The year was 1998. The 70th Academy Awards were being held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, and as Madonna approached the podium to hand out the Oscar for Best Original Song, it seemed a given that one of the most unstoppable and popular celluloid anthems of all time, Celine Dion's Titanic megahit "My Heart Will Go On," would take the prize. And of course, it did. But another, very un-Celine-like singer-songwriter made an impression that evening, performing his own nominated underdog song, "Miss Misery."
His name was Elliott Smith. And a little more than five years after this moment, on October 21, 2003, he would be dead, at age 34. But the heart of Elliott's music still goes on, a decade later.
Elliott, who'd first come to underground fame as a co-founder of the Portland alt-rock band Heatmiser before striking out on his own, had gotten his big break when fellow Oregon indie icon Gus Van Sant enlisted him to contribute six songs to the soundtrack of Good Will Hunting. This unusual partnership — which took place in an era long before hipster soundtracks (think Garden State, Twilight) became the norm or indie duo the Swell Season actually won a Best Song Oscar for their Once ballad "Falling Slowly" — was likened by critics to Simon & Garfunkel's iconic soundtrack for The Graduate. But despite Good Will Hunting's success (the film's Robin Williams won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that night), most of America was still unfamiliar with Elliott's genius. This was by far the largest audience he'd ever faced.
Elliott's performance must have thrown many spectators, both at home and inside the Shrine, for a loop. On a night dominated by Titanic's more-is-more aesthetic, when Celine Dion performed with a full orchestra amid billowing dry-ice clouds, this unassuming, nervous guy in a rumpled suit (which looked like the result of another sort of Goodwill hunting, so to speak), standing alone onstage with nothing but an acoustic guitar, seemed extremely out of place. Elliott reportedly hadn't even wanted to appear on the telecast, but only agreed to do so after the Oscars' producers informed him that if he didn't, they'd book another artist to sing "Miss Misery" instead. Thankfully, Elliott showed up and performed, providing a refreshing antidote to the rest of the night's bombast and a truly unique pop-culture moment.
Elliott later told Under the Radar of the surreal experience: "[Celine] was really sweet, which has made it impossible for me to dislike Celine Dion anymore. Even though I can't stand the music that she makes — with all due respect, I don't like it much at all — but she herself was very, very nice. She asked me if I was nervous, and I said, 'Yeah,' and she was like, 'That's good, because you get your adrenaline going, and it'll make your song better. It's a beautiful song.' Then she gave me a big hug."
Elliott seemed uncomfortable with his elevated post-Oscars profile ("I went from being an anomalistic indie person to 'Oscar Guy.' And I didn't really like it," he told the Phoenix New Times), but like it or not, it seemed he'd finally hit the big time, and that his gorgeous, melancholy music was about to get the mainstream exposure it deserved. Elliott signed to DreamWorks Records and a few months after the Oscars released his fourth studio album, XO, which boasted a more orchestral baroque-pop sound compared to his previous efforts for the smaller Kill Rock Stars label. But it still turned out that Elliott's Oscars moment would be his commercial career peak. XO did go on to be his best-selling album, but it still only sold about 360,000 copies; its follow-up two years later, Figure 8, sold roughly 265,000. And Figure 8 would be the last record that Elliott would release in his lifetime.
The three and a half years between Figure 8 and Elliott's death were tragic and troubled ones. Elliott had always been startlingly frank about his struggles with depression, addiction, and suicidal thoughts, in both his interviews and his lyrics. However, during this time his problems worsened, resulting in aborted recording sessions, aborted rehab attempts, shambolic concert performances, and his participation in a brawl at a Flaming Lips/Beck concert that led to his arrest. However, Elliott's devoted fans waited patiently, hoping he would eventually return to what he did best: making magical, heart-sleeved, exquisitely fragile music.
And then, on October 21, 2003, Elliott died from two stab wounds to the chest. While his death was originally considered a suicide, the official autopsy report released two months later left open the question of possible homicide. Elliott's girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, told police that she and Elliott had had an argument, that he had stabbed himself while she was in the bathroom, and that she had pulled the knife out of his chest before calling 911. A possible suicide note in Elliott and Jennifer's Los Angeles apartment, written on a Post-It, read: "I'm so sorry — love, Elliott. God forgive me."
Mysteries surounding Elliott's death persist to this day, but another unanswered question is: Just how much more amazing music did Elliott have in him — music his fans will never get the chance to hear? A 2004 posthumous album of unfinished works, From a Basement on a Hill, didn't satisfyingly answer that question, either.
Elliott never won the awards — Academy or otherwise — that he deserved during his lifetime. But he remains a much-worshipped figure in indie rock to this day. The psychedelic Silver Lake mural featured on his Figure 8 album cover has become a shrine to his memory (on what would have been his 42nd birthday, fans stenciled a portrait of Elliott on the wall), and various artists have covered his achingly lovely songs, including Pearl Jam, Ben Folds, Third Eye Blind, Brad Mehldau, Rhett Miller, Beth Orton, and Pete Yorn. Younger artists have continued to discover his music over the past 10 years, and his influence can be heard in the quiet, mournful music of acts like Ed Sheeran, Band of Horses, Iron & Wine, the National, and Bon Iver.
There will never be total closure when it comes to Elliott Smith's legacy, but if you haven't discovered his sad, beautiful music yet, it's not too late. Below are our picks for his five best songs. To loosely quote his epic ballad "Waltz #2," we're never going to know him now, but we're going to love him anyhow. Rest in peace, Elliott.