Interview, Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith (Part 1)

Interview, Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith (Part 1)

•So, you’ve done books on Capote and Arbus (TINY TERROR, Oxford University Press and AN EMERGENCY IN SLOW MOTION, Bloomsbury), and you’ve published articles on everyone from Kafka to Oscar Wilde to James Agee to Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Why Elliott Smith now?

Well, I was immediately very deeply moved by the music, first of all.  It’s so inexpressibly beautiful, and like I say in the book, more than most anything else you come across–more fully realized, more complex, more accomplished.  He was so musically gifted, impossibly gifted, from a very young age.  In the book I fell into the habit of calling him a genius so often that my editor said I ought to scale that back a bit (I did, reluctantly!).  But it’s what I believe.  He was a genius songwriter.  Sometimes, when you listen to songs, you think, “Oh, that lyric doesn’t work,” or “oh, that chord structure is a bit cliched,” or “oh, that bridge is boring”. . . You never think that about Elliott songs.  Again, they have this ineffable flawlessness that comes out of deep artistry honed over many many years, and a very specific sense of what he was after in a song.  It’s a little like the Beatles.  Everything is good.

By the way, I don’t see any discontinuity between, say, Elliott and Arbus and Capote and the others.  I don’t see a gap.  Someone said to me, someone I interviewed:  “Elliott?!?  Wow.  I mean”–they said–“he’s not exactly up to Arbus’s or Capote’s level, right?”  That’s a thought I never had.  It never crossed my mind.  I feel as if his artistry was just as stunning.  If he’s not as well known–and of course he’s not–that’s happenstance.  In fact, I hope people buy my book, then by about the second or third page, drop it like a hot potato and go out and purchase every Elliott record they can find.  If someone asked me, What is your goal with the book?, my immediate answer would be–To make people listen to Elliott Smith songs.

What about as a person?  Elliott as a person?

It sounds goofy but I loved him right away, much more than anyone else I’ve ever written about.  I could see how smart he was, how humble, how compassionate, how funny and clever at times.  Also vulnerable and shy.  He’s the sort of person you root for and want to champion, both as an artist and an individual.  There were different points of personal identification too that deepened my sense of affinity.  I also, by the way, really loved almost all the people I spoke to in the course of researching the book, his friends.  I kept thinking, if one can judge a person by his friends, Elliott must have been pretty spectacular.  People like the incredible JJ Gonson, Pete Krebs, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Denny Swofford, Jennifer Chiba, Dorien Garry, his pal from Texas Steve Pickering–all creative, smart, thoughtful, caring people who were endlessly interesting to talk to.

But, I mean, he was tormented too, right?  Like your title suggests?  What about that side?

Well, we all suffer.  It’s the first noble truth, right?  Suffering, unsatisfactoriness.  He suffered, and he wrote about it a lot and made the suffering beautiful, like great artists do.  I like the title Torment Saint.  It’s sharp, direct, blunt.  And it captures duality, something he was interested in–Either/Or, etc, the sacred and profane, as Nelson Gary put it to me.  It’s kind of Kierkegaardian.  In fact, Torment Saint makes me think right away of Kierkegaard, a philosopher Elliott read and admired.  I thought for a time of calling the book The Reflected Sound of Everything.  Also Come on Night, or Sad Song Symphony, or Last Call, or Locked and Shining, or Staring Down the Sun.  A lot of thought went into it.  Titles are extremely important.  In the end Torment Saint never quite got elbowed off its pedestal, though we looked at literally dozens of possibilities.

You seem drawn to sad artists, like Arbus.  True?

I guess.  I try not to dissect it.  It is what it is.  I don’t want to try being drawn to something.  You go where you go and my subjects usually come unbidden, like this one did.  It just sort of arrived.

How so?

My daughter.  She and my son go to Lincoln High School in Portland, where Elliott went.  She was listening to him–she played Waltz #2 for me–and it was SHAZAM.  I still feel like, along with King’s Crossing and Last Call, it is his masterpiece.  At the time I had just finished writing–simultaneously–the Capote and Arbus books, and I was looking forward to doing nothing for a while.  A whole lot of hardcore nothing!  But no such luck.  My life quickly became Elliott Smith 24/7.  I kept thinking he was sort of like my best friend.  I spent all my time with him.  I dreamed about him.  Always good dreams, by the way.

Want to share one?

Not really.  They were encouraging.  He was always nice to me in them.  In fact, I had another one just last night.  He was helping me wash dishes.

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