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BOOK REVIEW: Torment Saint – The Life of Elliott Smith, by William Todd Schultz

| 20 March 2014 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Torment Saint – The Life of Elliott Smith, by William Todd Schultz
Bloomsbury
Reviewed by Joe Kapiteyn, lead singer of The Devil Rides Out

Torment Saint - The Life Of Elliot Smith by William Todd Schultz book cover

It might be cold to say it, but when you look back at the lyrics and the life of Elliott Smith, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that his life ended the way it did – violently and tragically at his own hand. It doesn’t detract from the shock and the sadness of the loss of course, but the way we idealise and romanticise the agony of our artistic anti-heroes when in actual fact they are really messed up and clearly in need of help is cause for reflection. There is a strange kind of guilt in the realisation that the misery, alienation and angst you identified with so strongly with in Smith, all of which was held up for its honesty and purity and helped you get through your own personal hardships, were also signpost to impending tragedy for him. Not that there is anything any of us us could have done. Elliott Smith the person was not actually a part of our life. But such was the naked intimacy and emotional rawness of his songwriting that it felt like he was.

For all of Smith’s lyrical candour, before reading Torment Saint – William Todd Schultz’s excellent biography of Smith – I knew very little about his personal life. This, despite being a big fan and owning many of his records, I had no idea how directly aimed at various people and situations his lyrics were. Such was his talent for cloaking his songs in heartbroken ambiguity. You could feel the truth of his songs, but it was always slightly out of focus. For those like me, Schultz’ insights into the stories behind the songs are fascinating and lend them additional emotional weight, if that is possible.

Born, Stephen Smith in Nebraska, depression plagued him from a young age. As is usually the case, a fractured and unhappy childhood laid the groundwork for the path his life took. His parents divorced when he was still a baby and he moved with his mother to Texas, where she remarried. Smith’s stepfather Charlie was emotionally abusive and there are allusions to physical and sexual abuse also. Explicit allegations were never made and friends who Smith confided in refuse to share the details, respecting his privacy even after death. At 14 he moved to Portland, Oregon to live with his father where he joined the high school band and several teenage bands outside of school. It was around this time he fell into alcohol and drug use, both of which would plague him for the rest of his brief life.

It’s not all grim though. As with Smith’s music, there is warmth, compassion and tenderness to be found here. His was a very troubled soul but also a beautiful one and the book reflects this admirably, giving a fully rounded impression of the man and his life. That ultimately he sought out oblivion through addiction, self-harm and suicide does not detract from the fact that at heart he was a good person, a hurt child trying to make sense of his pain through art.

As with Kurt Cobain, conspiracy theories surround Smith’s death and Schultz devotes time towards the end of the book in examining them without giving them any credit they don’t deserve. There is no lurid sensationalism here, the tone is sombre, respectful and rooted very much in the recollections of those who were closest to him and knew him best. The portrait they paint is of a man haunted by his demons, on a collision course with fate and immortality. We are left with the music, and this worthy companion piece to it which gives a human face to the myth and the mystery.

 

Category: Book Reviews

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Editor, 100% ROCK MAGAZINE

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