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Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smithby William Todd Schultz
Essential for fans of Elliott Smith. William Todd Schultz has written a beautiful, revelatory, and deeply thoughtful biography which never loses sight of music as the defining aspect of Smith's life.
With the exception of Benjamin Nugent's 2004 biography Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing and Autumn de Wilde's photo/interview book Elliott Smith, not much has been published in the decade following the singer-songwriter's too-early passing. William Todd Schultz's Torment Saint, however, not only remedies that notable lack but serves as what may well come to be the definitive Elliott Smith biography. As a professor of psychology, Schultz offers, in addition to all of the requisite details about childhood and adolescence, critical insight into Elliott as both an individual and an artist, as well as into the myriad influences that shaped his music and lyrical content.
Schultz recounts Smith's upbringing in Texas — one marked by a tumultuous (perhaps abusive) relationship with his stepfather. Smith's formative years in the Lone Star State defined much of his personality and outlook on life — baggage he was unable to escape even after he struck out on his own. It wasn't until he arrived in Portland that he seemingly began to feel comfortable with himself or his talents (if, in fact, he ever truly did). Tracing his musical ascendancy from the Rose City to New York, and eventually Los Angeles, Schultz portrays an artist deeply committed to his craft — perhaps in inverse proportion to how he felt about himself and his life in general. Quite a bit of time is spent on the industry side of things, recording sessions, record deals, tours, personnel changes, etc., but these details help lend the narrative more cohesion. While Smith's alcohol consumption was always apparent, it wasn't until 2000 that his drug taking took off in earnest (despite lyrical allusions throughout so many of his songs). Very quickly, Smith found himself in throes of addiction (heroin — though never injected, crack, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and other assorted pharmaceuticals), hastening his depressive spiral and disconnection from others. Reading about Smith's mental unraveling and emotional descent is at times very troubling. Interventions, friends, lovers, record executives — seemingly no one was able to get through to Elliott and convince him that his life was indeed worth living. The progressively sad story reaches its conclusion with the circumstances of his 2003 suicide.
Schultz, quite obviously, did considerable research in writing Torment Saint, interviewing nearly everyone who at one time or another figured prominently into Elliott's life (or at least those that would agree to speak about it). Most surprising about Torment Saint (or any rock biography, for that matter) is how beautifully written it is. Schultz's prose is lyrical, vivid, and expressive — a fitting testament to a musician whose songwriting was roundly praised for its emotional eloquence and honesty. Elliott Smith's life was clearly a troubled one, with self-loathing, addiction, and self-destructive behaviors ultimately becoming too much to bear. While the legacy left behind in song is impressive, one cannot help but wonder what heights of musical accomplishment may have awaited Elliott had he endured and overcome his demons. Sadly, we'll never know, of course. Torment Saint, a decade after Smith's suicide, helps piece together some of the more enigmatic aspects of his life and music. Tender, compassionate, and nonjudgmental, Schultz's biography will obviously appeal to fans of the late singer-songwriter, but also to anyone for whom the connection between art and addiction, creativity and depression is of interest. Torment Saint, like Elliott's music, is magnificently rendered, often sorrowful, but tempered by candor and abundant feeling.
Synopses & Reviews
Elliott Smith was one of the most gifted songwriters of the '90s, adored by fans for his subtly melancholic words and melodies. The sadness had its sources in the life. There was trauma from an early age, years of drug abuse, and a chronic sense of disconnection that sometimes seemed self-engineered. Smith died violently in LA in 2003, under what some believe to be questionable circumstances, of stab wounds to the chest. By this time fame had found him, and record-buyers who shared the listening experience felt he spoke directly to them from beyond: astute, damaged, lovelorn, fighting, until he could fight no more. And yet, although his intimate lyrics carried the weight of truth, Smith remained unknowable. In Torment Saint, William Todd Schultz gives us the first proper biography of the rock star, a decade after his death, imbued with affection, authority, sensitivity, and long-awaited clarity.
Torment Saint draws on Schultz's careful, deeply knowledgeable readings and insights, as well as on more than 150 hours of interviews with close friends from Texas to Los Angeles, lovers, bandmates, music peers, managers, label owners, and recording engineers and producers. This book unravels the remaining mysteries of Smith's life and his shocking, too early end. It will be, for Smith's legions of fans and readers still discovering his songbook, an indispensable examination of his life and legacy.
"In this detailed biography of Elliott Smith, the gifted singer-songwriter who was beloved by the indie-rock world and praised for solo albums such as Either/Or, Schultz opens a window on the musician who died from a fatal stab wound in 2003 at age 34. Schultz — editor of the Handbook of Psychobiography and author of books on Truman Capote and Diane Arbus — brings to his work a deep understanding of how inner and outer landscapes can affect unique and sensitive artists. Schultz follows the 'uncanny' intersection of the lives of Smith and fellow Pacific Northwest rocker Kurt Cobain: both witnessed domestic violence and divorce during their childhoods, with 'resulting feelings of abandonment and loss of security showing up regularly in songs'; both suffered from lifelong bouts of depression; both hung out in Portland bars where 'the prevailing mid-1980s zeitgeist' included 'punk, indie, anything-goes aesthetics'; and both used hard drugs such as heroin. But no matter how dark Smith's story gets, Schultz never loses sight of the beauty of his music. Agent: Betsy Lerner, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
“This is an epic poem to a true musical antihero, a tale as complex, dense, and poetic as Elliott himself, complete with harrowing details of every stop in his heartrending artistic odyssey." Amanda Palmer, songwriter, performer, artist, most recently on Theatre is Evil, with the Grand Theft Orchestra
“William Todd Schultz knows that the music is the key to understanding Elliott Smith, but he doesn't settle for what the songs alone will tell him. In Torment Saint, the author goes deep, crafting an engrossing tale of a troubled young man with a great gift whose complexity rendered him a puzzle to his ardent fans and even his closest friends. Schultz does a valiant job of putting the pieces together, through intensive research and insightful analysis. That Torment Saint is the definitive final word on such a brilliant artist should be viewed as a triumph, even as it confirms the tragedy of losing that artist. Filled with beauty and pain and clearly put together with tremendous care and deep respect, this is the book Elliott Smith deserves.” Mark Baumgarten, author of Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music
“Schultz's Torment Saint offers a candid, heavily researched and truly empathetic look into a troubled genius's life. As someone who knew Elliott Smith, I was grateful for the whole life arc and the connection of dots. It's a sensitive and inquisitive look at a beautifully talented soul.” Sluggo, guitarist for the Grannies
“Schultz personalizes and universalizes Elliott Smith. His balance of authorial distance with compassion is unsurpassable. All of the tiny details are rendered with great skill to form a moving, compact encyclopedia for those of us who knew Elliott Smith personally and those who did not.” Nelson Gary, author of A Wonderful Life in Our Lives
A revealing biography of a music icon — written with unprecedented access — published on the tenth anniversary of his tragic, untimely death.
About the Author
William Todd Schultz is a professor at Pacific University in Oregon. He edited and contributed to the groundbreaking Handbook of Psychobiography, and curates the book series Inner Lives, analyses of significant artists and political figures. His own book in the series, Tiny Terror, examines the writings of Truman Capote. He is also the author of An Emergency in Slow Motion, a study of the art and personality of Diane Arbus. He blogs for Psychology Today. His personal website is: http://williamtoddschultz.com.
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