Tribute: Fond Farewell

Ryan Dombal

There’s one moment in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” that always seems a bit off. Amidst the comedy’s clever wisecracks and sprightly colors is a frank scene in which lovelorn failed tennis star Richie Tenenbaum, cloaked in stark blue-green light, cuts his hair and then cuts into his forearms with a razor. The images of blood trickling into the bathroom sink are disturbing enough, but in the background, Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” softly churns away. After Smith’s apparent suicide Oct. 21, that “Tenenbaums” scene now stands out for another, far more tragic reason.

Smith was a tortured soul who managed to channel his problems with addiction and relationships into great, oftentimes painfully sad songs. Although his last two albums, XO and Figure 8, were musically upbeat, at the center was Smith’s inescapable aching voice that could translate troublesome times of suffering so well. For Smith, making music was a therapeutic process. Even if he never sold a single record, he would probably still strum on his acoustic guitar and sing to the wall in front of him.

Smith was an engagingly honest live performer. He didn’t prance around the stage or even move away from his microphone — he simply did not need to. He could capture his audience by shutting his eyes and swiftly moving his fingers up and down the fret of his guitar. This was certainly the case on May 19, 2000, in New York City, when he seduced the sold-out crowd the entire night, oftentimes silencing everyone in the house during his best acoustic ballads. But Smith had bad days in which he could not control his struggles, and these tribulations were exposed in concert as well. One of these days was May 5, 2002, when he opened for Wilco at the A&O Ball. In front of a crowd of Northwestern students, Smith could barely complete a single song as he sat alone onstage, complaining of problems with his hand. It was uncomfortable and upsetting, providing a crystal-clear view into the bleak side of Smith’s existence.

His ongoing internal battle looked to be moving in a positive direction over the last few months. He released a single over the summer and, according to reports, his long-awaited follow-up to 2000’s Figure 8 was nearing completion. But, for a reason we may never know, Smith’s hardships became too much to handle and overtook him in heartbreaking fashion. I’ll remember Elliott Smith for his honesty, passion and dedication to the music he loved.


All of Elliott Smith’s five solo albums are worth a listen, but here are his best two:

XO (1998): Smith’s first solo major label release proved that he was more than just another guy singing softly with an acoustic guitar. Like the Beatles’ White Album, nearly every song on XO takes the listener in a new direction, with Smith’s strong vocal harmonies and lyrics acting as a grounding force. From the uplifting, bouncing keyboards on “Baby Britain” to the somber descending chords and old-time beat of “Waltz #2 (XO),” the album highlights the singer’s growing eclecticism.