Elliott Smith is ten years gone, the devastatingly talented singer/songwriter having met his end on Oct 21, 2003. A knife plunged twice into his greatest attribute and most obvious Achilles Heel, his heart. A violent end for a man capable of writing such beautiful, Beatlesque majesty. The juxtaposition lays there conspicuous and all the more difficult to accept. That ominous and foreboding feeling is there throughout Torment Saint, as it would be in any story where you know the tragic conclusion. Much like watching Titanic, to which he would lose his only shot at an Academy Award, we just keep our eyes open and wait.
The research is thorough and expansive as William Todd Schultz has spoken to various people that popped up in Smith's life at different points. There are words from middle and high school mates that bore witness to the musical formative years of Smith. He also provides the sociopolitical backdrop of Oregon in the late eighties/early nineties that, undoubtedly, affected Smith's attitude and music. Schultz gives us the canvas upon which Elliott made his art.
The only thing that keeps this book from being flawless is Schultz's propensity in attaching hidden or greater meaning to even the smallest lyric or biographical tidbit. A blogger for “Psychology Today”, it is understandable that he would be interested in trying to decode the psyche of such a distressed artist. Elliott Smith is, after all, a fascinating character study. Thankfully, Schultz doesn't postulate on Elliott's death itself, as to whether his fatal wounds were self-inflicted (it is still an open case). He does, however, paint a vivid picture of how Smith may have come to the point of taking his own life. It's just that his exhaustive analysis can be somewhat exhausting to the casual reader. Not that anyone should expect that a book about Elliott Smith would be light reading. His story isn't a simple one with a Frank Capra movie ending.
Torment Saint: the Life of Elliott Smith arrives in bookstores Oct 1 from Bloomsbury USA. William Todd Schultz can be reached via Twitter.
Will all due respect to Benjamin Nugent, author of Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing (a great book in and of itself), Torment Saint is the most comprehensive and detailed account of the life of America's most under-heralded musical talent. Schultz has had the benefit of time to research and find context. We likely will never know exactly the extent of abuse, if any, was inflicted on Smith by his stepfather and how that could have affected the mental makeup of this empathetic soul but Schultz gives us as near the whole story as his sources will ever provide. Some secrets just get taken to the grave.