Waltz #2 (XO).” Or, I overheard it. My daughter Adrienne—a Lincoln High School grad like Elliott—had gone through her Shins phase, and now she was deeply into Elliott Smith, playing him as she worked away on a paper in our side study. It’s difficult to describe emotional responses to art that, by their very nature, “can’t be said.” So I’ll resort to vernacular: IT BLEW ME AWAY. It might have been the waltz form, the firing-squad drum beat, the ominous opening guitar chords, the enigmatic lyrics that seemed to describe a night at a karaoke bar, or the gorgeous longing of the testimonial line, “I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow.” Most likely it was the gestalt, all of it. Plus the hint of anti-authoritarian sentiment, the way Elliott tells “Mr. Man” to leave him alone, in the place he makes no mistakes and has what it takes.
There are moments of liftoff; you don’t know you’ve boarded the plane, but it’s climbing, and there’s no calling the whole thing off. You just go. This was it for me. It was going to happen. The songs, my love for them, were going to make me write a book. In fact, I couldn’t not listen to Elliott. And “Waltz #2 (XO)” was no anomaly. A little like the Beatles or Elvis Costello—both of whom Elliott adored—every single song seemed sui generis, inexpressibly beautiful and realized. This was no mean pop star. This was, I came to believe, a songwriting genius. And for the moment, I had no idea he was dead—of two stab wounds to the chest. (My daughter quickly filled me in on some of the surface details.)
At this early juncture, before I’d even signed the publishing contract, I didn’t yet know what I’d think of Elliott as a person, so I checked him out online—performance and interview clips. Nabokov called this part of the creative process “prefatory glow.” There’s a stirring, a sort of silvery feeling of hopeful incipience. What I saw in Elliott was just what I expected to see, what the music had primed me for—humility, grace, extreme intelligence, compassion, a nuanced artistry, and maybe most important of all, mysteriousness, something withheld, not overtly articulated. I liked him. A lot. He was real, genuine, openly vulnerable. He didn’t lie. In fact, he seemed almost incapable of it. And the truths he told were not self-glorifying. He told them reluctantly at times, they had to be scooped out, but they came all the same, cloaked in metaphor, and in what I came to see as a basic operating personality feature—ellipses. What Elliott was, nearly all the time, was elliptical. Part of him trailed off, pointed elsewhere, echoed down a hole with no perceptible bottom. As he once said, with customary obscurity, the songs were all about “what it is like to be a person.”
Biography is fantasy until you take that first step of reaching out to others, announcing the role you’ve decided for yourself, always a little audaciously: biographer. I’m going to tell Elliott Smith’s story, you say. Inevitably, some answer, “Don’t. He told it himself. In the songs.” Others want to know, perfectly reasonably, “Why?” Or, as a few people asked, “What’s your angle? Did you know Elliott?” There’s a tentative, delicate, unpredictable collaboration between biographer and interviewee. It’s clear what the biographer wants—stories. It’s never clear what the interviewee wants. But with Elliott, no matter who it was I happened to be talking to—for an hour, for dozens of hours, on the phone, on Skype, in person, on or off-record—it was almost always the same. He was loved. He was admired, respected. He was also someone to be protected. But then, most overwhelming, he was dead. That fact framed everything. It was in between every word anybody said. It didn’t come out immediately. Sometimes, surprisingly, it didn’t come out at all. But it was there. The inescapable subtext. The limitless darkness.
I took a trip to L.A., to the Elliott Smith Memorial Wall on Sunset. This is where fans gather—not where it started, but where it ended. To write messages. To take pictures. Sometimes just to stand and stare. A big truck pulled up, and a kid, about 16, jumped out with a stepladder. He wanted to write something way up high, words no one could mess with. His dad was there. He never said anything. He was the driver. He was the kid’s Virgil. I watched the son get to work. I even took a picture of what he wrote from where I stood at the curb. He finished, climbed down, then stepped back beside me. I kept quiet. I didn’t want to interrupt his private imaginings. Then, abruptly, he turned to me and asked,”You think she did it?”
Five words. Not “Where are you from?” Or “What’s your favorite song?” Or “What does Elliott mean to you?” Though it’s the sort of thing that likely always happens, especially with artists who die prematurely, violently, and unforgettably, it still takes one by surprise; how the death hijacks the life, how everything gets read backwards from a terminus, how the life seems never to have existed without a death in it. It’s a soundtrack you can’t mute. It keeps imposing itself tendentiously. It narrows everything. It’s a fish-eye lens. There’s a funereal aspect to Elliott Smith that’s dislocating. But it’s false. It’s distorting. And from the start my impulse was to reject it. I wrote as if he was alive. I attempted to write in amnesia of the ending I already knew.
Yet, around every Internet corner I found them. They are militant, watchful, obsessed, adamant. The handful of people—and I do, now, believe them to be no more than a handful—who insist Elliott was murdered. They wrote me. They left comments wherever they could. They tracked my progress. They surmised, opined, invented scenarios. The “she” they bore down on, the “she” the kid at the wall was talking about, was Elliott’s last girlfriend, the person who was there when he died, Jennifer Chiba.
There was a moment during my interview with Elliott’s friend Pete Krebs, himself a terrific musician and incredibly admirable individual, a person with true soul. We had finished our chat, and I asked if I’d left anything out, if I’d omitted a question I shouldn’t have. “It’s surprising,” he said, “but unlike every other person I’ve ever talked to about Elliott, you didn’t ask me about his death.” And I realized—I was interested in the music, the songs, the creative process, the milieu, the zeitgeist in Portland, the relationships, the slapstick moments, the successes, the failures. In short, the life. In short, the art.
