Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Oh Happy Dagger...

I live in a part of LA just east of Hollywood called Silverlake. Up Sunset, walking distance from my place (I'm not so acclimated to LA that I have stopped walking places), is a shop called Solutions that rents and repairs stereo equipment, amps, and various other stuff that allows you to make noise. I got some speakers and a PA from the nice former Berkeleyites that run the place to lug up to a wedding I DJed back in September.

There is a swoopy red and black (or maybe it's navy) painting on their front wall that faces Sunset. It's not terribly spectacular as a piece of artwork, but it was transformed when Elliott Smith leaned in front of it and used it as the cover of his album, Figure 8. And after Smith's death on October 21, 2003, it was transformed again. Now that whole wall and sidewalk are a candlelit tribute and memorial to Smith, our lost troubador.

Elliott Smith's death was, at the time, deemed suicide. There was a suicide note and he died from what appeared to be two stab wounds in the chest. The talk around town was that he stabbed himself in the heart; not an easy thing to do.

I found out that same day... I used to work at a record store in town, and Elliott's sister worked there too and was called to the hospital from the shop. So the news spread quickly, yet was still kept under wraps. The next day when it officially broke, it was like a whole community gasped for air. We'd been holding our breath, keeping it in, and suddenly we could all say what we were thinking. Why? Wasn't he doing better? I don't know, he'd looked awful the last time I saw him... I'd heard he'd been clean for a while. Didn't he have a new record in the can? Everywhere I walked that day, it seemed Elliott Smith was on every turntable. (My brother happened to be in the Haight Ashbury the day Jerry Garcia died, and he had a similar experience. Except much more patchouli & sweat scented.)

The autopsy report came back not too long ago, and has cast doubts on the suicide ruling. Apparently, there were no "hesitation" wounds, something common to those who injure themselves. He had small cuts on his arm which could be considered defensive wounds, had taken his medication and had no illegal substances in his body. The only "witness" to the event was his live-in girlfriend who found him with the knife sticking out of his chest after she had emerged from the bathroom, where she'd locked herself in after an argument. When the cops came, she pointed out the suicide note on a Post-it, said he was into self mutilation and that she had pulled the knife out herself.

The police say the death is very suspicious. Elliott Smith was cremated. The rumor mill says his girlfriend has bolted to Canada, and won't come back.

We'll probably never know what happened. But I did hear a story, one that has made the rounds of this country told by Greg Dulli during his Twilight Singers tour. Greg and Elliott met during their Afghan Whigs and Heatmiser (respectively) days, but really became friends while Greg was tending bar at his place in Echo Park, the Short Stop. Elliott would come in at the end of the night and hang with Greg while he was closing up, and they'd chat. One night they got to talking about Shakespeare, and Elliott revealed that his favorite was Romeo & Juliet. He then acted out the lovers' suicide scene, which ends up with Juliet stabbing herself in the heart after finding her lover dead. "Oh happy dagger, find thy mark..."

Greg would dedicate "Martin Eden" to Elliott after that. It opens with, "Black out the windows, it's partytime... You know how I love stormy weather, so let's all play suicide..." He didn't tell that whole story in LA, and I think it's just as well. I know some people probably would have been very emotional about it. I greatly appreciate Elliot's music, but wouldn't consider myself an uberfan or anything. I'm glad that he was able to make it, I was able to hear it, and people were able to love it. I'm sad that his life ended in such a harsh way, self-inflicted or not, because I unfortunately know personally what it is like to have someone taken away from you unexpectedly, violently, like that. And I hope he's free of his demons now. And I also hope that the mural up the street, covered in messages, lyrics and drawings, ground strewn with flowers and candles, stays that way for a long time.