Remembering Elliott Smith 10 Years After His Death: 'He Was Our John Lennon'

Elliott Smith Autumn de Wilde P
Autumn de Wilde

Elliott Smith died 10 years ago today -- tragically, violently, with a triumphant career behind him and a bleak future ahead.

By 2003, the singer-songwriter had amassed plenty of accolades: He had released five stellar albums; his hushed and haunting voice served as the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting (for which his song, "Miss Misery," received an Oscar nomination in 1998); he had performed on the Academy Awards, countless late-night talk shows and clubs big and small. He was an indie rock icon and, to many, regarded as a modern-day poet in the tradition of John Lennon or Bob Dylan.

Smith was also a drug addict. And in a painful downward spiral witnessed by many but directly experienced by few, his output diminished along with his zeal for life. On the morning of Oct. 21, Smith, then 34 years old, died of stab wounds to the chest inflicted at his home in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, less than three miles from the wall where he posed five years earlier for the cover of Figure 8, his critically lauded 2000 album.

Rewind to 1999 and the person on the opposite side of the lens for that photo shoot day and on many more occasions (including behind the camera for the "Son of Sam" video), was photographer Autumn de Wilde. A fan, friend, neighbor and frequent collaborator of Smith's, in 2007, she lovingly curated a book of photographs that told of better -- and quieter -- days for the supremely talented musician. Today, de Wilde admits that she, like many others who loved Elliott Smith deeply, is still "working it all out."

She shares some Elliott Smith memories with THR on the anniversary of his death -- and her birthday.

You and Elliott met in New York, first on the street and later at Lower East Side bar Max Fish. What was it that made you guys click?

Our minds really bounced off each other, I think. He was a very confessional person, so for a lot of people, the first time they hung out with Elliott and bonded with him, they felt like he was their best friend. If he gelled with you, he kind of just said whatever he thought. He also got real close, real fast, so I left knowing that I shouldn't be fooled into thinking that we were now best friends. I had met people like him before, people that burn very bright when they're on. It doesn't mean that it's not a sincere connection, but you don't go and try and force them to hang out with you all the time. Much later, when Elliott and I started working together, that connection became a real friendship.

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You were a fan from the start. What did you think his place was in music at the time?

That he was our John Lennon. I felt like we finally had someone … a really great poet for our generation. There aren't very many songwriters who perfectly capture the time period, which is when you discover them, and also outlast it. He's one of them.

How did you first come to photograph him?

Dreamworks [Records] was pulling in portfolios for Figure 8, and his manager [Margaret Mittleman] requested mine. She knew that he was most likely going be very uncomfortable with a big photo shoot, so she wanted to give an option of someone more on his level, I guess. I can't really speak for her. But I had taken some photos of him when we hung out in New York, just because I had my camera around and I was trying to document everything. So when I submitted my portfolio, at the end of the book was a photo of him standing on the street in front of the word "freak," which someone had spray-painted all over the Lower East Side. He told me later that halfway into the book, he had already decided he wanted to work with me, and then when he got to the end, he realized it was me. He didn't connect the dots until he saw the photo. … But no disrespect to the other photographers who were submitted -- it was a very divisive time for musicians like him and mainstream artists.

It's been said that he didn't like having his picture taken. What was it like to photograph him?

Truthfully, in the end, he did like having his photo taken. I think he was really uncomfortable with a situation where he would have to say "no" or to have a debate or an argument about how he was portrayed. And that's understandable. Once we started working, he was able to be creative. And he was an incredibly creative person.

How did the wall outside Sound Solutions on the corner of Sunset Blvd. and Fountain end up as the Figure 8 cover?

I grew up in the Silver Lake area and went to junior high down the street from the Sound Solutions wall. I came up with the idea of using the weird murals on Sunset that I'd been obsessing over since I was little. It was the ugliest mural I'd ever seen, and eventually the most beautiful because I looked at it almost everyday.

So I took Polaroids of a bunch of murals up and down Sunset Boulevard, and I'd always loved that photo of Nick Drake leaning against a brick wall looking down the street while a blurred picture of a girl runs by. I said at a meeting with Elliott, "What if you're unaware of the color around you, and you're just walking through or leaning against the wall, and you don't realize how electric it is?" And he was, like, "I love that idea."

He was really into it being like a journey through this part of L.A. He was really falling in love with L.A. at that time. Because he came from Texas and then Portland, which at the time was famous for hating L.A. … the punk side of him decided to love L.A.

How much of him was a subject, and how much of him was a collaborator?

He was definitely both. He was a muse for me. And I've found with some of my favorite subjects, I'll start saying, "What if we do …" and they finish my sentence.

