ELLIOTT SMITH AND THE BIG NOTHING by Benjamin Nugent (Da Capo), 224 pages, $ 33.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Like a lot of other Elliott Smith devotees, I figured he’d keep faking it through the day with some help from Johnnie Walker Red, just as his lyrics said he would. But that didn’t happen.
Benjamin Nugent’s new biography, Elliott Smith And The Big Nothing, journeys with Smith to the depths of his melancholic and mythologized life.
An appropriate guide, Nugent describes himself as a typical Elliott Smith fan – meaning, he says, that he fell in love with Smith’s music at a time when he wanted to fashion a noose from his vintage T-shirt collection.
Nugent’s biography weaves between Smith’s quiet ambition and his public deterioration. Old friends describe Smith at 14 at his Texas junior high as affable, not unpopular, carrying the Beatles’ White Album under his arm. Later, Smith would claim to have been a bullied kid but also a survivor who figured out how to fight harder and faster.
Melancholy is the mood we came to know Smith by in the late 90s, but Nugent’s bio depicts him during his Hampshire College days as quiet, deeply funny, the heart-on-his-sleeve kind of guy who’d drive you home if you were drunk and not make a pass.
During the last four years of his life in Los Angeles, the creative genius disappeared into a cocoon of drugs and dispassion – not unlike Brian Wilson’s tale of unravelling poolside, only Smith would have no comeback.
When I saw Smith in Toronto in April 2001, he had an unearthly quality. He kept his eyes on the stage floor and stopped a couple of songs one verse in with a sigh of explanation. When he walked offstage after a short set, the entire Warehouse filled with applause, begging him to come back.
But when the lights came up and the crowd dispersed, I think we all felt foolish to have expected it.