The mysterious death of Elliott Smith

No one was too surprised when Elliott Smith - a boozy, druggy Oscar-nominated folk singer who had talked openly about killing himself - was found dead. But then the coroner's report raised a chilling new possibility: murder. By Alexis Petridis

No one could honestly claim to be surprised when they heard Elliott Smith had committed suicide. Plenty of folky singer-songwriters have a reputation for making introspective, melancholy music, but none quite like Smith's. To some critics he was Mr Misery - a pun on Miss Misery, the song from the soundtrack of Good Will Hunting for which he was Oscar-nominated in 1998. He was the "unhappiest man in the land", a singer you didn't so much listen to as commiserate with.

According to his friend, singer Mary Lou Lord, Smith was the heir to the tragic mantle of her former boyfriend, Kurt Cobain: he was making records for "the sad kids". His gloom was more than sulky posturing: when Smith sang about heroin addiction or alcoholism or depression, he was singing about things he had experienced first-hand.

The cover of his second, eponymous solo album, released in 1995, features a grainy image of bodies falling from a high building. Another, 1996's Either/Or, was named after a book by Kierkegaard, in which the philosopher posited that the aesthete would eventually find himself in a state of despair. As one tribute article wryly noted, you couldn't say that Smith didn't warn you.

That is not to say the circumstances of his death were not shocking. Last year, just before lunchtime on Tuesday, October 21, Smith apparently had an argument with his girlfriend, fellow musician Jennifer Chiba, at their home in Silverlake, Los Angeles. As the row got worse, Smith threatened to commit suicide.

Like most of Smith's close friends, Chiba was used to him making melodramatic threats about ending his life. After all, this was a man who, when he decided to relocate from Portland to Brooklyn in the late 1990s, bade farewell to his Oregon friends by informing them that it was likely he would never see them again because he was "probably going to kill himself".

Chiba ignored him and locked herself in the bathroom. She then heard a scream. Returning to the living room, she found Smith standing with his back to her. When he turned around, she saw a kitchen knife sticking out of his chest. Smith had stabbed himself in the heart. Despite emergency surgery, he was pronounced dead 20 minutes after arriving at hospital. He was 34 years old.

Never lost for an opinion, Courtney Love called it "the best suicide I ever heard of". Although killing yourself in this way is uncommon - according to the LA Coroner's Office that dealt with Smith's death, less than 4% of suicides in 2001 and 2002 were due to "sharp force trauma", and most of those were wrist-slashings - it is not entirely unknown. You turn the knife sideways and plunge it between the ribs. It is an extremely painful way to die, a last resort for people so low they no longer care about themselves.

According to some of Smith's friends, that description fits. Indeed, he may have tried to kill himself in this way before, possibly in 1997: his producer Larry Crane remembers Smith showing him "a pretty bad scar on his chest". When he moved to New York, he told another friend that he spent his nights walking along the empty subway tracks.

But, although few rock artists had ever courted the idea of suicide so regularly and openly as Smith, the most astonishing thing about his death is an ongoing and pervasive rumour that he was, in fact, murdered.

Most people believed Smith's depression stemmed from being abused as a child, while living with his mother and stepfather in Texas. He once told a journalist from the US magazine Spin that if he had not had music to lean on, he might have "gone after" his stepfather. Certainly, nothing seemed capable of lifting his depression.

A former member of a hardcore punk band called Heatmiser, he was deeply suspicious of commercial success, a modicum of which came after his Oscar nomination. He performed at the awards ceremony, between Celine Dion and Michael Bolton, and his subsequent album, 1998's XO, sold 400,000 copies, but he was unimpressed: "I threw myself into it because it seemed to make my friends happy," he said. "I don't particularly like hanging out with famous folks much because their lives are too weird."

He had become a heroin addict and a "bad alcoholic" while living in Portland, but when his friends tried to intervene he was furious. Many of the songs on XO concerned themselves with "the nerve people have to go parading around as if they know what somebody else ought to do with themselves".

