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— by Joe D'Angelo and Rodrigo Perez

During the past year and a half, Elliott Smith's publicist routinely fielded calls from journalists asking if it was true that the singer/songwriter was dead. They had perhaps heard something, or read a desperate note on a message board. The publicist said as much last Tuesday night, only this time it was different. This time, her answer wasn't a rolled-eye dismissal, but a sad, softer-toned confirmation.

Elliott Smith was dead. And no one was more surprised to hear the news than those close to him. By their accounts, the folk-punk singer's dark days — the days when the chronically depressed Smith was rumored to have been found passed out in a public restroom with a needle hanging out of his arm, who looked as if he had aged two decades in two years, whose onetime sad and innocent facial features suddenly appeared withdrawn and hollow — were behind him. After a stint in an experimental rehabilitation facility, Smith claimed to be clean and sober. The last months of his life were spent diligently working on his long-awaited sixth album, tentatively titled From a Basement on the Hill. It was a record he was proud to have made and eager to show off.

"I was completely shocked and devastated and disappointed," said Luke Wood, Smith's A&R rep at DreamWorks Records. "He was tremendously optimistic and focused on this new record. You got the sense he was someone who was really on a mission to get this done and have it out by early next year."

The few shows he played in 2003 were public evidence that he had gotten his act back together. "In the time I was around him, he just seemed really excited to be playing shows," said New York singer/songwriter Brady Brock, whom Smith tapped to open two of his final three performances. "He mentioned the record he was working on and you could tell that he was just excited to be working again."

That Smith was excited about anything seemed surprising given what he went through following the release of his last album, 2000's Figure 8. After the tour to support that LP was over, he returned home to Los Angeles but essentially withdrew from the music scene there that heralded him as the next great song craftsman in the vein of Brian Wilson. He became a recluse who alienated friends, and in those times he did go out in public, his appearance worried people.

Flaming Lips drummer Steven Drozd, who recorded one track for From a Basement on the Hill, described Smith as "a mess" when he attended a Lips show in L.A. in the summer of 2002. Smith always looked disheveled, with his trademark ski cap to top it off, though at that time slightly scruffy gave way to genuinely grubby. Months before, his face showed premature wrinkles and he was disturbingly thin. Sporadic shows from late 2000 to 2002 were marked by frequent last-minute cancellations and spotty performances.

"His last three years were his hardest struggle to stay alive; it kept getting worse and worse and worse," said friend and filmmaker Steve Hanft, who directed the experimental Smith documentary "Strange Parallel." "And then in the last six months, it was like the light at the end of the tunnel. It was like, 'He made it,' you know? And he was going to be stronger than ever."

  Fans Remember Elliott Smith
If his discography, which showed marked growth with each successive album, is any indication, Smith had a career-advancing new record on the way. He was performing with a renewed vigor. And he seemed happy in his relationship with Jennifer Chiba, credited by many with having helped him clean up, and who found him in her apartment, which they shared, last Tuesday afternoon (see "Singer/Songwriter Elliott Smith Dead; Friends, Fellow Musicians Pay Tribute" ). Which makes it all the more puzzling — and frustrating to those who helped him in the end — why Elliott Smith decided to take his own life now.

"I know he was completely clean," Hanft insisted. "[His death] was not about the [drugs] and that's what makes me mad. When he committed suicide, he was completely clean. Completely."

Evidence to support Hanft's claim is pending, as the results of toxicological tests on Smith's body are not yet in. That's also the reason why a cause of death has yet to be made official by the Los Angeles Department of Coroner. It may never be known exactly why Smith ended his life when his future looked so promising.

Leaving behind many unanswered questions along with a body of work certain to be influential to future generations, Smith's sad, untimely end will go down as one of music's tragic tales, one following in the line of the depressing stories of Gram Parsons, Jeff Buckley and Kurt Cobain.


Next: Smith had spoken frankly about suicide for years; plus, shaking at the Oscars ...
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Photo: Miramax/Capitol Records

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  "Miss Misery"
Good Will Hunting Soundtrack
(Capitol)



  "Son Of Sam"
Figure 8
(DreamWorks)



  "Coming Up Roses"
Elliott Smith
(Kill Rock Stars)



 "Strange Parallel"
A Promotional Film
(DreamWorks)





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