Coast to Coast: Elliott Smith, a Personal Account
by Nelson Gary
Elliot Smith in NYC 2003
At his best, Elliott Smith was a textbook-perfect songwriter, but, regardless of how tight or loose a particular composition of his is, his idiosyncratically sublime vocals have practically never failed to send me to the place from where they came: an otherworldly shore. His craftsmanship as a songwriter shines through consistently in his early work, particularly on the Either/Or album, though the lyrics of those numbers on that masterpiece, like most of those on others, are dark. They speak volumes about the tempest of depression, addiction, and either directly or indirectly, even inadvertently, a search for healing from abuse. This lyrical content peaked as poetic expression in these themes covered in the posthumously-released From a Basement on the Hill, a concept album to some degree, and they were handled much differently than on past outings. During the period in which that album was recorded, Elliott struggled to be more than a child abuse survivor, who triumphed over the aforementioned afflictions, but also a healer of others. This is reflected in not only some of the lyrics of his most experimental album, but also its overall sound, yet, more importantly, he started a foundation for abused children. As a lyricist, it is as if Elliott Smith took the Tao’s admonishment to “embrace the darkness with all your heart” to the fragile, scarred core of his being with a vengeance in his work before From a Basement on the Hill and a passion on that much misunderstood album.
Before this album, this approach offered him no more light than a world-weary wisdom and the flickering dramatics of daily survival as opposed to the enlightenment that the darkness is the shadow of a greater luminosity emanating from a source of joy that possesses the resplendence of a Roman Candle firing at the simple rhythm of a healthy heartbeat. There has probably been more written about Elliott Smith’s violent death or because of it than there was when he received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song (“Miss Misery”) on the soundtrack for Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting. More writing about his contributions to music will undoubtedly be composed, comparing him to The Beatles and Nick Drake, while mentioning his prior creative output in Heatmiser, an alternative rock band, and including him as a minor saint of sadness in the hagiography of pop culture.
Paradoxically, I won’t be one of those writers—not for lack of appreciating all of his work on some level or the depth of his depression, heroin addiction, periodic cocaine abuse, and alcoholism—because I worked with him on From a Basement on the Hill, befriended him, and helped him put together the pieces of the torment he carried with him in his jigsaw puzzle of a heart in order to transmute it into peaceful wholeness. Elliott’s music channeled much healing to others who found themselves suffering from the same problems he had and different ones, but his music did not offer him salvation. The music industry and the general public stood in the way of that. More widespread recognition, even bona fide fame, would have been just another fix, ultimately offering no real redemption for a person who was not as lost as he was stuck within himself—rigidly and completely. People have written and claimed that Elliott’s cult status of celebrity brought on so much of the darkness that shrouded his perception and made his life one existential dilemma after the next, but the truth of the matter is that he was more disturbed by a lack of limelight than too much of it. Because I knew Elliott as I did, my account is a personal one, not a musicological or psychological one, and I vividly remember the first time I met him.
He was with Valerie (“Val”) Deerin. It was at the Heroin Times office. I had heard his music, even seen photos of him, but he was so “tore-up,” I did not recognize him when he introduced himself as simply “Elliott.” After introducing myself, he said he had read an article I wrote about Lou Reed. He loved it, but what was more significant about the article was that it gave him hope that if Lou Reed could get off junk and stay off, so could he. In the office, he then ranted about his career, but did not rave about what a dismal situation he was in because he could not get his music to be played on the radio. With true anguish, he explained that the only way for him to make a living was through relentless touring. He stated numerous reasons why his music should be on various radio stations, becoming increasingly vehement, evidenced in his facial expressions, body language, and the tone and volume of his voice. I misperceived him to be just some guy with delusions of grandeur, who was not only kicking dope and maybe had delirium tremens from alcohol detoxification, but also at the beginning of his recording career with a small label—maybe one he had started himself in the spirit of DIY punk entrepreneurship. The fact was that he was on DreamWorks Records; the album Figure 8 had been released, and I’d even heard it as well as its predecessors! We also had one of our first lengthy conversations about music in general, philosophy, and spirituality—along with, of course, getting off drugs and alcohol as well as child abuse and depression.
