Interview, “Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith” (Part 3)

Interview, “Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith” (Part 3)

•What do you make of the first biography by Ben Nugent?

This may seem preposterously dumb but I never read it.  There was an anxiety of influence thing going on.  I had the instinct to start from scratch; I didn’t want any sort of outside distortion.  But I admire him for doing it.  I’m guessing he was a fan too.  And it isn’t an easy subject to wade into.  I’d love to talk to him, in fact.  But I have no judgment of his book.  Some of my students read it and thought it was pretty OK, they said.  They got something out of it, they said.  But I never pressed for details.  I did hear he wasn’t able to interview a lot of people, and that makes it tough.  Plus it came out one year after Elliott’s death so a lot of stuff still wasn’t known.  There wasn’t much of a record to go on.  I’m sure he ran into quite a few gaps in the fossil record–or that’s what I’d suspect.

•A lot of the work is probably interviews, right?

Yes.  Exactly.  I’d never done a biography before, but I knew it was going to be something else altogether.  And that excited me.  It was a departure.  I like challenges.  And I was a little fatigued with psychobiography, the approach in the Capote and Arbus books.  The attempt to make psychological sense of the art.  I felt like I’d said most of what I had to say in that domain, though who knows, I may return to it.  People seem to enjoy it.  At the same time, it is an acquired taste.

Anyway, back to interviews.  They are emotionally demanding–for the people I’m talking to, of course, and for me–particularly in a life like Elliott’s, how it ended and all.  I was very impressed by the devotion people have to him–their sensitivity and tact and caring.  It was moving, constantly very moving.  And when you interview people for, in some instances, 10-15 hours, on the phone and in person, you get to know your interviewees a little.  It’s pretty natural.  Then you begin to feel, or I did—and again, I think this is natural and largely a positive thing—a terrific sense of responsibility to get their take on things right.  As people they live in your head as you write.  It’s from their lips to your fingers.   It’s a translation of sorts.

I don’t think you can write a book like this except from a vantage point of love.  Empathy and understanding–those are milder forms of loving.  I think of Oscar Wilde.  He said, and I agree, that it’s not love that blinds, but hate.  Love allows you to see.

•Speaking of that.  Back to the music.  What do you love about the songs?

It’s hard to put it into words because you react to art at so many different levels, most of which are inexpressible, you know?  I like complexity, ambiguity, symbolism, darkness, execution, and all of that is there, no doubt, or no doubt to me, at least.  It’s like good food versus fast food.  One fills you up satisfyingly, the other leaves you empty.  I think Elliott is this ineffable combination of Burt Bacharach, Chet Baker, John Lennon, Beckett, Kafka, and George Harrison.  In one interview he talked about how you put it all into a blender and see what comes out.  There’s this impossible catchiness, this melodic charm—like Bacharach.  The sweet high voice, no vibrato—like Baker.  You get that vibe pretty clearly in a song like, say, “Strung Out Again.”  Then the coarseness and anger of Lennon.  The dense checkmate existentialism of Beckett and Kafka.  The loopy chord structures of Harrison.

This is someone just born to make music.  Add in a mind that naturally side-steps lyrical cliche, and you’ve got quite a brew.


Part 1 HERE

Part 2 HERE