Coming Up Roses

Andrew Hultkrans on the Elliott Smith documentary Heaven Adores You

Nickolas Rossi,  Heaven Adores You, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 96 minutes. Elliott Smith.

“BEHIND THE EYES of the Oregon girls it was raining again in Portland,” Nelson Algren wrote in his 1956 novel A Walk on the Wild Side. “Somehow it was always raining behind the eyes of Oregon girls.” And so it always seemed to be for Elliott Smith, an extraordinarily gifted, peerlessly poignant songwriter and favorite son of Portland, who died in 2003 at age thirty-four of two knife wounds to the chest, an apparent suicide. As if to confirm Algren’s emotional weather report, the bleak refrain of the last song on Smith’s final studio album, released posthumously, was, “Shine on me, baby, cause it’s raining in my heart.” Those who had followed his solo career, consisting of six uniformly excellent LPs over ten years, would not have been surprised by this last will and testament. His searingly literary, harmonically gorgeous songs were populated by junkies, drunks, miserable and misery-inducing women, abusive stepfathers, bad dream fuckers, no confidence men, and inveterate losers who “got in a kind of trouble that nobody knows.”

As Nickolas Rossi’s reverential, meditative documentary Heaven Adores You is at pains to make clear, however, if you actually knew the songwriter, you thought of him as one of the funniest people you’d ever met, a class clown with a goofy, performative sense of humor, someone who could run a joke so far into the ground that it became hilarious again (and again). His smile—a transformative crack in his rough-hewn, taciturn face—was reportedly one of the most infectious enticements to joy his friends had ever known. In the film, Smith’s friend, photographer, and video director Autumn de Wilde recalls being stunned when seeing him for the first time on the cover photo of his third record, Either/Or (1997): “That sweet voice comes out of that intense face?” This was key to Smith’s appeal, his pretty-ugly-but-pretty-enough-for-you Everyman quality. The Beatles were melodic geniuses and were cute to boot. Smith was a Beatlesesque melodic genius who looked like he emptied spent oil pans behind a rural gas station.

He was an ur-hipster—the first musician I noticed wearing greasy trucker’s hats and ironic thrift-store T-shirts as a constant uniform—with an inherent distrust of fame, money, and all-American attitudes, but was gracious enough to defend Céline Dion to any and all because she had been nice to him backstage at the Oscars. (Smith had been nominated for “Miss Misery” from the sound track of Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, a film which featured several of his songs and introduced him to mainstream audiences; unsurprisingly, he lost to Dion’s titanic power ballad from the James Cameron blockbuster.) As hackneyed as the singer-songwriter tag has become in the intervening years, it was radically against the tide to play quiet acoustic music under your own name in the mid-1990s, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, which was in thrall to grunge and riot grrrl. It was so uncool it was cool. In short, it was punk as fuck—more truly punk, in fact, than the aggro post-punk rock he played with his band Heatmiser, an outfit that dissolved as Smith’s solo career flowered.

Smith was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1969, the son of a hippie, Vietnam vet father who was studying psychiatry and a sweet-natured, music teacher mother. They divorced before he reached his first birthday, and his mother moved to Texas and remarried a man named Charlie Welch, a figure so determinative of Smith’s adult psychology and songwriting that he seemed to be a character from an unsubtle bildungsroman. According to Smith, Welch was abusive, at the very least emotionally and physically abusive, though near the end of his life Smith imagined that Welch may have abused him sexually as well, an allegation that his parents deny. (Typical of Smith, he wrote an incredibly catchy, musically upbeat song called “Abused” that dances around the issue and was understandably not selected by his family for inclusion on his last LP.)

While Smith and many of his friends repeatedly reminded the press and fans that his songs were not all autobiographical diary confessions, but instead finely drawn character studies, a number of his lyrics seemed to address his childhood trauma directly, including the revenge fantasy “Roman Candle,” the first song on his solo debut of the same name, and “Some Song,” with its line, “Charlie beat you up week after week, and when you grow up you’re going to be a freak.” As soon as he could (age fourteen), Smith moved from Dallas to Portland, where his father lived with a new wife. He spent his adolescence there as a musical prodigy and National Merit Scholar, far more at home in the downbeat, overcast, lushly green Northwest than in sunny, violent, conservative Texas. As he does for New York and LA (where Smith lived later in life), Rossi illustrates Smith’s journey with sweeping long shots of Portland and environs, so damp you can smell the moss. Smith attended and graduated from Hampshire, the famously bohemian liberal arts college in Massachusetts, and returned to Portland with best friend Neil Gust to start Heatmiser.