When the couple left, Jerry Schoenkopf, the publisher of Heroin Times, asked me how it went with Elliott Smith. Of course, I was taken aback—astonished. I would not have taken a word of what I had said to Elliott back had I known he had crafted some songs that I genuinely loved—not even my preliminary remarks about what would become one of our ongoing debates about The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, who he adored far more than I do. I believe Elliott’s first impression of me was favorable and remained so most of the time that we knew each other. To him, I was a guy coming from a loving, intelligent place, and he knew I wasn’t going to bullshit him and further his denial about a great many issues that plagued him at the time. What’s more is he knew from our first conversation, I had been surrounded—even suffocated—by rock ‘n’ roll celebrity and the music industry, so celebrity to me was not a big deal either way. I have had a set of circumstances that allow me more easily than most to perceive people for who they are, not what they do. The distinction has never been a hard one for me to draw. With many of the people surrounding Elliott at that time, it was, but he chose his madding crowd carefully.
One situation that defined much of Elliott’s behavior during the beginning of our relationship before the recording of From a Basement on the Hill centered on him obtaining a mixing board from Trident Studios that served The Beatles at the end of their recording career. For months, obtaining this board obsessed him. It was his second most impairing obsession, which served as a relief from another: his unhappiness with his contract at DreamWorks. This obsession led, at times, to paranoia that the record company was bugging his home and studio where he cut demos, even the plants in his lawyer’s suite, while also tapping his phone. There was nothing that Elliott did not know about this old board in terms of how it could and could not function. Aside from songwriting, he was a masterful engineer and producer, but he was not a tech. While his obsession with the record company was a nightmare that would take the likes of Franz Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe, and Hunter S. Thompson, therefore, Jorge Luis Borges with a sense of humor to render the disintegration of his logic, even his sanity altogether, with a precision of detail that was both as lurid and lucid as the subject matter deserved, the Trident Board was a dream. To that English board was the place he would go as an escape from mad thoughts about DreamWorks, but eventually this place would become the circular ruins of despair because he did not have the object of his desire.
During this time, he was also attempting to detoxify from heroin and alcohol and stop his cocaine abuse, which definitely contributed to the beginnings of a psychotic state of mind whenever he turned his attention to the specifics of his record deal to the extent that he did what every cocaine addict must do—if funds are available—buy a gun or two…or more. When Elliott was free of all of these substances for brief interludes, he would work himself into a frenzied state over his situation at DreamWorks. The adrenal rush he’d receive from this was similar to smoking rock. To peel himself off the ceiling, he would decide that this was not what was of the utmost importance, then he would dream about the Trident Board, causing a rush of endorphins, natural opiates, the best that even money cannot buy until he drifted, then sank into depression about not having the board. To emerge from the abyss before he became altogether despondent about his struggle to get the board, he would rile himself up with notions of being a maverick with new plans about how to take a stand against the evil leviathan of the corporate record label. He basically created his own speedballs.
This is not altogether uncommon for an addict after they get clean. It persists for years often causing great damage to interpersonal relationships and every other facet of their lives. I don’t believe the addict is truly recovering until they become conscious of this cycle of behavior and stop the pattern. They are living in the lies of a “dry high.” One day the pattern of Elliott craving this mixing board did come to a conclusion.
Val met me in the Heroin Times office and informed me that Elliott had some good news to share with me. He told me he had finally gotten the old mixing board from Trident Studios. “It’s a piece of shit,” he told me. “I’ve been totally ripped off.” It was at that point of time that I affectionately dubbed him, Schlepprock, a character from The Flintstones. Elliott, having a philosophy degree, lived and breathed the melancholy-saturated work of Søren Kierkegaard to the degree that he named an album after one of his books (Either/Or). Along with Nietzsche, Kierkegaard is one of the antecedents to existentialism, which judges life as meaningless, but Kierkegaard, unlike other existentialists, including Elliott, had faith in God, so did I, even at the age of twelve regularly wearing a Kierkegaard sweatshirt, coming from a broken home and trying to survive child abuse.
We bonded over Kierkegaard and challenging childhoods, among many other things. One of the numerous assets that Elliott had was a sense of humor. It helped to pull him out of what was to become his sickness unto death (bad choices). Whether it was me calling him, Schlepprock or Syringe Kierkegaard, he could take jokes as well as he made and played them. One of the things that I helped Elliott realize was that addiction was a presenting problem and that it had been a solution, which stopped working, for deeper difficulties below the surface of his tempestuous love affair with intoxicating substances.
