October 30, 2003

A Needle in the Hay

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Some years, and some lives for that matter, appear from certain angles to be nothing more than a series of losses. This has been one of those years. Only a few months ago, two innovative icons left us with a wealth of music in their already legendary wakes. The suicide of Elliott Smith leaves the world once more bereft of a timeless voice, but feels quite a bit different from the passing of Johnny Cash or Warren Zevon. It will surely be the least publicized, but in a way it is the most tragic. Of course, we will always imagine what more those giants could have produced if their bodies hadn’t quit. But Smith’s body didn’t quit; he did. At only 34 years old, no one was prepared for his departure. No cancer made us count the days; no “Hurt” to help us understand.

None of this is to say there were no premonitions of Smith’s death. In a disturbing sense, Smith’s suicide was predetermined, written into his life like his songs into movies like Good Will Hunting. Everyone found it so eerily apt when “Needle in the Hay” lent its emotional density to Luke Wilson’s attempted suicide scene in The Royal Tenenbaums. Musically, Smith was our generation’s Nick Drake — a man to make us weep and loathe our lives, but also one to share with us overwhelming eloquence and passion. Drake overdosed and floated up over the Pink Moon; Smith put a knife into his chest and said goodbye to Miss Misery. It seems perversely fitting that Smith threw in the towel on a world that simply wasn’t made for him.

It’s appropriate to view Smith, like anyone who takes his/her life, as a victim of something larger than himself. In this case, Smith appears to have taken the tortured artist paradigm to its fatal extreme, and he was finally done in by none other than the Puritans, or at least the modern society which still harbors their intolerant work ethic. Artists are, in a sense, contemporary cultural heretics, almost inherently misunderstood and miserable. Smith wrote candidly about his attempts at escaping this world, namely his long-running struggle with drugs. It seems that what he was escaping, more than anything else, was a society that simply doesn’t have a place for the artist. Smith was never far from dealing with American culture’s inability to accept the arts as a lifestyle if not paired with celebrity (an odd paradox, since most celebrities’ artistry is debatable). Stephen Merritt of the Magnetic Fields has spoken to these difficulties in the liner notes of his masterpiece 69 Love Songs. “One of the hardest parts of being a songwriter,” he says, “is that people never believe that you’re working, almost never physically working … when I’m working very hard I have a cocktail in my hand, a cigarette in my mouth and I’m staring off into space, and if I don’t want to be interrupted, it’s hard to convince people that I’m actually working hard.”

Smith clearly shared Merritt’s sentiments. The capitalist, commercial society that finally embraced him with his appearance at the Oscars for his work on Good Will Hunting (at which he appeared beside Celine Dion), left such a foul taste in his mouth that he subsequently struck “Miss Misery” from his setlist. The commodification of art has produced a social context simply not conducive to the life of an artist. Expressions and ideas are forced into commercialization, problematizing the very artistic process, and over-emphasizing the product over that process. The Puritanical rejection of what most perceive as idleness began to wear Smith thin (literally). He told Rolling Stone, “I don’t really think of time off as writing blocks. I think that’s a Western notion of demonizing inactivity. When your imagination decides it needs to take a nap, then maybe that’s what it needs to do.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, The Federal Arts Project (FAP) commissioned murals for a number of newly constructed post offices across the United States. The problem then — and by extension the problem that I’m arguing contributed to Smith’s disillusionment and death — was that the artists were treated as craftsmen instead of innovators or visionaries. They were expected to provide a product, not an expression. Western culture’s “demonization” of “inactivity” has plagued musicians and artists in general for decades. Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel # 2,” a song largely about Janis Joplin’s overdose, can speak to almost any struggling musician, and its words ring especially true for Smith: “Oh but you got away, didn’t you baby/ You just threw it all to the ground/ You got away on your deepest dream.”

However poetically that knife is now forever embedded in Smith’s chest and our memories, the musician leaves a legacy not of gloom and depression, but of true artistic integrity and inspiration. He was perhaps an overly reflexive artist, but his inability to resign himself to this world is full of myriad lessons for his friends and fans.

Note: The heart drawing by Ben Kupstas is based on an Elliott Smith concert poster designed by Michael Lawrence and Patrick Nistler.

Archived article by Ben Kupstas