Paying meaningful tribute to Elliott Smith is a tricky thing: his music is so quietly devastating, so pure in its sadness, that expressing the weight of his loss in words feels almost superfluous. If you want to know who the Portland songwriter really was, you can skim the handful of books and dozens of magazine profiles that have been published about him — or you can listen to "2:45 a.m." over and over until everything else sounds impossibly insincere. Who's to say which is the better glimpse?
That, at any rate, is the challenge facing the music world today. Ten years ago to the day, Smith collapsed in his Los Angeles home with two stab wounds to the chest — possibly self-inflicted, but let's not get into that debate here — and the world lost one of the most treasured songwriters to have emerged in the nineties. In an era where faceless grunge imitators and chest-beating nü-metal ruled the radio, Smith's songs emphasized vulnerability and heartbreak. But posthumously, he has become the closest thing the indie generation has to a Kurt Cobain: a tremendous talent whose tragic, untimely end will likely always threaten to overshadow the songs themselves.
Here's a quick glimpse at how the Internet — and Smith's contemporaries — are paying tribute.
Stories from the people who knew him best
For breadth and authority alone, it's tough to top Jayson Greene's oral history of Smith's career for Pitchfork. Greene spoke to 18 of Smith's closest friends and collaborators, including the Flaming Lips' Steven Drozd and Sebadoh's Lou Barlow, to piece together the story of the artist's short career. (Many others refuse to talk publicly, having been burned before.) It becomes clear that the trauma of his death is still raw: one friend, Dorien Garry, admits that it's painful when Smith's songs play in coffee shops, while Flaming Lips manager Scott Booker says that Either/Or is one of his top 10 favorite records, but he "can’t listen to it anymore, it’s too hard."
Given the brevity of Smith's career, there's also the speculation about what he could have accomplished had he lived: "He would be on his own right now," says producer Rob Schnapf. "He’d be like Wilco, he’d be able to do whatever he wants. He wouldn’t need the business."
Tributes from fellow artists
Stereogum has managed to cobble together tributes from a handful of Smith's contemporaries. It's a reminder of what should be obvious: you don't have to have known Smith personally to have been intensely affected by his music, or devastated by his demise. Sharing a vivid memory of listening to Either/Or with an ex-boyfriend, Speedy Ortiz's Sadie Dupuis reveals that the artist's death "was the first and only time I cried over the loss of someone I didn’t know personally." Here We Go Magic's Luke Temple, meanwhile, discusses how Smith's incorporation of jazz harmonies inspired him, while pianist Christopher O'Riley discusses performing Smith's songs and introducing him as "the most important American songwriter since Gershwin."
Spin's look back
Just over a year after Smith's death, Spin published a closely detailed glimpse at the last several years of his life. That piece, by Liam Gowing, has been made available online for the first time today. Unsurprisingly, it's not always an easy read: it contains details of the artist's battles with heroin and troubled onstage episodes at the start of the millennium, addresses the flashbacks Smith had to memories of being sexually molested by his stepfather, and touches on widely shared allegations that Smith's death was, in fact, a murder and not a suicide.
But it also incorporates sweet glimpses of Smith's personality, including this recollection from a fellow heroin addict and musician:
"Elliott told me: 'The people who try to intervene, they're good people who genuinely care about you. But they don't know what you're going through. Do what you need to do.' We talked for a long time that night about songwriting and art and, finally, depression. I told him that I had it pretty bad and was thinking about killing myself. He looked me in the eye and just said one word: 'Don't.'"
The tribute concert
If you're in Brooklyn tonight and don't mind navigating last-minute Craigslist ticket-finding drama, you can see Smith's songs performed live by such talents as Cat Power, DIIV's Zachary Cole Smith, Why?'s Yoni Wolf, and Speedy Ortiz's Sadie Dupuis, some of whom penned memorials for the Stereogum round-up.
Surely it'll be a cathartic affair, but the many who won't be able to make it can still pay respects by listening to XO or Either/Or the way they've always sounded best: alone on a pair of headphones in a bedroom at night.
Top photo by llaurens via Wikimedia Commons.