After this incident with the board, the healing process with Elliott really began in my perspective, regarding both his addiction—along with other self-mutilating behaviors—and his child abuse issues. There were some definite setbacks, lapses, on his individual road to recovery, which did not include twelve step work, but there were miraculous and inspiring strides of progress. As far as child abuse, I told him that it was a necessity that he offer forgiveness and practice tolerance authentically from the heart. It took some time for this to seep in to a point where he could actually accept it. I explained to him that he first had to accept that the unacceptable had occurred as opposed to hiding the fact behind drug abuse. Eventually, Elliott did understand that forgiveness was not a weakness, but a means to transcend a situation. It was true that no one could abuse him the way he had been abused as a child, but what he perceived to be the truth was that he had continued a ritual form of abuse with addiction and other behaviors by allowing his abuser free rent in his head: he had continued the abuse his perpetrator had long since stopped.
He also had to work on forgiving himself for years of allowing this pattern to continue on the basis of his own free will. He learned that forgiveness means taking one’s power back by stopping the pattern that the violator initiated. Again, even though the healing process was a stormy one, Elliott also began to find a little joy in gratitude through humility. He could admit that while others received more money and fame than he did, though they were not as talented as he was, there was more than a possibility that some artists were every bit as brilliant as he was, if not even more, who received far less, if anything at all. With a significant amount of input from Jerry Schoenkopf, Elliott started work on a foundation for abused children. There is no way that this would have happened—although he may have expressed the desire to do it years prior—had he not bravely embarked on a journey of healing to overcome his demons.
During an interview conducted by Under the Radar in 2003, Elliott said, 'I asked this friend of mine to make up something he could say as fast as he could in fifteen minutes about people healing themselves or being unable to heal themselves. While he's saying this thing there is a main vocal that goes over that.' In speaking about the song, which would be entitled “Coast to Coast,” the friend Elliott spoke about was me. Originally, the song was called “Circuit Rider.” A circuit rider is a preacher who goes from coast to coast, spreading the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Elliott had read more of my journalism than poetry, but he had read some of it and appreciated it. He told me that for several albums he had wanted poetry—not just spoken word and definitely not rap—to be part of one of his songs, but he had not found someone living whose work he liked enough until me.
He also explained to me that the circuit rider, who the song is about, is in love with two women. The circuit rider feels extraordinary guilty and depressed with his heart severed in two, but he is also elated with the amount of love he shares with these women. We had this conversation without Val in our company. He confessed to me that the song’s central complexity of emotions was autobiographical. Rather excitedly, he informed me that what was to become From a Basement on the Hill was going to be a concept album about this subject to the same degree as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band falls into that category. He told me that most of my words would be indecipherable, but even still, it was an honor to compose “Exile in Paradise’s Tourmaline” for him. If I ever had a mentor, it was Beatrice Wood, “the Mama of Dada,” so I experienced this as a pleasing aesthetic: his method of recording me, especially because I was experimenting with using Siddha Twilight Language in English then. He wanted the poem to be “a waterfall of words” about the subjects addressed in these last two paragraphs, and I knew I delivered after he read the poem at Sunset Sound on that Good Friday.
As the drummers Steven Drozd and Aaron Sperske of The Flaming Lips and Beachwood Sparks respectively, Elliott played the song on acoustic guitar for me behind the mixing board before I stepped into the booth. It was uncharacteristic of anything that I had heard him play on acoustic guitar. There were strong elements of the Stones and the Velvets with a hint of Led Zeppelin to what he played for me, and Elliott later demonstrated in the studio a genius at the mixing board that conjured images of Jimmy Page at work in the same capacity. There were multiple takes because he asked me to employ many of the voices that I used when performing my poetry with Ivan Neville, members of The Rolling Stones, and Vince, the nephew of Miles Davis on skins. In addition, he had me read at different tempos and in different keys while also modulating the octave of my voice and coloring different takes with the full spectrum of emotion. I never heard what we recorded that Good Friday until after Elliott’s mysterious death.
Ten days before Elliott died (with Val, who was a major force in helping him in his healing process, no longer by his side), many of my friends, including Jerry, saw Elliott. By all accounts, he was doing well. He had come out of the darkness to twilight, then his life tragically ended. There were no narcotics in his system according to the autopsy report. When the police report is examined in full, as it can be on many internet sites—not only the detail of there having been two stab wounds through his clothing—it is astonishing that a more thorough investigation has not been conducted. The first time I heard the album it was hard for me emotionally—still grief-stricken over the dismal turn of events.
