Not many people nowadays are aware of singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. You may have heard a bit of his music in a clever reference on the hit animated series Rick and Morty, or you may remember his Oscar-nominated song “Miss Misery” from the movie Good Will Hunting.
Regardless, the whispery, thoughtful-minded musician came to prominence in the 1990s and, like so many other artists, struggled with substance abuse and depression. After garnering critical and public attention with “Miss Misery,” Smith experienced the downside of fame in the form of heroin addiction.
By 2003, Smith was dead.
On October 21, 2003, while at his home in Echo Park, California, Smith had suffered two stab wounds to the chest. Paramedics arrived on the scene and took Smith to a nearby hospital. After having two lacerations to the heart surgically repaired, Smith was pronounced dead.
At the scene was Smith’s live-in girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba. She told police that the two of them were having an argument when she locked herself in the bathroom to take a shower. When she emerged, she found her boyfriend with a knife in his chest. She told police that she pulled the knife out and called 911 immediately.
During questioning, Jennifer pointed out a ‘Post-It’ note that appeared to be a suicide note left by Smith. She told detectives that she recognized the handwriting to be Smith’s and had not noticed it earlier. It read: “I’m so sorry-love, Elliott God forgive me.”
Jennifer went on to explain that Smith suffered from depression and drug addiction and that he mentioned suicide to her in passing and in his songs. Smith had a history of suicidal attempts and referenced it extensively in his lyrics.
In an autopsy report, however, the manner of death is more uncertain. In an official opinion written by deputy medical examiner Lisa Scheinin, “The mode of death is undetermined at this time.”
“While his history of depression is compatible with suicide, and the location and direction of the stab wounds consistent with self-infliction, several aspects of the circumstances are atypical of suicide and raise the possibility of homicide.”
“These include the absence of hesitation wounds, stabbing through clothing, and the presence of small incised wounds on the right arm and left hand. Additionally, the girlfriend’s reported removal of the knife and subsequent refusal to speak with detectives are all of concern.”
“Since a complete knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the stabbing is lacking, the mode will remain undetermined until such time as sufficient additional information becomes available.”
A more extensive autopsy report can be viewed here. No illegal substances or alcohol were found in Smith’s system at the time of death. There were prescribed levels of antidepressant, anxiolytic, and ADHD medications found in his system, including Clonazepam, Mirtazapine, Atomoxetine, and Amphetamine.
The investigation is technically ongoing, but it does not appear that police are investigating the case.
Since his death, many artists have paid him tribute. An album was released posthumously. His reputation grew enormously in the immediate aftermath but soon faded from memory amongst the masses.
To this day, artists will still name Smith as a major influence on their artistry. According to Guardian contributor Alexis Petridis in a 2004 article, “Plenty of folksy singer-songwriters have a reputation for making introspective, melancholy music, but none quite like Smith’s.”