Then I thought it over more. I’d talked to dozens of people exceptionally close to Elliott, friends and girlfriends spanning the years from sixth grade to 2003, and almost no one brought up his death. And no one, not a one, strongly believed or even suspected he’d been murdered. In fact, they preferred to focus on better days. They all said a version of the same thing: Elliott wasn’t always depressed; he was never, until around the turn of the millenium, an addict; far from sad, most of his life he was happy, funny, healthy. Make sure you don’t forget that, they told me. Don’t leave out the wit, the moonwalking, the hilarity of Elliott at his peak.
I remember clearly the feeling, as I worked on the chapters about Elliott’s time in Texas, elementary school and junior high; the college years; the return to Portland to form the band Heatmiser; the recording of his first solo record in JJ Gonson’s basement—I recall thinking forcefully, This is the realest Elliott. Not flawless, not without inner pain, but fresh, inventive, productive, bold.
The concept of true self is problematic. Just as Elliott did, in college I studied post-structuralism, the idea that “all reading is a misreading” and every self a “paper-I.” So, as I had these thoughts of realness, I also instinctively doubted them. Identities possess a fractional truth, I figured. Some selves get 80 percent there, some are largely fraudulent, subtractions rather than additions. One friend told me that, in his final two years, it seemed as if a portion of Elliott’s personality got excised. I agree. The art kept building, refining itself; the life was another matter.
Books are a grinding; they grab you by the hair and drag you across gravel. You are like a rider on horseback; there is no doubt where the superior strength lies—the horse. I came to terms early on with the fact that biography is a selfless act. It’s not autobiographical fiction. The book is about some other person. What you do, if you manage to get things right, is disappear. What you are, at most, your role in the process, is story-hoarder. People open up their parcel of stories, and you do all you can to get them right, to put them in their proper places. You are also, always, a bit of a loiterer, a trespasser. Your job is to wander the territory. Most people don’t mind too much; the rare few even leave the gate open for you. But you learn to walk lightly. To be as inconspicuous as possible. To take what’s offered and no more.
To me, looking back, the idea of an objective biographer is mostly nonsense. Or else I just suck at the emotional side of it. You spend dozens of hours with people, taking in what they feel comfortable sharing, and what happens—what must happen, it seems to me—is that you get to know them. In unusual cases you even become friends, at least of a sort. At first I wondered about that. Was it a good idea? Could it lead to trouble down the line? Then I gave in. It started to strike me as inevitable. There’s a side effect to this that benefits the work. You feel, if you let yourself, a terrific responsibility to your interlocutors. It’s not just about getting Elliott Smith right; it’s also about getting them right, from their words to your ears to the tips of your fingers as you write the memories down. And from the start, I realized: These were exceptional people, Elliott’s friends. Thoughtful, creative, gifted, smart, dignified, sensitive, compassionate. In short, a lot like Elliott. In many instances, I was overcome by their generosity. I felt as if I’d been gifted with precious heirlooms—to handle carefully, to not break.
But the love you feel for your interviewees is nothing compared to the love you feel for your subject. It’s corny to call it love, I suppose. Maybe affection suffices, or longing. I don’t think this love is always there. Some biographies are hatchet jobs. Others exude dislike or annoyance. Most subjects don’t choose their biographer. Posthumously, they luck out or they don’t. For me, after 25 years of writing about artists, the work is an act of sympathy. To understand, you sympathize. To interpret, you must love; it’s the only way to feel yourself in, to gather the shadings of experience. Love allows you to see. It helps you take everything in. It’s clarifying, not distorting.
Also, with love as your guide, you make better choices, I think. And biography is all about choice. It’s a constant series of judgments. As I wrote on I noticed all the things I did not say piling up beside the things I did. You leave a second book of omissions. Some are necessary—people tell you things, then tell you not to write them in. Others are more slippery. You hear something, it is “on record,” then you ask yourself: Can I say this? Is it essential? What’s the ratio of harm to good? There is a lot I know about Elliott Smith, and about the people in his life, that is not in the book. It’s explosive, strange, shocking, dark, but invisible.
Yet through it all—the constant, day-to-day moving around of words, the tracking down of people, the getting them to agree to talk, the interviews themselves, each a universe of backstoried complexities—I had on my side an invaluable trick, a sure-fire stimulant. The songs. If I ever wavered, I went to the songs. “Coming Up Roses,” “Cupid’s Trick,” “St. Ides Heaven,” “Angel in the Snow”—virtually any one sufficed. And the feeling I got from them—the rush, the excitement, the truly antidepressant feeling—always put me in a groove. The story was whatever was the song. And I told it.
Just last night I dreamed Elliott alive again. I had gone to a restaurant with a friend, and he was there at a table being interviewed. He called me over. He was so happy, healthy, loquacious even. We talked for a minute or two. I don’t recall exactly about what. As I went to the next room, I rejoined the person I’d come with. He asked, “Who was that?” I said, “He’s the guy I wrote my biography about.”
WILLIAM TODD SCHULTZ Town Hall (Downstairs), 1119 Eighth Ave., 652-4255, townhallseattle.org. $5. 7:30 p.m. Tues., Oct. 29. Purchase tickets here.