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3 February 2017updated 07 Feb 2017 7:30pm

Elliott Smith, my first celebrity death

Twenty years after his cult classic Either/Or, remembering Elliott Smith. 

By Yo Zushi

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.

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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.

Smith was nothing like me. He was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1969 and spent his childhood in Texas; his parents were divorced; he had a strained relationship with his stepfather; he had long slumps of depression and drifted into alcoholism and drug addiction as his career reached its peak in the mid-1990s. I was a Japanese teenager from Hiroshima, living in north London with my happy family, eating a lot of pizza. We probably had pizza in common but not much else. But everything about him and his work connected with me. I used to stare at the murky photograph on the sleeve of Either/Or and try to imagine being there, or being him, with the dusty black baseball cap, the tattoos on his arm, the strange T-shirt, the cigarette. He sounded miserable on that record, so it might seem perverse that any happy dude would aspire to be him. But he made misery sound beautiful and important. He made pretty what was ugly before.

When the 25-year-old Peaches Geldof died in April 2014, a few tabloids (including the Daily Mail) speculated whether her “obsession” with Smith’s music had contributed to her emotional decline. It was an absurd theory – as silly as those op-eds following the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 that suggested that Marilyn Manson and other nu-metal bands were ultimately to blame. However, what the story underscored was how important Smith’s music was for people who felt down, lost and at the end of their tether.

That’s probably why the recent demolishing of part of a swirly mural on Sunset Boulevard, not too far from Ince’s end of that road, caused so much distress to Smith’s fans. In 2000, the musician had stood in front of it for a photo shoot with Autumn de Wilde; one of the images that resulted from the session was used on the cover of the final album he released in his lifetime, Figure 8. After Smith died, it became an unofficial memorial, on which people scrawled messages to their late hero (“We miss you…”). The bar now occupying the building was sensitive to the feelings of his fans and has kept the section of the mural that was cut away, moving it inside the premises. It’s called Bar Angeles – presumably named after Smith’s 1997 song “Angeles”.

The idea that a chunk of wall tenuously connected with a star’s life could have so much value to his admirers might come across as further evidence of the madness of crowds – after all, it’s not as if Smith lived in that building or wrote any of his songs there; he just stood in front of it once. But this is the power of a star’s mythology. The guy might die, but what he means to people can live on and on.

An expanded edition of Either/Or will be released in May to celebrate its 20th anniversary, and maybe a new generation of listeners will fall under Elliott Smith’s spell. Lucky them. Baby boomers spoke of rock musicians as voices of generations. Smith would doubtless have hated such a presumptuous, grandiose label being applied to him. So I’ll just say he was, for a while, my voice, and the voice of anyone who loved his music as much as I did. And God, I feel old – 20th anniversary?