By MARK GUARINO
Daily Herald Music Critic
Elliott Smith, considered one of the best songwriters of his generation, died of self-inflicted knife wounds to the chest Tuesday at his Los Angeles home, according to coroner’s officials. He was 34.
Known for his melancholy folk pop, Smith was pushed into the national spotlight when his song “Miss Misery,” appeared on the soundtrack to the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting.” It was nominated for an Academy Award for best song. Smith’s appearance on the broadcast — in which he nervously performed in a white tuxedo alongside Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood — provided one of the most bizarre moments in Oscar history.
Although he was often compared to Nick Drake, the British folk songwriter who committed suicide in 1974 at age 26, Smith was known for more lush arrangements and an ear for catchier hooks.
He was a Beatles fan who identified with the darker end of the Fab’s catalog. In 2000, he closed the first of two-sold out nights at Metro with George Harrison’s “I Me Mine.”
Joe Shanahan, Metro’s owner, booked Smith’s first-ever Chicago show in the early show in the early ’90s when he was unknown and playing in the band Heatmiser. A few years later he offered him a 20-minute solo spot as an opener and remembers it was “one of those moments you could hear a pin drop.”
“Eve the bartenders stopped clinking ice. Everyone was listening,” he said.
Smith sold out Metro four times in three years. On the last date, Billy Corgan visited him backstage and worked to calm his anxieties, which were becoming legendary.
Smith’s death caps a brief, but busy career. Before six of his songs were incorporated into “Good Will Hunting,” Smith had released three albums on indie labels.
The film’s popularity drew him to Dream Works, which released “XO: in 1998, followed by “Figure 8” in 2000. The two critically praised albums featured densely packed songs of catchy pop tunes, arranged with piano and guitar and multi-layered harmonies.
A notoriously shy performer, Smith sang quietly, giving his music a childlike frailty. His songs bottled strong emotions – which endeared him to his cult of fans. At the Metro show, fans were seen singing along while wiping away tears.
“I think he understood loneliness,” said Shanahan. “I think he understood alienation – physically and emotionally. He made people pay attention. Maybe it was part of his charm, part of his power. If you wanted to get it, you had to really get away from all the trappings of showbiz and get into the man’s words.”
In interviews, Smith never made excuses about the torment in his music, but instead saw a beauty in its very necessity.
“Depressing isn’t a word I would use to describe my music,” he told Rolling Stone. “But there is some sadness in it — there has to be, so that the happiness in it will matter.”
Although he was known to be battling drug and alcohol addiction in recent years, there were glimpses of his resurfacing. In 2002, he enlisted the Flaming Lips’ management and was rumored to be shopping around a new album for release next year.