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Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith Hardcover – October 1, 2013

3.8 out of 5 stars 40 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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 Booklist

Elliott Smith is what some call a cult artist. He achieved mainstream fame of sorts when he was nominated for an Academy Award for his song “Miss Misery,” from the film Good Will Hunting, but he has mostly lived his life on the edge in Portland, Oregon. Smith suffered from depression and alcohol and drug addiction, and these topics appear frequently in his music. Schultz’s thorough biography examines Smith’s difficult childhood, his years in numerous bands, and his solo career. He offers thoughtful observations on Smith’s songs, which are notable for their profound melancholy and deep sadness. Before his death in 2003 from a stab wound to his heart, which occurred under mysterious circumstances, Smith was working on a double album. Schultz describes his music as “extraordinarily accomplished,” and Smith himself as sweet and compassionate. “Elliott was very deeply loved by many, many people,” writes Schultz. “The largest mystery of all is why he so often could not believe that.” Fans of Smith’s ethereal music will appreciate this book, published on the tenth anniversary of his untimely death. --June Sawyers

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (October 1, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1608199738
  • ISBN-13: 978-1608199730
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #922,445 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
It seems to me that there are a lot of slanted reviews on here for this book so I'm going to preface mine by admitting that I have no connection to Elliott Smith other than simply being a big fan. And to be fair, I've been a fan since about 1998 and I love his music but that's my only connection to the musician himself. I've no connection to anyone in his life, his circle, his family or to the author. So for what it's worth, this review is coming from a fan of the music and that's where my interests begin and end.

My first impression of this book was the unbearable way Elliott's lyrics were woven into the narrative of the book. Others have mentioned it and it's the most obvious flaw. And unfortunately the one that makes the book tough to take seriously regularly throughout the entirety of it....all the way down to the last chapter.

A pretty typical example:

"Figure 8 also unpacks a conspicuous army-related theme, the generals, sergeants, non-commissioned officers all showing up at different junctures. A sergeant, for instance, breaks the key off in a lock in "Color Bars," pinning Elliott in the place he comes from. Veiled suicide references appear as everyone wants Elliott to ride into the sunset but he battles back, for the moment, declaring, 'I ain't gonna go down," a phrase he was drawn to as a symbol of giving up and losing all hope..." and continues later on with, "He's an army man, ordered to march where he stands, as a "dead enemy" springs and wails in his face."

This type of narrative, literally interpreting Elliott's lyrics and weaving them into the story, continues throughout the book and is, at times, unbearable and very much cringeworthy at times.
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Format: Hardcover
William Todd Schultz biography of Elliott Smith is not particularly definitive, though it at least attempts to fill an obvious void in well-researched accounts of his life; many readers having been unsated by Benjamin Nugent's previous attempt that seemed rushed to publication shortly after Smith's death. One of the key strengths of this book is its supremely fine focus on Smith's early years growing up in Dallas, followed by the move to Portland and his time with Heatmiser. The detail and insight in this first half of the book is captivating, with regard to both the development of the man and his music.

The only drawback in this first half, one which occurs throughout the book, is Schultz's use of lyric snippets from Smith's songs to garnish some particular moment, explicitly referencing which song that lyrics derives from every time this device is employed. This tactic, used far too frequently to retain any charm, quickly begins to grate and distract from the text.

The second half of the book, starting around the release of the self titled album, meditates on that album's preoccupation with heroin by someone who at that point was not a user. This is an intriguing observation, but it also marks the starting point of a narrative shift. The complexity of the subject slowly begins to dilute into that of a tortured genius gradually plummeting towards death. Who constructs this narrative? Schultz is the author, but he is not entirely responsible for this. For one, what Schultz has at his disposal is ultimately sparse. All he can rely is the music, published interviews, and oral histories from friends and collaborators, and then only those willing to share.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As any biographer will tell you, we'll never know everything there is to know about a person. For one thing, human nature is ultimately mysterious. We never know ourselves fully, much less someone else. The problem is compounded when that person is only recently deceased, and most of those who knew him are still here. There are so many reasons sources do not come forward to offer what they know. It's lawsuit bait. It's personal, and it was their life too. If the subject was in any way controversial, the sources are diving right into that charming little hornet's nest.

Then there's that pesky issue of memory getting in the way. Do you really know what you think you know? Did it really go down the way you remember it? Since you're putting it in your own words, wouldn't it be tempting to make yourself look just a teeny bit better? And then there's the last taboo: old Death itself. Nobody wants to dwell on it too much, especially if there is a question concerning the cause. The messier a beloved's end was, the more one wants to find a scapegoat. There are people to this day who believe Mozart was murdered.

Often the biggest obstacle in knowing a person is that person himself. Case in point: Elliott Smith, who put himself out as Mr. Misery, The Saddest Man In The Land, and then resented it that people saw him that way. He would laugh about ways to fail, do a 180 mood swing into volunteering unasked about killing your emotions, you know, with drugs and alcohol, and then go back to laughing... being cut off in the video before concluding "The pendulum swings back and forth."

The controversy over Elliott's death isn't limited to journalists and authors.
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