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Elliot Smith, Reluctant Star

Published: 8/6/2010

On what would have been his 41st birthday, we look back on the life and career of singer-songwriter Elliot Smith.

Elliot Smith In 1998, the Oscars featured musical performances by artists who were already household names. Though still only a teenager, rising R&B superstar Aaliyah had already sold millions of records when she was called upon to perform the nominated song from Anastasia. Con Air featured a song from Trisha Yearwood, who had four platinum albums to her credit. Michael Bolton belted out the blandly inspirational "Go The Distance" from Disney’s Hercules. Diva Celine Dion emoted her way through the grandiose Titanic theme – which had gone to No. 1 in pretty much every country that bothered keeping a chart – backed by a white-clad orchestra and copious amounts of fog.

And then there was Elliot Smith.

A surprise nomination for his work in the indie film Good Will Hunting, the comparatively unheralded performer took the stage clad in a frumpy looking white dinner jacket, hair greasy, acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder. Looking nervous and uncomfortable, he delivered a spare, heartfelt rendition of "Miss Misery" that’s now regarded as one of the Academy Awards' finest musical moments, providing a breath of fresh air amidst the other typically overblown musical segments.

Smith had released his first solo record only four years earlier on the small, Portland-based indie label Cavity Search Records. He released three more records on the Kill Rock Stars label to growing acclaim, all featuring stripped-down instrumentation, whispery vocal delivery, and songwriting that won him comparison to the Beatles, Paul Simon and Nick Drake. His dark, melancholy lyrics often centered around despair, loneliness and addiction. His third album, Either/Or was named for a work of existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.

When Portland-based director Gus Van Sant called upon Smith to help with the soundtrack for Good Will Hunting, it forever changed the arc of Smith’s career. On the surreal aspect of suddenly finding himself at the Oscars performing for movie stars and Tinseltown bigwigs – not to mention the millions watching the TV broadcasts at home – the introverted Elliot said, "I wouldn't want to live in that world, but it was fun to walk around on the moon for a day." In subsequent years, he stopped performing "Miss Misery" as it reminded him too much of celebrity and the media carnival he sought to distance himself from.

At the same time, Smith had ambitions. He moved from Portland to New York and later Los Angeles, and any hopes of going back to a quiet life as an indie songwriter ended when he signed for major label DreamWorks. A big-budget record meant more touring, more promotion, more interviews with writers looking for the reasons behind his increasingly depressive behavior, such as when he jumped off a cliff in North Carolina and was saved serious injury or death only by hitting a tree on the way to the ground.

He'd long struggled with alcoholism and prescription medication abuse, but around 2000 began using heroin and crack cocaine. Several recording sessions were scrapped, and when DreamWorks raised concerns he accused them of intruding on his personal life and threatened to commit suicide if they didn't release him from his contract. The next two years were marred by concerts at which he was too inebriated to perform and an arrest after a drunken brawl with police at a Flaming Lips concert.

In 2002, he went to rehab in Beverly Hills for his illicit drug addiction. Psychiatric pharmaceuticals remained an issue, but on his 34th birthday, Aug. 6, 2003, Smith swore off alcohol and prescription medication for good.

Less than three months later, he was dead from two apparently self-inflicted stab wounds to the chest. Though the autopsy stopped short of ruling the death a suicide, no investigation was launched. Those who knew Smith best had experienced his flirtations with suicide many times over the years. There was nothing a coroner could tell them that they didn’t already know.

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