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Long road down

Elliott Smith's death is unsolved. The musician's life and lyrics are just as mysterious.

February 15, 2004|Scott Timberg | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

In a bohemian stretch of Sunset Boulevard that winds through Silver Lake, there's a stereo repair shop with an exterior that seems, for some, oddly familiar: The coiling red and blue lines on its external wall served as the cover for an album by a battered troubadour named Elliott Smith, a Los Angeles musician who at the time of the record's release, in 2000, was one of pop's bright lights -- someone who combined dark, sometimes self-lacerating lyrics with melody inspired by the British Invasion.

Signed to the DreamWorks label, with a rabid following among critics and musicians, Smith seemed poised to become a melancholic, low-key version of Beck. Fans -- for whom an underground musician is often a secret passed from one to another -- responded passionately to the delicacy and bedroom-scale quality of his music. It made them feel like he was singing about their lives too.

Since Oct. 22, the day after Smith's sudden death by knife wound to the chest in his Echo Park apartment, the wall on Sunset has come alive with their remembrances of the musician, who moved to town in 1999 after years of wandering. Now, nearly every space on the wall is covered with a scrawled lyric, a fan wishing the singer well, offering condolence ("I guess you just weren't made for these times"), or expressing frustration at his unexpected departure. Candles, melted over the lips of wine and beer bottles, broken wooden speakers and arrangements of flowers sit on the sidewalk, still tended each day by tattooed acolytes.

Interest in Smith has spread far beyond Silver Lake. Tribute concerts are taking place from Atlanta to Dublin; closer to home, a petition is circulating to turn part of Echo Park into a memorial. Magazine stories keep coming, and a New York journalist is working on a biography. His family is making arrangements for a posthumous album.

A cult musician in life, he seems, like English folkie Nick Drake, Joy Division singer Ian Curtis and alt-country pioneer Gram Parsons, to exert fascination in death as well.

Master of ambiguity

Smith's music, much of which was almost nakedly intimate, often concerned ambiguity, ambivalence: He called one record "Either/Or," a title he borrowed from Kierkegaard. At least one song, "The Biggest Lie," which concludes his self-titled 1995 album, is a masterpiece of obfuscation: He sings about a couple that experience joy and sorrow and then concludes, "I just told the biggest lie."

"He never lets you on to which part of the lyric he's lying about -- that happiness or the sadness," Luke Wood, Smith's DreamWorks A&R rep, pointed out on a KCRW-FM appreciation. "And that's Elliott." (Wood and many close to Smith, including his family, declined to discuss him for this story.)

The ambiguity of Smith's life has taken on an even deeper meaning with his death, originally judged a suicide but now under investigation by the LAPD for possible foul play. The report by the L.A. County Department of the Coroner refuses to rule on his death because of circumstances "atypical of suicide" that "raise the possibility of homicide," in the words of the deputy medical examiner.

That, says Stephon Lew, the owner of Solutions repair shop, who knew Smith as a customer and friend, leaves the 34-year-old musician's death "a constant mystery to his fans."

For much of last year -- during which, friends say, he seemed to be free from drugs and newly optimistic -- Smith had talked with excitement about a double album he'd recorded and hoped to release on an independent label.

Yet few people who knew Smith speculate that his death was anything but a suicide. It's easy to see why: He was a well-known alcoholic, depressive and drug addict whose years in Los Angeles were, reportedly, especially harrowing for him.

Wood argued on KCRW that the mythology of his depression and drug use grew inflated beyond reality since the singer used them as metaphors for love, relationships and other topics. Smith himself once dismissed his image as that of a "gloomy cartoon," and some of his music was more wistful than morbid, closer to the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" and George Harrison's songs than to Goth.

But there's no doubt that he had a dark streak.

"Give me one reason not to do it," Smith sings in an unreleased song called "King's Crossing."

In his heaven, Smith once said, George Jones was always singing.

Ethereal indie records

General audiences know Smith best from his white-suited appearance at the 1998 Academy Awards, where he strummed the song "Miss Misery" from "Good Will Hunting," shortly before Celine Dion belted out the theme song from "Titanic."

For Smith, it was something of an embarrassment. ("I didn't intend to play it," he told Under the Radar magazine last year. "But then they said that if I didn't play it, they would get ... someone like Richard Marx to do it ... maybe Richard Marx is a universal scare tactic.")

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