Listening to “Coast to Coast,” the opening track on the album, I heard then and still do hear the eerie opening of Judgment Day in which the dead rise—their steel coffins creaking open—as well as a more melodic rebuke of DreamWorks than Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed was to his record company at the time. When Elliott starts singing with his ethereal voice, his vocals as always come from the coast on the other side of life. This place is not altogether death. It is the universal loss that we all experience at the moment of birth in the separation from our Divine Parents, the Holy Source of All, when we are exiled from the Great Self and Great Reality and given a name, ego, and too many illusions to count. Yet there are aspects of the material plane that offer convergence, reconciliation, renewal, redemption, and the process of healing. One of them is Elliott Smith’s voice.
Note: Many people have deemed From a Basement on the Hill as little more than a musical suicide note. In tandem with this article, I believe that by having the poem, which he asked me to write, published on the internet that a well-needed spin will be placed on the popular interpretation that is not only facile, but also, to a large degree, damning of his bravely honest work: one portraying the painful, heartfelt and rewarding struggle to heal after years of abuse as opposed to report it as he had on previous albums.
Below please find the entire text of my poem on “Coast to Coast” to be published in Queen Maeve’s Boneyard, my third volume of poetry, by Sybaritic Press in 2008.
EXILE IN PARADISE’S TOURMALINE
Deacon of the invisible light in darkness
Indwelled to endow the lion’s share
Of golden rayed mane’s emanations,
To bright-eyed thronged masses, together in solitude
Seeking the secrets of near impossible
Intimacy, the miracle of oneness:
So is the unfulfilled, but nonetheless peaceful sanctuary
Of the Host of Hosts, the Creator, cloistered,
Somewhat sepulchral; thus exile and paradise
Eclipsed supernatural consensual in omnipresence.
How do I scope, let alone define the region
Of boundless perimeter without peer or relation
To the pounding pulse of substance,
But at shell and core of emptiness, the infinite
Possibilities of nothingness, the gaze
At desolation unto oblivion to explicate
Through work, action, the harvest of wisdom.
To perceive is to be a perceiver with a perception
of the infinite possibilities of nothingness,
its sum over histories, preserving its purity
by perspicacity. Attainment of this perception
is the cornerstone of creativity’s foundation.
Imagination stretches until it leaps in belief
Only then does fabrication rip open
Baring bold, beautiful vision of truth’s relief
To behold, only to be shared with the fold
In exodus during this dark night of the soul.
If I could again find the beloved one and talk,
I’d then find the all, for she was the flutter of the flock.
Here, in mystical union, with my better half I am in eternal ardor
for she’s the instrumentality of cosmic splendor altogether;
I, meager minstrel player,
blessed with Seusspearean meter,
abide in her abode’s Holy of Holies, inner sanctum,
in erudition, meditation, prayer, the act of creation;
but love’s gravity pulls this ripe fullness
toward the strange attractor of the outsider’s emptiness
in parallel distribution to achieve equilibrium
for her to receive substance, hidden mirth’s
consummated revelation, the word, my spirit’s passion.
I am intimate with the discerning heart at heaven’s door,
its holy rhythm of opening, closing rapture
causing elliptical rigor of harmonious, sunwise measure,
raising high the roof beams, sweeping low the floor
in celestial symphonic song cyclic movements of cadence
from birth to death, catalogued in transitional moments’ radiance
and darkness, the organic clock of nature
engineered by her mind, heart’s best timekeeper.
Mathematics, physics, all logistics
find in her each their own highest aesthetic.
I receive enlightenment from contemplative calculus
that is reasoning toward understanding the catalytic
integral of order, but in the thick of it,
I have no peace for lack of symmetry,
sensing the absence of ecstasy’s revered reverie
in relief, for upon a foundation of stability
visionary inspiration is to be fulfilled
by intimate interaction of creativity
of bodily pillars initiated
in solar plexus by a flutter.
Without heavenly bodies’ radiation,
what is the sky’s complexion?
Without ascent and descent,
what by flying then is meant?
Cold, calibrated loneliness engineered
from my love, but, too, my fear
contributed to inflicting the great disappear.
If I despair, I swing from the pendulum
with a moody tick, until I chime ebullience
of vermilion rust in these unheard words.
