Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith – A Review

One night by chance Elliott stumbled across [Joni Mitchell’s Blue album] in Garry’s collection. Immediately he asked if she’d listened to it. She said no, she hadn’t got around to putting it on and checking it out. Funnily, he was relieved. “He made me promise never to touch it. He said it would change me forever.”

This was interesting to read, because that is exactly what happened when I started listening to Elliott Smith. It changed me.

Elliott’s music is addictive. There are many accounts from friends in the book and the term “black magic” is referenced more than once. His was a dark art that is seductive and comforting. I never really understood Roberta Flack’s lines “…strumming my pain with his fingers; singing my life with his words” from “Killing Me Softly” until I heard Elliott Smith. I feel exposed; laid bare when I listen to his work. Just one song transcends time and space with music and lyrical tentacles that enter the deepest, darkest places; invasive and arresting, yet strangely comforting.

It can’t be easy to piece together someone’s life without having known them, but that’s what Schultz does. Through friends, letters, music and interviews William Todd Schultz paints the most complete portrait possible and does so with great care and diplomacy. The takeaway? For me, it’s the following:

It doesn’t matter what the exact details are of Elliott’s trauma because he was clearly traumatized. Most great artists are bent or broken, using the art to minimize, exorcise, or – in Elliott’s case – amplify the pain. Charles Bukowski – revealed in the documentary Born Into This was whipped with a razor strap by his father three times per week for around six years for something that would not seem to warrant a beating. A friend of his from the film shares the sentiment that had that happened to anyone else, it might not have been traumatizing. I don’t know if I agree, but I do know that being hypersensitive doesn’t help. Abuse is abuse, and whether or not you are built to handle it, withstand it or manage it like anyone else doesn’t diminish the fact that it is, as Bukowski put it, “pain without reason.” For the sensitive, who are introspective by design, this can be maddening.

It’s probably some kind of miracle Elliott didn’t die sooner. He may not have been a junkie until near his death, but he talked about suicide so much with friends that it was an indelible part of his personality. He was far from perfect, just like everyone else, including Elliott’s friends, family, girlfriends. Still, that he lived as long as he did and channeled his trauma though creativity is our blessing, to be sure.

I should have picked up this book sooner. It’s beautiful.

I set out to make a book as beautiful as the music. The goal was impossible, of course. But I’ve done everything in my power to come as close as I could.

You certainly did. Thank you!

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