Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith

Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith

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by William Todd Schultz

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Elliott Smith was one of the most gifted songwriters of the nineties, adored by worshipful 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 almost self-engineered. Smith died violently in Los Angeles in 2003,


Elliott Smith was one of the most gifted songwriters of the nineties, adored by worshipful 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 almost self-engineered. Smith died violently in Los Angeles in 2003, under what some believe to be questionable circumstances, of a single fatal stab wound 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: lonely, lovelorn, frustrated, fighting until he could fight no more. And yet, although his achingly 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, lovers, bandmates, 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 an indispensable examination of his life and legacy, both for Smith's legions of fans as well as readers still discovering his songbook.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Smith's violent death in 2003 cemented the still-enduring popular concept of the tortured artist and Smith as one who crafted songs of intense self-reflection and beauty. Here Schultz (An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus) provides plenty of details about Smith's downfall but also seeks to show a fuller picture by exploring his upbringing in Texas, intellectual influences, and development as a songwriter. Schultz isn't shy about labeling Smith as a genius, and, as a result, is at times overly florid and effusive in praise. Yet he remains persuasive in describing how Smith's sensitivity, honesty, and artistic drive had an uncommon effect upon those around him, even as he battled with drug addiction and memories of emotional abuse that occurred when he was a child. Even better is Schultz's analysis of Smith's lyrics and music, which establishes common threads and exposes surprises across the songwriter's body of work. The result is an admirably well-written biography with much to offer. VERDICT This title is essential for fans of Smith but is more than worthwhile for any pop music fan.—Chris Martin, North Dakota State Univ. Libs., Fargo
Publishers Weekly
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. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

“[Schultz] has obviously internalized Smith's work and honors its spirit through precise, descriptive notes and observations... [It's a portrait] as heartbreaking and well-crafted as one of Elliott Smith's songs.” —Los Angeles Times

“In Torment Saint, [Schultz] has written his own kind of love song--an account of Smith's life that does full justice to his memory and the impressive legacy of his art... Both a persuasive reckoning with Elliott's inner demons and--much more important--a full appreciation, and celebration, of his undeniable genius.” —Rhett Miller, Bookforum

Torment Saint will likely go down as the definitive biography of the singer/songwriter... Schultz uncovers a great deal of new information that further humanizes [Smith]... [It's] a full portrait of a troubled man who made beautiful music and left us far too soon.” —Paste

Torment Saint is a highly readable, headlong dive into the far end of a tormented artist's head space. It's a cloudy, gray place at times, but even the saddest, darkest moments contain a beautiful silver lining.” —Willamette Week

“Persuasive... Exposes surprises across the songwriter's body of work... Essential for fans of Smith [but] more than worthwhile for any pop music fan.” —Library Journal

“Schultz brings to his work a deep understanding of how inner and outer landscapes can affect unique and sensitive artists... But no matter how dark Smith's story gets, Schultz never loses sight of the beauty of his music.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Fans of Smith's ethereal music will appreciate this book.” —Booklist Online

“Elliott Smith, whose soul presides over the lives of melancholy indie rockers, gets the wake song he deserves in William Todd Schultz's Torment Saint.” —Vanity Fair

Torment Saint is the most comprehensive and detailed account of the life of America's most under-heralded musical talent.” —

