Remembering Elliott Smith
Posted by lisagbrown on October 22, 2007
Four years ago today, on October 21st 2003, the music world lost one if its most talented contributors. Elliott Smith was just 34 years old when he died under mysterious circumstances at his Los Angeles home. Smith’s death was a tragedy, but it wasn’t exactly a surprise. Anyone who is a fan of his music is well aware of the common themes: alchoholism, loneliness, addiction. Since I knew this sad anniversary was approaching, I revisited Smith’s catalog, this time with an ear towards the role of animals in his music, hoping that I could both honor his memory and explore his relationship with nonhuman life.
I was surprised to discover how few animals appear in his lyrics. With minor exceptions, Smith’s world seems completely devoid of nonhumans. For that matter, nature, wilderness and the environment in any living form are also noticeably absent. This striking omission might be as significant as the presence of his other themes. A world without wild animals, companion animals, even symbolic animals, mythological beings or fantasy creatures seems unimagineable. I searched the lyrics for anything living — plants, insects, fish. I listened for natural habitats like oceans, sky, forest. With rare exceptions, these representations of life are completely missing from his world. Smith sang again and again about the unliveability of his life, a life populated by alcohol bottles, drugs, darkness and not much else. The only life-giving force that ever appears in his music, and does so repeatedly, is the sun. But for Smith, the most obvious element of the sun is its habit of abandoning him every single day without fail. And even when he can manage to derive joy from the sun’s brilliance, he always does so in the context of self-destructive behavior that will cast him to the shadows again.
It is well-known that depression causes people to withdraw from family, friends, work, and all the things they hold dear. But what becomes clear from Smith’s lyrics, and his subsequent (possible) suicide, is that depression can pull people away from the natural world as well. It is a kind of isolation that transcends species and isolates the sufferer from any form of living being.
I never knew Smith personally, nor do I know what role animals and nature played in his experiences outside of music. But I can see from his lyrics that liveness in its many forms was absent from Smith. Spending any length of time within his musical world highlights the haunted genius of his talents, but spending too much time there can cause claustrophobia, as would any world without sun, life, greenery, sky, water and animals. Perhaps there is something to be learned from this. In our darkest moments, we ought to remember to reach out to the natural world, even if we can’t muster the strength to reach towards the human one. Perhaps such an effort could have saved Elliot Smith some pain.
If you would like to honor Smith’s memory, the Elliott Smith Memorial Fund encourages donations to Outside In, a Portland, Oregon organization where Smith had been scheduled to perform a benefit show to support their needle exchange program. You can also learn more about Smith by going to his official fan website, Sweet Adeline.
Photo of Elliott Smith by Autumn de Wilde