It would be a tough assignment to turn out a biography on Elliott Smith, ready for publication, in less than a year after the singer/songwriter’s tragic death. It would be even tougher when those closest to Elliott, his family, best friends, and lovers, refuse to be interviewed. But that’s exactly the challenge that writer Benjamin Nugent took on when he wrote Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing [DaCapo Books], a somewhat rushed job with moments of lyrical beauty; but more of a vastly over-analyzed term paper doing its best to make mountains out of molehills.
Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing begins onerously, with studies of the Morman-rooted affiliations in his childhood Texas town, long interviews with elementary and middle school friends who kind of remember him, and emails from past high school bandmates and girlfriends who knew him a little better. But what depth is there in email? These interviews contain no crack of the voice, no watery eyes, no long pauses to give the reader a sense of, well…anything they can connect with.
Sure, these people and things did shape Elliott Smith for better and worse, and Nugent points out interesting geographic landmarks that have worked their way into lyrics. Fans may appreciate how he came to meet his longtime friend and Heatmeiser bandmate, Neil Gust. But is it all worth reading about? I’m a writer with a full-on obsession with Smith: rarely a day goes by that I don’t listen to his work, or find new meaning to his lyrics as they apply to my own life. And still, I don’t care what Nugent has to say all that much.
Benjamin Nugent does dig out a few surprises in the book, such as Elliott’s initial plans to become a fireman, his straight white-man’s guilt, and his college life at Hampshire. The biggest surprise of the book [spoiler alert!] is that through all the years of his writing about heroin, he never actually took that drug until after the Figure 8 album.
Much of the book simply verifies what we’ve already read in old magazine features or intuited about Smith: He had a drinking problem. He was shy and insecure. He took drugs. He was depressive and a loner, prone to feeling sorry for himself. He was a gifted multi-instrumentalist. He had a kind heart and rooted for the underdog.
Musicians may appreciate the details of the recording process of his last album, From A Basement On the Hill[Anti], which does paint a picture of a van Gogh-like genius of rock and roll. Some of the book’s best moments are, not surprisingly, when Nugent reflects upon Elliott’s lyrics. But while Nugent is clearly a gifted writer, these meaningful moments are more often than not Elliott’s words. Ultimately, the book falls flat at the end with a clinical wrap-up and a hope that the last album, which was unreleased at the time of his writing, would be as good as the others.
Elliott Smith just wanted to make music. He never wanted to be a star and he wanted to keep his private life private. Obviously, those close to him respected his wishes enough not to give Nugent any crumbs to exploit. And maybe that’s a good thing.
Read NT's review of Elliott Smith's From a Basement on the Hill CD