The Death of Elliott Smith
Did the musician who wrote songs for the ‘sad kids’ kill himself, or was he murdered?
Elliott Smith was launched into the spotlight after his involvement in the 1997 Oscar-winner Good Will Hunting, but he didn’t enjoy the sudden fame he experienced. In an interview with Elizabeth Blair in 2000, Smith explained his disregard for the fanfare.
“I was pretty happy before all that [performing at the Academy Awards], I was going on tour and making records. It was kind of fun in a way, and it was really kind of weird in a way. It doesn’t mean anything, you know. It’s not a particularly musical environment.”
Elliott Smith’s death would become a conspiracy for the ages, with many claiming he was murdered and others believing he killed himself, but was there more to it than reported?
The music maker
Born in 1969 in Omaha, Nebraska, Smith was raised in Texas and later Portland, Oregon. At ten, Smith had received piano lessons and was self-taught on the guitar, which helped him create the music he became known for.
In 1991, he joined Heatmiser, a band based in Portland, where he enjoyed minor success. Five years later, the band was signed to Virgin but quickly disbanded after the contract was signed.
While the band had broken up, Smith had a side project and already had a solo album on the shelves with Cavity Search Records. His debut album, Roman Candle, had received mixed reviews, but the album would be the start of his musical journey.
Before the height of his fame, the musician had created his previous five albums on a four-track in the basement of his home. However, being an Oscar-nominated artist ensured he would be given studio time to develop his next masterpiece.
By 2000, he’d been making music for around five years on a professional level but still didn’t enjoy the limelight, despite moving from the East Coast to Los Angeles. He also seemed to give little regard to some of the lyrics he chose, stating that Son of Sam wasn’t about the infamous serial killer.
“That lyric is a particularly bizarre one to me, I didn’t know that phrase…I was on tour with someone named Sam for a long time. There’s Uncle Sam, but it wasn’t…I don’t know, I couldn’t understand anything specifically about that song, except that it seemed to be about some kind of creativity and destruction. But you know, people don’t listen to lyrics in pop songs.”
But people did. He was the new role model for the ‘sad kids’ and Mr Misery himself. He was idolised by the youth and was hailed as an essential part of any teenager’s self-reflection in the early noughties.
Smith had a well-documented drug habit and had been seen wandering the deserted subway tracks in Brooklyn late at night. He’d been using heroin while living in Portland, but he’d begun smoking crack by the time he’d moved to Los Angeles in 1999.
He forgot lyrics to his own songs and fell asleep on stage, and he’d been found in bar toilets passed out with needles hanging out of his arms. He’d become increasingly paranoid and was sure he was being followed and that DreamWorks was after his music.
“Not long ago my house was broken into, and songs were stolen off my computer which have wound up in the hands of certain people who work at a certain label. I’ve also been followed around for months at a time. I wouldn’t even want to necessarily say it’s the people from that label who are following me around, but it was probably them who broke into my house.”
However, by 2002, he’d reportedly got clean by using neurotransmitter restoration, a type of therapy that speeds up the healing process of the brain’s chemistry while detoxing.
According to some of Smith’s entourage, he had become more optimistic, and the dark cloud that followed him had begun to dissipate. He was working on a new album, From a Basement on a Hill, and had the support of his girlfriend, Jennifer, behind him.
Jennifer Chiba was a musician in her own right, and according to VoxPop, the pair met at Rockfest festival and later reconnected when Smith moved to Los Angeles.
“We were both shy and were smiling while looking at our feet. He offered me a drink and we talked about Russian literature. We were both fans, especially Dostoevsky. This led us to a discussion about compassion, depression, and hospitalization. A rather deep conversation to have with someone you’ve just met!”
Yet, Smith’s friends recall a different story. According to Rock NYC, Jennifer got Smith hooked on new drugs when he moved to the West Coast and simultaneously became his dealer and girlfriend. The friends’ claims were backed up by a drug counsellor who helped Smith through his addiction.
The 21st of October 2003 was a surprisingly hot day. The news had reported that wildfires were likely in the city, and that afternoon, the wind was beginning to pick up.
Chiba and Smith were at the house they lived in on hilly Lemoyne Street, not far from the Dodger’s stadium. The pair had argued that day, and Chiba had locked herself in the bathroom for some respite from her paranoid boyfriend.
Chiba did this often, and Smith’s half-sister Ashley was usually called to coax her out of the room. However, Ashley wasn’t called this time, and according to Jennifer Chiba, she heard a scream and opened the bathroom door to find Smith with a knife protruding from his ribcage. She pulled the knife from Smith’s chest, and he collapsed, gasping for breath.
Emergency services were called, and Chiba began CPR and first aid. Smith was taken to Los Angeles County and University of Southern California hospital, where the wounds were operated on, but staff could not save the musician.
Elliott Smith fans will know that his songs revolve around drug use, suicide and general misery. So, when his death went public, no one was overly surprised.
In his book, Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith, William Schultz claimed that Smith told Jennifer Chiba that “it might not be a very good idea to get close, because he wasn’t planning on being around much longer.” Smith had been on the verge of killing himself for years, his friends claimed, but the method and timing of his death leave many unanswered questions.
