It seems both incredible and unlikely that it’s been ten years since the death of Elliott Smith. A decade on, unanswered questions still cast shadows over it; did he commit suicide or was he murdered? Regardless, the brutal way in which he died on October 21st, 2003– from two stab wounds to his heart – fits with the vision of him as the ever-dark, romantic poet, a tortured artist whose life was overpowered by that now-clichéd (but ever-real and ever-lethal) triumvirate of depression, alcoholism and drug abuse. Yet while Smith – born Steven Paul Smith on August 6th, 1969 – and his songs could certainly march with a heavy heart and a lugubrious tone, there were also slivers of light that permeated the darkness so often associated with him.
Rather, Smith – like all the best musicians, authors, poets, artists – balanced both extremes with delicate, practiced and accomplished finesse. His life and his music, inextricably linked, were a multitude of different shades, a vast and complex array of colours and emotions that ranged from the brightest hues to the darkest, deepest blacks. But they weren’t mutually exclusive – as best he could, he mixed them, through lyrics and music, together at all times, revealing the complexity of the human condition as well as his own internal, emotional entanglements. Sure, there’s an awful lot of doom and gloom to be found in the five albums (‘Roman Candle’, ‘Elliott Smith’, ‘Either/Or’, ‘XO’ and ‘Figure 8’) that he released in his lifetime, and the two (‘From A Basement On The Hill’ and ‘New Moon’) that have been issued posthumously, but it’s important not to overlook the positivity that found its way into his songs, however ephemeral or fatalistic it may have been. It’s something that’s perhaps best summed up by that one striking, pithy, incisive line in ‘Independence Day’ – ‘Everybody knows / You only live a day / But it’s brilliant anyway’.
Set to an airy, relatively upbeat tune – one of many which shows just how much Smith loved and was influenced by The Beatles – there’s nothing mournful about this song, despite the above lyrics cutting revelation of just how insignificant and fleeting our time on this planet. Instead, it overflows with positivity in the face of that knowledge, imploring the listener – and, presumably, Smith himself – to take control of the day and make the most of what he has. Similarly, while ‘Happiness’ might beat to a slightly more morose drum, it sees Smith striving to reach the light that shines in the distances, a tiny speck at a tunnel but one that is certainly not unreachable : ‘What I used to be will pass away and then you'll see / That all I want now is happiness for you and me.’
Certainly, that happiness wasn’t always present, and his hope and optimism was often overpowered and overshadowed by despair, by drugs, by alcohol, by his depression and sadness. But despite the fact his life ended prematurely – and let’s not subscribe to any conspiracy theories for a moment, but assume that it was, in fact, by his own hand – to not remember those moments of light is a disservice to both Elliott Smith and his music. A decade on from the tragedy, we shouldn’t just mourn the death of this talented artist, but celebrate his life, too, and how he channelled all those things which held him down and held him under into a force for good and a force for change. Even at his darkest, Elliot Smith could still inspire hope. That’s his true legacy – the beauty of his music and his words, forever captured on record and waiting to be discovered by future generations a decade or two or five from now. His music lives on to inspire and, consequently, so does he.
Words: Mischa Pearlman
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