Better than even Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith provides a case study of the effects of fame. Though his rise was just as mercurial, the changes wrought were more profound and more eerie. Benjamin Nugent treats this flight to fame with a delicate touch, showing as many sides of Elliott as he was able to access. The result is a book about the pitfalls of the rise to public attention, its effects on friendships, and a man who fought against everything to maintain the one thing he truly lost: control. Nugent’s book follows Elliott from his growing up in suburban Texas, where his tumultuous home life pushed him inward and toward music, to his beginnings as a performer in Portland, Oregon, then through his chaotic brush with mass consciousness, to his unfortunate suicide in Los Angeles.
Though his songs were not the highlights of the band’s output, Elliott first garnered attention as a member of the punkish, indie-rock band Heatmiser. Elliott’s most powerful songs were about the baser things of humanity and its interactions. They garnered immediate connection and response from the people who heard them, but it wasn’t until that band broke up that his basement solo recordings were unearthed and unleashed on the world at large on the soundtrack to Gus Van Zant’s Good Will Hunting. In the wake of the success of that film and a Grammy nomination for the song “Miss Misery,” Elliott was carried headlong onto the rocks of fame’s worst fallout. He lost his grip on many old friendships, his hold on the ultimate sound of his music, and control of his inner demons. The rumors of Elliott’s drug use have been greatly exaggerated, but what he didn’t partake in during his rise to fame, he indulged in with abandon during the recording of his last record, From a Basement on the Hill. Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing (Da Capo) documents this slide into oblivion with compassion and care, showing Elliott as confused as anyone by the rapid changes around him.
Coming out on the heels of that last studio record, this book provides a companion piece and a sort of skeleton key to what was going on during that most tumultuous time of Elliott’s life. A rare glimpse inside the life of an enigmatic performer, Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing is a good read and an intriguing case study of the destructive power of fame.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.
Editor of Boogie Down Predictions (Strange Attractor, 2022), author of Escape Philosophy (punctum, 2022) and Dead Precedents (Repeater, 2019).