His drug problems deepened. By the time he left New York for Los Angeles at the end of 1999, he was also using crack. Rumours abounded that he was now incapable of performing, that he had forgotten his own lyrics and nodded off onstage between songs, that he had been found passed out in a toilet in a club with a needle in his arm. Neighbours in Silverlake claimed they had seen him wandering the streets with a blanket over his shoulders, muttering to himself.

And yet, in the last year of his life, Smith was alleged to have turned things around. He claimed to have finally kicked the drugs in 2002 with the help of a treatment called neurotransmitter restoration. He was working on a new album, provisionally entitled From a Basement on a Hill. Many friends claimed his new-found optimism was the result of his year-long relationship with Jennifer Chiba, a member of a local punk band, Happy Ending, who Smith had taken under his wing, touring with them as his support act, paying their expenses and producing their debut single. The two had established a foundation for abused children, to which Smith planned to donate all the profits from his next record.

In his final interview, with Under the Radar magazine in January 2003, Chiba was depicted sitting alongside Smith as he tinkered in his studio into the early hours of the morning, "looking over her shoulder at her boyfriend and shaking her head in loving dismay".

His suicide was thought to be a horrifying aberration, an example of a depressive committing suicide while on the upswing. "You have more energy to act out in a destructive way than when you're just depressed," reasoned his friend and former Heatmiser bandmate, Tony Lash.

However, within weeks of Smith's death, rumours began to emerge that painted a markedly different picture of his final months. Smith, it was alleged, had not kicked drugs at all. Nor was his relationship with Chiba as idyllic as had been suggested.

Sean Organ, the owner of Org Records, the British label that planned to release the Happy Ending single, described the sessions as "tense". "Without wanting to speak ill of the dead, [Smith] wasn't the easiest person to work with, because of his problems," says Organ.

"It was tense, erratic, paranoid. Band on one side, Elliot on the other, her stuck in the middle. I'd get phone calls in the morning and phone calls in the evening and the mood would be completely different: 'It's the best thing we've ever done!'; 'It's a load of rubbish and under no circumstances must you play it to anybody.'

"It was finally finished two or three months before he died. Then he kept remixing it. One of the girls in the band broke into his studio, took the tapes and sent them to me. Then it really went off. People started yelling. I was pretty much like, 'Let's just shelve it.' Then he died. The worst thing that ever happened to the Happy Ending was Elliott getting involved, to be honest."

A statement about Happy Ending released on the Org Records website after Smith's death compares Chiba and Smith's volatile relationship to that of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. At best, that seems like unfortunate wording, given that Vicious stabbed Spungen to death in 1978.

"That was said beforehand," says Organ. "People described them as a Sid and Nancy couple, constantly arguing, splitting up and getting back together again. I can't really comment on it because I'm in London, they were over there in LA and I've never met them. The stories that were coming back were yes, that it was a crazed, druggy Sid and Nancy situation."

One friend, Mark Flannigan, who owned a Hollywood club where Smith regularly performed, went so far as to question whether Smith had committed suicide at all. "I don't believe the guy stabbed himself in the chest," he said. "It just doesn't add up. I wouldn't be surprised if someone else did this. He was doing drugs with lowlife scum. He was around a lot of creepy people - some very negative, dangerous people."

Others angrily dismissed the implication that Smith had been murdered by drug dealers. "I know he was completely clean," said film-maker Steve Hanft, who directed a film about Smith called Strange Parallel. "[His death] was not about [drugs] and that's what makes me mad. He wasn't some stupid junkie on the nod."

Nevertheless, curious postings began appearing on Elliott Smith website message boards, purporting to be from people who knew him, and claiming that Smith did not take his own life. "I just know in my heart that he did not do this," read one, allegedly written by someone who had known Smith through the studio where he worked.