“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

Kirkus Reviews
Heavy psychological examination of the life of melancholic indie-rock troubadour Smith. Published to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Smith's tragic suicide, "psychobiographer" Schultz (An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus, 2011, etc.), known for his analytical acumen in exposing the inner lives of artists like Truman Capote and Diane Arbus, gives the same head-shrinker treatment to the long-lamented singer/songwriter. Smith is probably best known for his melancholic song "Miss Misery," used in the Academy Award–winning film Good Will Hunting. Yet he was such an introverted, enigmatic figure that even the hundreds of hours of interviews Schultz conducted with friends, loved ones and acquaintances still barely make a dent into what made Smith tick and what made him ultimately take his own life. The author traces Smith's troubles ostensibly back to childhood and vague hints of emotional abuse at the hands of his stepfather. Schultz skillfully interprets Smith's laconic quotes and makes broader interpretations of how his thought processes work. The author ably covers Smith's childhood growing up in Texas and Portland, Ore., through his high school and Hampshire College years, his initial brushes with midlevel fame in Heatmiser and then his bigger success as a solo artist. In the end, however, Smith's descent into drug addiction and ever-increasing depression doesn't seem too far removed from the same morbid sensibility and inability to come to terms with fame that drove Kurt Cobain to suicide. Although Smith can certainly be a sympathetic figure, by the final chapter, readers are no closer to Smith psychologically. What we are left with, however, is the unpleasant fact that he willfully dragged his friends and girlfriends through his own empty existential hell, which isn't exactly a redeeming quality. A well-researched biography in which the subject still remains elusive.

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Bloomsbury USA
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Meet 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:

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Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith 1.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have been a fan of Elliott Smith since I saw him perform "Waltz #2 (XO)" on Saturday Night Live in the 90's (Lucy Lawless was hosting and Sean Combs still went by the name Puff Daddy). I have every Elliott and Heatmiser album along with having read both biographies by DeWilde and Nugent, respectively, and LeMay's take on the XO album in 33 1/3. In each of those, I have found truth and wisdom to a degree, but I am having trouble doing so with Schultz's work. Nugent treats his work as a log of his pilgrimage to places Smith was from or been to. Nugent even comes to conclusions, but alerts that he is coming to his own conclusions. He is a fan and has ethical appeal. LeMay alerts us to his original view of Smith, giving his perceptions before alerting us to the detailed background behind the XO album. It is very well researched and he shows us how the lyrics translate into Smith's life, a tactic that Nugent employed as well. He disliked Smith, but became a fan. Again, there is ethical appeal. DeWilde, as we know, was the director of Smith's music video for the song "Son of Sam." She has the work connection to Smith as well as a friend. She interviews friends, family, and people who were inspired by Smith's work. DeWilde even leaves the reader with a CD of an unreleased live set. Her book is dripping with ethical appeal. Schultz, coming to the game ten years after the death of Smith, has a hard row to hoe. He has to write on a topic that has been spoken of many times before, interview people that either don't want to be interviewed or have not credible information about a nearly mythic figure, and ,above all else, this work must be original. Schultz takes a note out of the work of LeMay and Nugent by alternating between narrative and discussion of lyrics; however, he does not do it as well as LeMay or Nugent. Schultz, needing originality and credibility, goes to the one source that nobody has thought to look: Jennifer Chiba (the woman that locked herself in bathroom crying for hours while Smith misspelled his own name on his suicide note before stabbing himself twice in the chest...SUSPICIOUS). While I give Schultz props for this bold move, it was also a slap in the face as a fan considering how she is the primary source for the bulk of the information provided and, when discussing home life, Ashley Welch, Elliott's sister, is not interviewed. Instead, Chiba delivers the majority of info on Smith's childhood that she had not been part of. Just throwing this out there, nobody would believe a biography on John Lennon or J.D. Salinger if the primary source of the information came from Mark David Chapman rather than Colleen, Yoko, or Paul (respectively). The only originality that Schultz provides to us are a few new pictures and a few minor quotes from high school friends. While I give the man kudos for attempting to tackle such an important subject, his work paled in comparison to that of his predecessors. If you want enjoyment that is honest, seek out DeWilde, LeMay, and Nugent instead.
denisof More than 1 year ago
That's it. This IS a product. Tedious product with a ridiculous title. It was allegedly written with "LOVE" and "ADMIRATION", but the result is mediocre and biased. Elliott Smith deserves much better. Nugent only had a few months and he did a better job. Humility matters, when you choose Elliott Smith a a subject. Would-be biographers, the definitive bio remains to be written.
stee_doc More than 1 year ago
"one of the most gifted songwriters of the 90s!" talk about damning with faint praise. really, we don't want to hear your opinions - find some other dead celebrity to write about will you?