Interview, Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith (Part 2)

Interview, Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith (Part 2)

•What was hardest about the book?

The writing was pretty smooth.  I usually hate re-reading, all I notice are the imperfections.  But not this time.  I kept thinking–and I can’t tell you how unusual this is–that it was solid, good, flowing.  I feel lucky, because the book was a labor of love about a person I admire as an artist and feel a lot of affection for.  So I never needed to battle anything inside myself, as I did, on occasion, with other subjects.  I knew where my heart was.  And that gave me a feeling of security.  But I guess one hard thing was the structuring.  Telling the story in the right, most pleasing, most effective way.  And developing a coherent sense of who this person was.  Being balanced and judicious and fair to all involved.

Actually, one of the hardest parts is now—waiting for the book to appear.  The months of sitting and brooding.

•Do you feel like you’ve gotten to the “real” Elliott Smith?  I ask that even though I think I know what you are going to say.

Well, I believe in facts.  I love facts.  But truth, or Truth?  I agree with my friend Kathryn Harrison—truth is direction, not destination.  It’s what you point to.  That may be the most you can hope for.  Here’s what I say in my book on Truman Capote:  “Life is blurry; personality, too.  We begin and end in mystery.  The eyeball cannot see itself.”  What you can show is a sort of lovely shadow.  Early in the Elliott book I say about the same thing:  “There are too many Elliott Smiths to count.”  There are too many anybodys to count, self a bulging multiplicity.  But if I were to pinpoint a REALER Elliott Smith, I’d nominate the years in high school with the band Stranger Than Fiction, and the early 90s in Portland with Heatmiser and the making of the first few records.  Denny Swofford, the Cavity Search label owner—a terrific guy and a real supporter throughout—told me it was Portland more or less, that incredibly fecund scene, that made Elliott who he was.  I pretty much agree with that sentiment.

•So what do we have to look forward to?  What’s new in it?

Oh.  Well.  A huge amount about Texas, the very first recorded songs with his friends Steve Pickering, Kevin Denbow, and Mark Merritt, and his girlfriend Kim, all of whom I talked with in detail.  I don’t believe a lot is known about those very first songs—“Ocean” was one, and “Outward Bound” (a waltz) and “Inspector Detector,” an instrumental.  There are something like 3-5 versions of each.  For a lot of them Kim sings, not Elliott.  I lay all that out in the book.  I think it’s pretty new.  That chapter was super enjoyable to write.  Then the high school years in the band Stranger Than Fiction.  I’ve listened to several of those cassettes.  Very ornate ambitious songs with countless changes and sections and variations, almost symphonic.  Incredible for a high schooler.  At least three of those tunes were remade later, with new lyrics.  Also a lot about Heatmiser, that whole bizarrely inventive musical milieu in Portland back in the early 90s, with bands like Hazel, Pond, Crackerbash, etc, all playing Satyricon, La Luna, the X-Ray, in mixed bills.  A lot about Roman Candle, how it came to be, the Cavity Search label founded by Denny Swofford and Chris Cooper.

There’s just so much.  It’s hard to summarize.  I’d need to read you the whole book.  Here’s one thing.  My sense is that a lot of writing about Elliott focuses on his last few years, his death, LA, the drug use, etc.  It’s very lopsided.  It overprivileges a time that was not representative of who he was.  At all.  It’s like—say you are writing about Michael Jordan.  And say all you talked about was his career in baseball.  That’s what I mean about kooky lopsidedness.

I talk about the LA years, of course, but I spend way more time on the early 90s.  More than half the book concerns Texas and Portland, before the move to New York, and then to LA.  I hope, in the end, there’s a sense of balance restored.  The book is not death or depression-obsessed.  If anything, it’s music obsessed.  That is where the focus should be, I believe.  Elliott was not some downer sad sack junky, endlessly fucked up.  But that’s what you’d think if you read what’s out there.

Read Part 1 of the interview HERE.

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