Steven "Elliott" Smith

by Adam Hurwitz

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"Miss Misery," a 1996 song that Elliott wrote for the critically acclaimed movie Good Will Hunting. The majority of the soundtrack features Elliott Smith's work, which propelled him to instant (and unwanted) fame.

Elliott Smith's "Needle in the Hay" set to a very fitting scene from the Royal Tenenbaums.

Steven “Elliott” Smith was born on August 6, 1969 in Omaha, Nebraska (Nugent, 2004, p. 9). His thirty-four years, though far too brief, were imbued with the richness of life’s grandest joys, despite his various trials and tribulations. Although his music came to symbolize the manifestation of humans’ innermost anguish, Smith never intended to become an iconic figure. In fact, the very success that allowed the world to experience the emotional rollercoaster that was Elliott Smith’s music (and life), likely lead to his demise.
Shortly after birth, Steven Smith’s mother Bunny Kay Berryman, a music teacher, divorced her husband Gary Smith, a medical student at the University of Nebraska, and moved with her son to Duncanville, Texas, just south of Dallas. Within a few years, Bunny had remarried, to a pious man named Charles Hughes Welch. The two provided disparate amounts of nurture in young Steven’s life. His mother, whose entire family was musically inclined, greatly encouraged his pursuits in that vein. In elementary school he won a contest for an original piano composition. From then on he never stopped playing music. However, Steve had a toxic relationship with his stepfather, who in later years Elliott claimed had physically abused him on numerous occasions. Steve also did not flourish socially in his peer environment, as “it was a Southern town that represented for Smith an attitude to define himself against – one of traditional, redneck masculinity” (Nugent, 2004, p. 18). Everything that Steve Smith grew to value in life was the antithesis of what was mainstream Texan adolescence. Nevertheless, Smith did manage to create a few close bonds with fellow aspiring musicians. It was in Junior High that Steve began expanding his musical tastes; he and his friends listened to everything from the Beatles and Pink Floyd to Rush and the Police. However, after only one semester of high school, Steve Smith decided to move in with his father, a psychiatrist in Portland, Oregon (Nugent, 2004, p. 23).

Smith blamed his move to Oregon on “family problems,” undoubtedly related to the maltreatment perpetrated by his stepfather, but at the time Steve offered minimal detail to his Duncanville friends. Smith had much difficulty with the move, mostly because he felt guilty and worrisome about leaving his mother; yet as was customary for him, he turned to alcohol and music rather than others for support. Portland, however, was a much more comfortable environment for him than Texas. He completed high school with great success, while playing in his first legitimate band called Stranger Than Fiction. After graduating from high school, and sometime before his transition to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, Steven Smith became “Elliott” Smith. Although he never legally changed his name, Elliott thought that “Steve” was too jock sounding, and “Steven” was too bookish (Nugent, 2004, p. 31). The new name at the outset of college signified both Elliott’s search for a consistent identity and a clean severance from his troubled past. “Steve Smith became a specter haunting Elliott Smith, cropping up over and over again in song,” (Nugent, 2004, p. 30). In Amherst, Elliott developed a very close relationship with musician Neil Gust, who would eventually join him back in Portland as part of Heatmiser, the band that put Elliott on the map. In interviews following his death, Neil and Elliott’s other friends from this period all mention his proclivity towards social isolation. Although he had a close-knit group of friends, at times he seemed quite distant, and he always seemed to make people uncomfortable if they didn’t know him well (Nugent, 2004, p. 43).

Educationally, Elliott was exposed to feminist philosophy at Hampshire, which he embraced for some time. However, at some point he began taking pervading social inequalities to heart, viewing himself as the culprit. According to Smith, when he was in college he believed that as “a straight white man” it was “impossible to live [his] life without constantly doing something shitty, whether [he] knew it or not,” (Nugent, 2004, p. 34). He intensely hated being in this category of people, and constantly ruminated over what damage he was doing society. In fact, Elliot’s belief that his existence as a straight white man doomed him to perpetuate injustice against disadvantaged groups almost kept him from adding public performance to his musical repertoire. Although his friends were eventually able to convince him to continue pursuing his passion, Benjamin Nugent (2004) suggests that this outlook is what drove him away from the sociopolitical realm of music (p. 46). Unlike the majority of successful alternative rock musicians at the time (Kurt Cobain, Trent Reznor), who directed their own pain and suffering outward against the institutional and authoritative forces pressing down on them, Elliott wanted to shine a light on his own emotions and in his own words, “show what it’s like to be a person” (Nugent, 2004, p. 4). Throughout the entirety of his career with the marginally successful punk band Heatmiser, Elliott recorded his own music privately, solely in order to release his pent-up creativity. Meanwhile, in public Elliott adopted a tough punk personality, delivering his anger and depression through hardcore lyrics and music (Nugent, 2004, p. 65).

