Elliott Smith hasn't made music for more than 10 years, but attempts to make sense of the life and death of this gifted singer-songwriter have haunted his friends, family and fans since his death of two stab wounds to the chest in 2003.
"Torment Saint" by William Todd Schultz is not the first biography of Smith, but it is by far the best - Schultz manages to provide clarity and context for Smith's most perplexing and troubling decisions without becoming voyeuristic, a line that seems difficult to toe (for a negative example, check out D.T. Max's David Foster Wallace biography).
Schultz traces Smith's musical origins from childhood garage bands in Texas through his time in Heatmiser and the branching out of his solo career, using the chronology of Smith's life to provide context for some of his greatest songs, from the relationships that inspired "Half Right" and "Amity" to the drug addiction and suicidal tendencies that influenced much of his later work, including his masterpiece, "King's Crossing."
Scdultz draws parallels between Smith's death and that of Kurt Cobain, but also explores the complexity of Smith's feelings toward fame - unlike Cobain, he both despised it and craved it. At the same time, Schultz's interviews with Smith's loved ones provide beautiful insights into Smith's humanity - we all know how incongruous Smith appeared when he performed "Miss Misery" at the Academy Awards in 1998, but what we didn't know is Smith couldn't begrudge Celine Dion her Oscar because he thought she was a genuinely nice person.
Schultz manages to maintain just the right tone throughout "Torment Saint," displaying no small degree of care and even affection for Smith without exalting him or glossing over his flaws ... of which there were many.
Elliott Smith possessed an uncommon degree of sensitivity and wore his heart on his sleeve in a way that was impossible to dismiss, but he also hurt people who loved him, made selfish decisions, used alcohol and drugs to escape from his problems and depended on others to keep him alive for the better part of his last few years.
Schultz unflinchingly tracks Smith's path to destruction in a way that presents his death as inevitable. Schultz notes that when Smith chanted the refrain to "King's Crossing" at shows, ("Give me one good reason not to do it," meaning commit suicide), his sister Ashley would shout, "Because we love you!"
This was Smith's only reason to stick around, and eventually even that wasn't enough.
Schultz also bravely tackles the controversy surrounding Smith's death, the cause of which was ruled "undetermined" rather than suicide.
Using interviews with the coroner who issued the report, Smith's friends and family as well as Smith's girlfriend Jennifer Chiba (who received the brunt of suspicion and a good deal of fan hatred for years following Smith's death), Schultz provides a sense of closure for those with lingering questions about whether Smith really was, as he said in "Amity," "ready to go."
"Torment Saint" is a must-read for Smith fans, both for its insights into Smith's music and for the reminiscences shared by friends and family that bring Smith, briefly, back to life.
All in all it's a comprehensive portrait of Smith's beautiful, painful, melancholy existence.