He's not what you'd consider traditionally handsome, but your photos have a way of bringing out his sex appeal …

He was sexy. There were a lot of girls he was trying to get rid of by the end of the night! The thing is, when I photograph someone who has a face that's accepted by society as beautiful, then we have a real problem, because no one believes that person could write a song or a book or a poem or a painting. They are treated by society as, "No, you're supposed to be the sculpture that I stare at. You are David." It's a much bigger challenge to make someone traditionally beautiful, male or female, look like they have had a hard day or could write a song about a broken heart.

With someone who can look very ugly and very beautiful, it transforms into a beautiful moment. I think when you look at a photo of Elliott, where you wonder, "Why am I attracted to this person who doesn't fit into my weird, stupid list of what is attractive to me?" you realize that none of it matters. It's all about chemistry and electricity. It's not perfection. Perfection is the problem.

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You photographed him playing the piano and writing. What was it like to see the music being created?

Well, I have to admit I never stopped being a fan, and every time I saw him play and I was allowed to be that close, I was moved to tears. There was always something that felt temporary about him. I don't want to seem morbid, but when you feel that way around some people, it's, like: Catch it now and remember this moment. This may never happen again.

The mythology that surrounds Elliott now includes you. How do you see that role?

It's a little conflicting because there were people who really tried to claim some sort of ownership over his empire or history. I hesitate to agree with you on that. But the responsibility that I feel is as his friend -- to make sure the things I remember are remembered and that he's not a one-dimensional, depressed, sad person. He was a hard-working artist who was searching and hunting for inspiration and answers.

I made a decision a long time ago not to be the type of photographer who documents someone's demise. Everybody who does drugs changes. No matter how original they were -- Elliott being one of the most original people I'd ever met -- you become just like everybody else. Those drugs are more powerful than you. There is nothing original about you. They all behave the same. It's the great unifier. And we mourn the loss of someone's originality as well as our friend. And we lick our wounds when we realize that it doesn't matter how much someone loves you, they're going to behave like every other person who is under the power of a drug. … It all ends up the same: They're either dead or the walking dead.

It seems like you and many others who knew Elliott are still working it out. Are you?

Of course. I mean, he died on my birthday, which has nothing to do with me, but every time it rolls around it's like … I'm still getting over the shock of thinking someone was calling to wish me a happy birthday and they were calling to tell me that Elliott was dead. And then I think to myself, "Oh, you asshole, it has nothing to do with you. Why are you making such a big deal every birthday?" But it still gets under my skin. And most of his friends had to say goodbye twice -- the first time when they had to separate themselves from him, and the second time when he actually died.

And then all of us went through this other problem where we were really, really into his music and couldn't listen to it for a while because it was so painful. But at one point, I resolved to not put his music in a box with him and make new memories. I forced myself to listen to it. I think eventually it will bring happy memories. For me, I have a lot of photos, and that was my therapy. I had to go through them. I still have to look at them. And sometimes I feel him laughing or I have some evidence of a great day. I think a lot of people -- rightly so -- have trouble remembering those great days or wondering if they were real. And they were. He really did care about the people he cared about. I met some of the most wonderful people through him. He had great taste in humans when he was doing well.

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When you drive by the Figure 8 wall now, does it make you pause?

It's a little weird, mostly because it's repainted wrong. And it's also something that was mine until I made it very public. But when someone I really respect sends me a photo of themselves in front of it, then I really feel lucky that some strange childhood memory of mine became important to his fans. I'm glad his fans have a place to celebrate him, but it's a weird mix for me.

In putting together the book, you included conversations with fellow musicians like Beck and Ben Gibbard along with friends and associates. What was that process like for you?

I really treasured those conversations. Hearing those stories was like visiting Elliott. I remembered why was I so smitten with this human being.

For those who never got to seem him perform live, what was an Elliott Smith show like?

It was an indescribable experience. The energy he created -- it was very rare for someone to sit with a guitar and quiet a whole f---in' bar or theater eventually. That quiet was electric. I've never seen shows like that. That's what my dad says happened in the '60s the first time he saw Jimi Hendrix.

It's been said that Elliott struggled with fame, and here we are now, and he's more famous than ever ...

I think that's misunderstood. He lost his anonymity. Here's a guy who goes out at night and writes great poetry on napkins or receipts or trash, and the more famous you get, the harder it is to work that way. He did some of his writing at home, but a lot of it was out, talking, observing people, thinking, writing. It gets harder and harder to do that when you're interrupted a lot for less valid reasons than someone wanting to know who you are. So I think that was a struggle for him. But I believe he wanted people to hear his music. He didn't want to bury it; he wanted it to be heard. He just didn't want to do stupid promotional things that made him feel cheap.

And maybe he wasn't always in the mood to perform, but he seemed to really love his audience most of the time and made them feel loved. He was never a snake oil salesman. Elliott had his problems, but he was never insecure about his music. He was very confident about it and exploratory and was never done searching.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin; @autumndewilde