Monday, 29 September 2014

Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith by William Todd Schultz Review

Torment Saint is the biography of Elliott Smith, the singer-songwriter of numerous great albums like Figure 8 and XO, as well as the Oscar nominated song Miss Misery which featured on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. Smith had a difficult life stemming from possible childhood abuse that led to a lifelong battle with depression and, eventually, drug addiction. Though a quiet, sensitive person he violently committed suicide in 2003 of two stab wounds from a kitchen knife through the heart.

I feel like I should preface this by saying I’m a huge fan of Smith’s music but it seems kinda obvious - who would read a biography of someone they weren’t deeply interested in already? But anyway: I’ve got all of his albums, I listen to them regularly, and his song-writing talent continues to impress me through the years. If you’ve never heard his music, I’ll leave a song-list at the end of this review and you can check out his best songs (in my opinion) if you like.

As big a fan as I am, I was disappointed with this biography. And here I’m going to say something that’ll make me sound like a brainless asshole: Elliott Smith, for the most part, led a boring life and maybe the reason why there’s never been a definitive biography of him is because there’s not a whole lot to say.

William Todd Schultz opens the book on Oscar night where Smith performed his Oscar nominated song Miss Misery before losing to Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On, which is an episode that instantly grabs the reader. There was an interesting look at Smith’s childhood where it was heavily implied that his stepfather, Charlie, had a lot to do with his mental state for the rest of his life. Whether the abuse was sexual or emotional, something happened to Smith as a child that would lead him to adopt a self-destructive lifestyle thereon out.

Then there’s the final 50 pages or so, from the tour of Figure 8 in 2000 to his suicide in 2003, which is riveting reading. Though he wrote about hard drugs like heroin for most of his musical career, he never tried it until the Figure 8 tour (smoking, never injecting). That was the beginning of the end as he would never break free of addiction again.

Heroin led to crack which led to paranoia which led to dozens of psychiatric medications. Up until the heroin Smith tried other drugs like marijuana, acid, mushrooms, and ecstasy but his main drug was alcohol and he had that mostly under control. Under those less harmful drugs he was able to produce the majority of his best work from his first solo record Roman Candle in 1994 to Figure 8 in 2000, including the final Heatmiser album, Mic City Sons, in 1996.

After the heroin use started in 2000 - nothing. He worked on and off on the record that would be released posthumously in 2004 as From a Basement on the Hill, which contains some incredible songs like King’s Crossing, and a double album of assorted songs recorded at various times in his life, New Moon, would appear in 2006.

But, to go back to my original, perhaps ignorant, point: those are basically the only interesting parts of the book. Twenty or thirty pages at the start followed by 50 pages at the end. There’s a yawning chasm of some 250 pages in between that is so full of unenlightening nothing that it took me over a month to read this and it’s only a 328 page book!

To summarise: it’s clear Smith’s a gifted child and he masters several instruments while in high school. He does well in school, graduates university, forms a band in Portland, makes albums, becomes moderately successful, then decides to work on solo stuff. The solo stuff takes off, leading to the eventual dissolution of the band, he writes one album that leads to a film that leads to the Oscars that leads to moderate commercial success. Still awake?

Sure, you learn a lot, but it’s nothing particularly engaging. Does Schultz help us understand Smith more than if we had just read a Wikipedia entry? Not really. But then again he doesn’t have much opportunity to. Family members and many close friends to Smith didn’t speak to him, so he hasn’t got much to go on. He ends up focusing on the song lyrics, not to mention interviews and concerts already on Youtube, and draws fairly banal speculations - but that’s all they are, speculations. If you were to see the interviews, concerts, and articles already available online, you’d know a lot of the stuff that Schultz mentions in his book - and it’d be more engaging that way too as Schultz’s writing style is very bland (not to mention weird, incorporating Smith’s lyrics into his sentences!).

That said, I wonder if everyone had spoken to Schultz whether the biography would’ve improved. There’d be less speculation and fewer sentences that sound apocryphal (“So and so said that so and so believed that Smith was etc”), but does that change the basic facts of Smith’s life? He was a depressed person but an incredible artist who wrote some extraordinary music. He began using hard drugs to escape the mental anguish and, the sudden withdrawal of those drugs, combined with his lifelong morbid fascination with suicide, led to his early death.

Of course a good biography (usually authorised) contains first hand sources to create the most accurate portrayal of the figure in question, and it’s clear that Torment Saint is not that entirely. But also, a good biography is about someone whose life was interesting throughout, and not intermittently, often illuminated with an equally colourful supporting cast.

For me, Torment Saint featured a drab dude and a long line of talented but uninteresting people. In the end the phrase I heard uttered about Elliott Smith in connection with biography - listen to the music, that’s all there is to it - is completely true. As a person he may have been uninteresting though his talent produced art that was anything but.

As an Elliott Smith fan, I’d say check this out if you need to know a lot about him, but be prepared to wade through a lot of extraneous tedium that could easily be avoided by your own selective reading online. There are passages here that are really great but they’re few and far between and most of the time it’s a case of too much information without it adding up to anything too special. That, or don’t bother with any biography at all and just listen to his music - that’s his real legacy, and it’s stunning.

For anyone interested in Smith’s music, I’d recommend his albums in full – you can find lots of lesser-known tracks on them but they’re really all so beautiful and, out of 7 albums, I’d say there are only two songs total that I skip (Pretty Ugly, Amity). But for those looking for single tracks, check out the songs below for an utterly gorgeous sonic experience. My imaginary Elliott Smith concert:

Needle in the Hay (rock version)
Division Day
Brand New Game
Bottle Up and Explode!
Stupidity Tries
New Monkey
I Figured You Out
A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free
Between the Bars
Independence Day
I Don’t Think I’m Ever Gonna Figure It Out
Georgia Georgia
I Didn’t Understand
Everything Means Nothing to Me
Better Be Quiet Now
Coming Up Roses
Son of Sam
King’s Crossing
Miss Misery
Waltz #2
Say Yes

Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith

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