After several years in Portland in the early 90s with Heatmiser, Elliott was finally persuaded by his girlfriend at the time, and longtime Heatmiser manager JJ Gonson, to allow label executives to listen to his private solo recordings. Elliott had never intended for these songs to be heard by anyone besides his close friends, and as a result his first album Roman Candles is perhaps his most unabashedly personal. Despite his creative outlet, Elliott Smith was a chronically morose individual, and throughout his life, when his prescription depression medications failed him, he increasingly turned towards self-medicating. Unfortunately, this resulted in a vicious cycle of depression followed by alcohol and drug abuse, followed by deeper depression and so on (Nugent, 2004, p. 53).

After the 1995 release of Elliott Smith’s second, self-titled solo album, the tension and growing disconnect between bandmembers of Heatmiser and Elliott proved too much to handle, and the band decided to break up (Kagler, 2003). The following year, film director and fellow Portland native Gus Van Sant convinced Smith to contribute music to his upcoming film Good Will Hunting, which went on to be nominated for nine Academy Awards and win two. This immediately thrust Elliott Smith into the spotlight, transforming his music from something well known in certain social spheres to a ubiquitous force. His new album Either/Or was released in 1997, and at the Oscars the following year, Elliott realized his famous live performance of “Miss Misery,” the song he composed for Good Will Hunting. Unfortunately, Smith was never prepared to deal his explosion of stardom between ’96 and ‘99. After his 1998 Oscars performance, DreamWorks Records bought out his contract and began to widely publicize the release of his fourth album XO (Nugent, 2004, p. 103). Smith specifically resented a lot of the attention he got as a result of his music’s popularity. In a March 2003 interview, shortly before committing suicide, Smith said:

I still don't particularly like hanging out with famous folks much, because it's too weird. Their lives are fucked up because they're famous folks, so conversation with them tends to get all strange. I don't know if there is any way of having constant attention focused on you without your life becoming totally bizarre one way or another. I never think about the Oscar thing anymore, except for the fact that it comes up in interviews. (Kagler, 2003)

Even worse, Elliott internalized the problems he had with being a celebrity, resulting in the worst depressive symptoms of his life, increased dependency on drugs, and his eventual suicide.

When Smith moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn in 1999, his mental and physical state were deteriorating quite rapidly. His addictions to alcohol and prescription pain-killers were running rampant. Combining these addictions with his already severe depression, Smith began showing signs of paranoia. Figure 8 [2000] was the final album he released before his death. At the time, Elliott was in and out of drug rehab constantly, and despite efforts to record another album in 2002/2003, the posthumously released From a Basement on the Hill, his debilitated state stalled the project almost entirely (Nugent, 2004, p. 164). Even whilst battling his own personal tribulations, Smith used his money and fame in the only way he knew how: to help others. He started a foundation for abused children and played concerts whose proceeds benefitted clean needle programs in order to prevent the spread of HIV among drug users (Kager, 2003).

On October 21, 2003, while his girlfriend Jennifer Chiba was in the bathroom, Elliott Smith was stabbed twice in the chest. The Los Angeles Police Department originally determined it a clear-cut suicide, but some doubts had been expressed in the ensuing months. Either way, Elliott had wanted his life to end for many years, and now this wish is a reality (Nugent, 2004, p. 214).

Trait Perspective
The view of personality as consisting of several unchanging orientations towards the world has long been a dominating paradigm in personality psychology. Carl Jung believed that the majority of individuals’ behaviors could be explained by how they are positioned with respect to two broad attitudes and four smaller functions. The two general attitudes proffered by Jung were introversion and extroversion, while the functions that fall below are intuiting, sensing, thinking, and feeling. This trait outline has been transformed into a modern-day personality test called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. In addition to being classified as either introverts or extroverts, individuals taking this test fall somewhere along three continua. The Sensation-Intuition Scale measures tendencies towards either realism or imagination, the Thinking-Feeling Scale measures tendencies towards logical objectivism or personal subjectivism, and the Judgment-Perception Scale measures tendencies towards evaluating or perceiving things (Friedman & Schustack, 2009, p. 259). If Elliott Smith had taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, he more than likely would have been an intuitive-feeling-perceiver.

Although the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was born out of Carl Jung’s theory, the most well-regarded trait approach to personality hinges upon the use of factor analysis in order to identify a small number of salient characteristics responsible for governing behavior. This technique, championed by Gordon Allport and R. B. Cattell, first measures hundreds of pre-defined personality adjectives in people. Then, the factor analysis takes place, whereby the measures are compared and grouped, and only the characteristics that are statistically distinct from one another remain. As a result, trait perspective is directed by induction. That is, no theory exists that researchers are attempting to validate. They simply start with raw data, and analyze it until it constitutes a reasonable description of personality. Cattell believed there are sixteen distinct traits that can be used to predict future behavior, whereas current psychologists generally agree to the validity of the Big Five traits (OCEAN - Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) (Friedman & Schustack, 2009, p. 267).