In the end, what is there, but a moment of breath?
And in this, the pomegranate vapors of perfume
from open heirloom of hope
you let flow in seedling drops
sensuous and wet? Delectable
crystalline taste of amethyst from
unbottled, unbridled violet hour.
Splash, secrete, stream, let me shower
you with diamond ember prismatic tears
—I love you, always...always.
Didn’t you know I was kidding
when I was working, quipping
to you in sardonic tone:
The secret of intimacy
absence makes the heart grow fonder,
familiarity breeds contempt.
So you just stay away from me;
oh didn’t you know me any better?
Couldn’t you see through the post-modern banter?
Embittered perhaps by the loneliness, the exile
I forced upon you—I hope not worsened
by the wormwood in your absinthe—so
I could flourish
in a kingdom to steady my caprice,
ward off, bring to cessation my cowardice
but do know night and day at keyboard
was I commiserate with your cobalt spark
engraved in Divine Sanskrit all the way
down to the flavor and charm of its least quark,
desiring to give you all the while
my eternal reflection’s smile
on you in the erotic eighth dimension.
what my hyper-criticism in self-examination
could not countenance between paradise and exile.
My behavior, perhaps, egregious, underhand,
unforgivable my speech that walked
disembodied from the vulnerable
nascent bliss in the wilderness
you held out to me
in the palm of your hand.
and let me strive
in the indigo shadows for your tolerance.
When fog rolls in, clouds unfold
your selfless wings’ feathers
that float from arabesque pillows I sold
to be consumed by the snow white cold.
If only the plaster could hold, withstand
the flame, then this fountain torch
would know no shame and be outstripped
only by the sun that burns with the glory
and honor of your immortal, holy name.
In the twilight, the Morning Star’s glow,
unmistakable! Keeping my word, I go
with cerulean suede Tiffany bag
filled with ancient tourmaline of philosophy,
wisdom’s diadems, the jewel-smuggling trade.
Stones polished, then in consciousness
through experience laid
by the twins of history and prophecy,
and manchild of the moment,
who crafts them with love’s redemptive
powers of preservation and transformation.
Their sublime sagacity splits both jewel jackal
and thief in a decision almost too tough to tackle:
to be either emerald with envy
or emerald with naiveté while fortune does divvy
with chance in the opulence of opportunity
And I take mine
from one green world after the next.
No, I don’t take bets.
These chiseled, almost sculpted notes,
this, but the silent nomenclature
pages of the calendar’s future psalms.
Let them register from priceless indices
rolling over to calm
the grand, sweeping design of beatitudes’
rate of exchange in chance,
free-will’s meritorious motive for change,
within the blueprints of fate’s range mapped,
unrolled from its sealed scroll in meditative trance,
revealed at the windows by your face as you dance
looking out past the rain into deep space
by which to each is granted, given in grace,
a measure of faith
for master works to be completed, appraised bless-ed
on the scales of gevurah and hesed,
the counterbalance of judgment and mercy
on eyebrow scales weighing a sublime simile of
I am, but a faithful servant to the wall’s inaudible calls
at this feast of silence that serves the din alms
with synthesis of digestion in music’s intestinal halls:
Firebird Suite and Symphony of Psalms.
Now, that I’ve rediscovered you
let me break the symmetry
of this party’s perfect ennui
by presenting you this epiphany
in gems thieved back from old men
who misused them to stone Stephen
and write Adonais into the pale hue.
Nelson Gary’s Bio and a Bit about Queen Maeve
My travel memoir has been taught at USC. I have been the Santa Monica Mirror Sports Editor and have had articles published on quantum cosmology, art, slavery in Sudan, addiction, yoga, environmentalism, and real estate in publications as different as the Angry Thoreauan and the Los Angeles Times. My poetry and prose appear in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. Sybaritic Press is publishing Queen Maeve’s Boneyard Magic, my third volume of poetry, in 2008. I performed my poetry on Oscar-nominated Elliott Smith’s first posthumous album (From a Basement on the Hill).
Queen Maeve’s Boneyard Magic is the first poetry volume of a series of fourteen collections, which compose one epic single poem. I am looking for a publisher(s) for all, but the first volume.
"In Queen Maeve’s Boneyard Magic Nelson Gary’s art is to prove that real life is at one and the same time elsewhere and yet here in its strange and radiant beauty." - Richard Modiano