Smith had been circumventing for years, always telling people that they’d never see him again. Whether that was because he was planning to recuse himself or because he was planning to end his life, it’s unclear, and either could have been the answer — he was unpredictable.
Smith died before his new album was finished. From a Basement on a Hill hadn’t reached postproduction yet, and Chiba had called recording engineer Larry Crane the week before Smith’s death to get him in the studio to finish the album. The profits from the record were going to Smith and Chiba’s charity for abused children, something Smith cared deeply about, given his history of being mistreated while living with his mother and stepfather.
According to a post on TapeOp made by Crane himself, he hadn’t spoken to Smith in a long time.
“I hadn’t talked to Elliott in over a year. His girlfriend Jennifer called me last week and asked if I’d like to come to LA and help mix and finish the long-awaited Elliott Smith album. I said, yes, of course, and chatted with Elliott for the first time in ages. It was so great to talk after so long. I juggled my schedule to make it down there November 10–21. Those plans are off now. It seems surreal that he would call me to finish an album and then a week later kill himself. I talked to Jennifer this morning, who was obviously shattered and in tears, and she said, ‘I don’t understand, he was so healthy.’”
The five-page document, initially published by The Smoking Gun, records the statement from Jennifer Chiba at the time of her boyfriend’s death and the coroner’s report from the post-mortem performed on Smith.
According to the document, Chiba claimed Smith had been clean for over a year, and the toxicology tests revealed no illicit substances were present in the bloodstream. Smith had stabbed himself twice in the chest, with the final blow puncturing his heart. However, there were no hesitation wounds, and he also had what looked like defensive wounds on his left hand and right arm.
The coroner wrote, “While his history of depression is compatible with suicide, and the location and direction of the stab wounds are consistent with self-infliction, several aspects of the circumstances (as are known at this time) are atypical of suicide and raise the possibility of homicide”.
The report also documented the oddities with the autopsy. For example, Smith had stabbed himself through his clothing — something that wasn’t common at all in suicide.
She continued, “Additionally, the girlfriend’s reported removal of the knife and subsequent refusal to speak with detectives are all of concern”.
Although Chiba was never charged, she still felt like she was a suspect in the case, prompting a statement in 2004.
“Up until now I’ve chosen to remain silent because I want to maintain some sense of privacy for Elliott and his family and myself in this really difficult time. But 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 close to him knows the truth, so I’m not worried about it. The media are just looking for some sort of sensationalistic angle that will sell their publications. In my mind, there’s no question to what happened and there’s no need to put that kind of spin on it.”
A Post-It note was found with a suicide note written on it, which read, “I’m so sorry, love, Elliott. God forgive me”. At the time, investigators viewed it as ‘possibly suspicious’.
Later, friends spoke out that the couple’s relationship was broken, claiming that Smith wasn’t off the drugs at all. In an interview with The Guardian, engineer Sean Organ claimed Smith was tough to work with during that period.
“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.”
In 2004, Jennifer Chiba sued Smith’s estate, claiming that she was entitled to some of his earnings. Chiba declared that she had been working as Smith’s talent agent at the time of his death, so she was entitled to 15% (around $1million) of his money.
Unfortunately, because Chiba was working as an unlicensed talent agent, she couldn’t claim any of his money. Chiba then sued her lawyer for malpractice and negligence. The case was dismissed in 2009.
There are multiple theories behind Elliott Smith’s death. Many blame Jennifer Chiba for killing her boyfriend, either in the heat of the moment or a more calculated approach to take his money.
However, the other side of this argument remains as the story is usually reported; Smith did kill himself.
Along with his outspoken suicidal narratives, Elliott Smith may have also tried to kill himself before, and Larry Crane recalled seeing a big scar on Smith’s chest back in 1997.
Moreover, in 2014, a case of suicide by self-inflicted stab wounds was published in the Journal of College of Medical Sciences, Nepal. The study claimed, “Death by self-stabbing is quite uncommon in Western countries. Mostly young men and persons with a psychiatric history choose this manner of suicide.”
A stabbing to the chest is an excruciating way to die, but the practice does exist. Japanese Samurai would kill themselves in this manner, causing themselves massive pain rather than dishonour.
If Jennifer Chiba had killed Smith, she gained very little from his death. She didn’t receive any of his money upon his death, and her band, Happy Ending, broke up, with the website being taken down due to death threats on the message boards.
The issue surrounding Elliott Smith’s death is that the case is still open. Unfortunately, the cloak and daggers mentality is what drives the conspiracy theories, and they’re unlikely to dissipate until the investigation is closed once and for all.
From a Basement on a Hill was mixed by Rob Schnapf and released posthumously through ANTI- and Domino record labels. It was described by Pitchfork as “perfectly coherent and cohesive, without any sense of being slapped together from half-finished parts,” and was given an 88/100 on Metacritic.
Although Elliott Smith has been gone nearly 20 years, his influence lives on in other artists. Phoebe Bridgers, Billie Eilish and even Madonna have cited the musician as inspiration for their music.
Part of the allure behind Elliott Smith and his music is that he didn’t seem to care about anyone or anything, including himself. He made music, and didn’t care what happened after that. Perhaps we should follow suit, and just enjoy the few albums he created.