Elliott Smith, given his creativity and ability to live in various disparate environments, would be considered high in Openness to experience. Also, since his earliest years in Dallas, his neuroticism was always fairly high, prone as he was to bouts of depression and emotional instability. His impulsivity and tendency to act on a whim (a lot of times resulting in drug usage and erratic behavior) would place him low on conscientiousness. For extroversion and agreeableness, the two most social traits of the Big Five, we must look at perspectives of those who knew Elliott best. Todd Patrick, a club promoter in Portland who had many dealings with Smith said his social reputation was strange because “He was regarded as an eccentric guy, a very standoffish person, just painfully shy. But he also wore his emotions on his sleeve…Because…he would successfully communicate his feelings and stuff like that, people would get to know him, they’d know how he was feeling,” (Nugent, 2004, p. 60). This reiterates comments made by Elliott’s closest friends at Hampshire College, who all agree that he made many people uncomfortable if they didn’t know him well. Smith’s reluctance to engage in social interaction definitely qualified him as an introvert, but his agreeableness rating is slightly more complex. Due to the overpowering visibility of his shyness, those who did not know him might have perceived him as a selfish person; thus, to random strangers, Elliott Smith may have been low on agreeability. However, as this quote suggests, Elliott was very emotionally expressive with his friends, all of whom say he was an extremely caring, sensitive individual. As a result, in comfortable social contexts, Smith was no doubt highly agreeable.

Hans Eysenck had an even simpler view of personality, as consisting of three biologically predetermined systems: extroversion, neuroticism and psychoticism. Defined as a “tendency toward psychopathology,” Elliott Smith would have rated highly in the psychoticism category, considering his chronic depressive symptoms (Huntington, 2011). And, as previously stated, his behaviors indicate that he was low on extroversion and high in neuroticism.

In accordance with these stable traits given to Elliott Smith, one would expect him to act fairly consistently regardless of the environmental context. It is difficult to do a trait-analysis after the fact, because these characteristics are intended to predict future behavior (of which there obviously is none for the late Elliott Smith). However, if these analyses were carried out during Smith’s lifetime, many of his behaviors could have been accounted for. For example, his high neuroticism and low conscientiousness may have been contributing factors in his substance abuse.

How the American public viewed the person of Elliott Smith is definitely not how he saw himself, or even how his close friends saw him. That is to say, his unique personality traits are best analyzed based on his behavior in all situations with all kinds of people. Thus, information from those he was closest with provides a deeper understanding of what stable characteristics may have contributed to Smith’s lifelong conduct. According to Nugent (2004), “He wasn’t the stricken cartoon depressive people thought he was; he was a wit, a philosopher, and a workhorse. But he was also and Orpheus, happy to explore the depths” (p. 2).

Humanist/Existentialist Perspective
Made famous by names like Kierkegaard, Nietzche, Sartre, and Camus, existentialist philosophy, which has been applied to psychology in the form of humanism, emphasizes the importance of human free will. Generally an atheistic outlook, existentialism states that there exists no inherent meaning to life, but that individuals must create their own meaning through action. Furthermore, when applied to human behavior, existentialism becomes humanism, which defines our existence in terms of our relationships with others and our own personal responsibility (Huntington, 2011). To view Elliott Smith’s life from an existentialist lens is quite effortless, because at some point after high school, Elliott came to embrace his own version of existentialism.

Although Elliott Smith was reared in an intensely religious environment, he became alienate by it and eventually turn to an existentialist outlook on life. “While the role Smith played for so many people like me was companion in misery, Smith recoiled from articles that suggested he might be a poster boy for depression, arguing that the sadness in his words was necessary for making the happiness meaningful” (Nugent, 2004, p. 3). This belief – that happiness can only be fully appreciated once the individual also understands sadness – is a maxim that radiates existentialism. Existentialist thinkers place great stake in subjective experiences or phenomena; they are regarded to be the essence of reality. Thus, people should focus on their own emotions and interpretations of the world, just as Elliott did within the vast majority of his recordings.