The film is at its best when resurrecting the ’90s Portland scene that shaped Smith musically and personally, drawing on intimate, original interviews with Smith’s friends and colleagues of the period—fellow musicians Pete Krebs and Sean Croghan; high school friend, bandmate, and producer Tony Lash; Kill Rock Stars label head Slim Moon; Jackpot! Studio colleague and posthumous tape archivist Larry Crane; ex-girlfriend and bassist Joanna Bolme; and others vividly recall the charmed backwater city on the verge of national exposure. It’s telling that nearly all of the interviewees tear up at some point during their segments, both for their late friend and their hipster paradise lost. Gust and Sam Coomes (Heatmiser, Quasi), both close friends and musical collaborators of Smith’s, are conspicuously absent, but otherwise Rossi thoroughly covers the Portland waterfront.

Nickolas Rossi,  Heaven Adores You, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 96 minutes.

After Either/Or and the Oscar nomination, Smith signed to DreamWorks under artist-friendly veteran executive Lenny Waronker, and with some help from LA maestro Jon Brion and producers Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock, recorded and released two brilliant, high-gloss LPs (XO [1998] and Figure 8 [2000]), adorning his acoustic guitar and piano with ornate chamber-pop arrangements, playing most instruments himself, and multitracking his voice in complex harmonic blends. Even as his career was at its peak (perhaps because of this), Smith was drinking heavily and flirting with the hard drugs that would nearly destroy him. Alarmingly, when living in New York, he would walk through the subway tunnels late at night, blind drunk, looking for Mole People or perhaps an easy way out of a trajectory he wasn’t sure he wanted to be on. Other times he’d call local friend and roommate Dorien Garry in the middle of the night, three sheets to the wind, ominously pleading with her not to be mad at him if he “did something to himself.”

Casual listeners may be surprised by half-sister Ashley Welch’s claim in the film that Smith—whose eponymous second record was essentially a heroin concept album, painting such nuanced, convincing portraits of strung-out half-lives that Lou Reed would have had to hit the bricks back up to Lexington 125 but quick to top them—had never used heroin when he wrote those songs. Croghan and Crane concur, flatly stating that the early heroin songs were about junkies Smith observed in Portland, not himself; instead, he exploited the metaphorical possibilities of addiction as a way to write about ordinary human misery and dysfunctional relationships. In this he recalled William S. Burroughs, using tableaux of drug addiction as stages where other human feelings and failings, rituals of power and abnegation, could be dramatized and explored.

Sadly, the drugs took over with fearful symmetry, as if Smith had tempted fate by describing heroin addiction too acutely to be able to escape its warm embrace—a dark karmic payback. His smack and crack years were in LA, first in a bona fide Disney dwarf cottage and then in a mansion in the hills of Malibu, where he had come to record and live with producer David McConnell. From these and other sessions, Smith’s posthumous LP From a Basement on a Hill was cobbled together by Schnapf and Bolme, with Smith’s family having the final say on which tracks to include. Songs McConnell knew were slotted for the record, “Suicide Machine” and the aforementioned “Abused,” were rejected by the family for being too close to home. Both are great songs, but so are the others that made the cut. Far from being a botched grave robbery, Basement is as strong a musical statement as Smith ever made, with clear evidence of growth and experimentation and, as ever, near-perfect songs, some of which are truly heartbreaking in light of what happened. Unfortunately, with an apparent mandate to avoid any tawdry or exploitative corners of Smith’s life, Rossi gives this period and album short shrift, which is a mistake. I could see the same episode as the basis for a feature-length screenplay, taking as its guidestars Performance (1970), Pink Floyd The Wall (1982), Last Days (2005), and perhaps Moon (2009).

Smith’s last months found him cleaning up with reckless rapidity, dropping drugs, alcohol, coffee, refined sugar, and his oversubscribed battery of psychiatric meds. Living hopefully with girlfriend Jennifer Chiba, he seemed to be on the mend and working on new music. But as Chiba later indicated, the security blanket of substances had kept a lot of unresolved trauma tamped down and unseen for decades; Smith’s precipitous detox allowed these painful, previously hidden memories to flood back. After an argument, Chiba went to the bathroom. Hearing a scream, she ran into the kitchen to see Smith with a kitchen knife stuck in his chest. She removed the blade and called for help. Smith died in the hospital that day.

Rossi’s first involvement with Smith was to film the ad hoc tribute that arose in front of the Solutions Audio store mural in LA, used for the cover shot of Figure 8. By traveling back in time with his camera to explore everything that led up to that day, Rossi fills in texture where there was once only tenderness. This is a sweet, generous film, as sweet and generous as its subject was known to be. The dark stuff will have to wait.

Heaven Adores You plays Saturday, August 2 at the Inspire Theatre in Las Vegas, and Saturday, August 9 at the Kino Cinemas in Melbourne. Further screenings will be announced on the film’s website.