The internet is catnip to cranks and conspiracy theorists, and few areas of music attract them like a rock star's death. The claims about Elliott Smith might well have been filed alongside spurious notions that John Lennon was murdered by the CIA, or that Bob Marley had cancer injected into him by shadowy forces fearful of his power, had it not been for the results of the coroner's examination into Smith's body, published in January on The Smoking Gun, a website that specialises in what it describes as "cool, confidential, quirky documents that can't be found elsewhere on the web".

While toxicological tests revealed that Smith was apparently clean of illegal drugs at the time of his death - only non-abusive amounts of anti-depressants and medication for attention deficit disorder were found in his system - it returned an open verdict.

"While his history of depression is compatible with suicide," it said, "and the location and direction of the stab wounds are consistent with self-infliction, several aspects of the circumstances (as they are known at this time) are atypical of suicide and raise the possibility of homicide."

The report said that Smith had been stabbed twice - both wounds had entered his chest cavity and one had perforated his heart. That in itself is not suspicious: gruesome as it sounds, suicides who choose to stab themselves to death frequently jab the weapon into their chest a number of times.

Smith, however, had no "hesitation wounds" - cuts made as the victim works up the nerve to force the weapon through - and had stabbed himself through his clothing. The autopsy also found small lacerations on both his hands and under his right arm, which it described as "possible defensive wounds". It claimed that Chiba's "reported removal of the knife" from Smith and "subsequent refusal to speak with detectives" were "all of concern".

While an apparent suicide note had been found by Chiba - written on a Post It note, it read "I'm so sorry, love, Elliott. God forgive me" - detectives concluded that "this death is possibly suspicious, however, circumstances are unclear at this time."

Chiba had declined all interview requests in the wake of Smith's death, but on January 9, four days after The Smoking Gun published the coroner's report, she made a statement to MTV News. She claimed that she had been "physically sick" when she discovered the report was online: "I felt Elliott's privacy and dignity in being able to die were violated."

She denied that she had refused to speak to detectives and said that although she had not been charged or questioned over the allegations, she felt she was now a suspect in the eyes of the public. "In my mind, there's no question to what happened ... I want people to know that I'm not keeping quiet because I have anything to hide. If I was a suspect, I would have heard from the investigators, for one thing. Another is that his sister and his parents and everyone else close to him knows the truth, so I'm not worried about it."

Five days later, however, Conrad Rippy, an attorney representing Smith's mother and father and his half-sister Ashley issued a statement on their behalf, contradicting Chiba's claim that they "know the truth".

"Elliott's family has every confidence that the ongoing investigation will determine the actual circumstances of Elliott's death," it said. "Until such time as their investigation has concluded, however, and especially in light of the recent coroner's report, neither Elliott's family nor anyone else can claim to know the truth about Elliott's death, and any statement to the contrary mischaracterises the family's position."

In the wake of the coroner's report and the statements by Chiba and the Smith family lawyer, there has been an uncomfortable silence. For this article, interview requests to both his former British label and his US publicist went unanswered. LAPD detective James King would not comment on the coroner's report, nor on Chiba's allegation that she had not refused to speak to detectives and would say only that the investigation was "ongoing".

None of this, however, has done anything to damp down speculation. According to Sean Organ, the Happy Ending website had to be "totally and utterly taken down" because so many people were using it to send death threats to Chiba. The band have split up.

Over on Sweet Adeline, the Elliott Smith messageboard where the "sad kids" Mary Lou Lord described congregate, stories continue to circulate. More than one correspondent is convinced they know the truth about the death, because Smith has appeared to them in a dream and revealed all. Another suggests that diehard fans should hire US television medium John Edward in an attempt to contact Smith beyond the grave.

In a way, you cannot really blame them for believing that Smith is trying to reach them in death: intimate, wracked with sorrow and personal details, his music certainly tried to reach people when he was alive. The website's news pages report that Smith's family will release his final album later this year. One of its tracks is called See You In Heaven.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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