Smith “wrote songs that aimed, in his words, ‘to show what it’s like to be a person’,” as well as songs that contained “snapshots of apparently mundane but meaningful moments from characters’ lives” (Nugent, 2004, p. 58). For example, in the song called “All Cleaned Out,” Smith sings: “Here comes your pride and joy / The comic little drunk you call your boy / Making everybody smile / Who takes your pretty plan / And then becomes a disappearing man / After a little while” (Smith, 1997). Here he expresses concerns that when he fails to live up to other peoples’ expectations of him, he will be judged harshly, sending him into a depressive alcoholism. Despite these profoundly negative feelings, a humanist therapist like Carl Rogers would encourage expression of such emotions. Through unconditional positivity and a supportive understanding of the client, Rogers would create ideal conditions to foster the realization that all individuals are accorded agency in their lives (Friedman & Schustack, 2009, p. 302). Hopefully in this case Elliott Smith would see that he could determine the course of his own life through personal responsibility, and that other peoples’ conceptions of him lack gravity. Furthermore, according to biographer Benjamin Nugent (2004), “The ‘needle in the hay’ could be just as much a metaphor for the painful places in Smith’s psyche as a metaphor for heroin – a needle in a hay stack is a sharp object concealed from sight that irritates from within, like a bullet that stays lodged in the body years after a gunfight,” (p. 70). And according to Elliot Smith himself, “…it’s not about drugs. It’s a different angle or topical way of talking about things. Like dependency and mixed feelings about your attachment” (Nugent, 2004, p. 71). For Smith, even when broaching the darkest subjects (like heroin abuse), all of his anguish comes from relationship problems. Just like an existential humanist, Elliott placed supreme importance in the relationships he had with other people. All of his friends described him as a sensitive, considerate companion who was deeply concerned with others’ well-being (perhaps at the expense of his own well-being).

Elliott Smith’s life struggles can also be viewed from the framework of Erich Fromm’s dialectical humanism. Dialectical humanism states that unhappiness in life stems from the perpetual struggle between internal biological drives and the constraints imposed on the individual by society (Friedman & Schustack, 2009, p. 299). In his biography, a discussion about Smith’s usage of drug metaphors yields the interpretation that his songs are “…perhaps less concerned with the experience of being a junkie than with Smith’s latent potential for self-destruction, his buried, unwanted impulses,” (Nugent, 2004, p. 70). Elliott’s impulses are presumably in direct confrontation with the behaviors that society demands of him. His behavior – such as introversion and alcohol abuse – was often stigmatized and led Elliott to feel that he was being judged even more harshly than he was. And if anyone dares to doubt the prevalence of existentialism in Elliott Smith’s worldview, look no further than the title of his third solo album, Either/Or [1995], which he took from Søren Kierkegaard’s work of the same name.

My main issue with the trait approach to personality is that it attempts to categorize people, ranking them in certain characteristics compared with other people. I believe the only way to truly understand an individual is through a deep idographic analysis, just as Gordon Allport emphasized in his line of personality trait research. Filling out a bevy of survey questions is a grossly insufficient method of determining how someone will act in the future, because it lacks so much pertinent personal information (family background, biographical history, behavioral trends/changes over time, et cetera). Also, these traits are just a collection of adjectives that describe one’s behavior in the past, and purport to predict future outcomes. Yet, in my opinion, human behavior is not simply a function of a few stable dispositions held by an individual, isolated from the rest of the world. Behavior evolves in response to different stressors and can be extremely erratic at times. The trait and existentialist/humanist approaches severely neglect the environment’s role on shaping individuals’ behaviors. For example, Elliott Smith may have had a reserved disposition from birth (slightly introverted), but the social isolation he experienced during his youth may have exacerbated these inclinations. Also, when one examines the physical abuse he experienced from his stepfather in combination with the apparent lack of support systems at a young age, it is possible to see why Smith never overcame his predilection for bottling up his anger and sadness.

One of existentialism’s greatest strengths, the priority it gives to free will, could also be one of its weaknesses. Although belief in an internal locus of control allows individuals to better direct the course of their own lives, it might overlook certain societal constraints that impact a person’s behavior. Existentialists do say that the individual can surpass these constraints by paying no mind to them and simply acting as he/she feels is best. However, this assumes that the individual accepts all consequences associated with doing so. For instance, to ignore social norms is likely to alienate everyone who is part of the same social environment. The repercussions of social segregation or stigmatization would be detrimental. This might be possible in a theoretical world, but I find this aspect of existentialism to be entirely impractical in the real world.

Friedman, H. S., & Schustack, M. W. (2009). Personality: Classic theories and modern research (4. ed.). Boston, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon.
Huntington, A. (2011, March 30). Ch. 9: Humanist and Existential Aspects of Personality. Psych2301: Personality Psychology. Lecture conducted at University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA.

Kagler, M. (2003, March 20). Elliott Smith: Better Off Than Dead. Under the Radar: Indie Music Magazine. Retrieved April 16, 2011, from
Nugent, B. (2004). Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing. Cambridge, Mass: Da Capo Press.
Smith, E. (1997). All Cleaned Out. On New Moon. Olympia, Washington: Kill Rock Stars. (May 8, 2007).