When, on October 21, 2003, Elliott Smith, the singer-songwriter, was found dead after an apparent suicide, very few were surprised. It wasn’t like he hadn’t warned them in his music, wasn’t like he hadn’t spoken about it over and over. It was the bizarre nature of the suicide that shocked – a double, self-inflicted stab wound to the chest, once through the heart, with a kitchen knife.
He had been a heroin junkie who had graduated to crack.
He had struggled with depression, spoken of having been abused by his stepfather and admitted he was a “bad alcoholic” who had once ran off the edge of a cliff while drunk but had landed in a tree, which had saved his life.
His drug use marked his life and provided a track of how he was coping with living. He did not court fame, and did not accept it when it was thrust his way after his song, Miss Misery, was nominated for an Oscar, one of four songs he had provided for the soundtrack of Good Will Hunting. He did not want to appear on stage at the Oscar ceremony, but was apparently given an ultimatum: do the song live or we’ll get someone else to sing it on stage. He lost to My Heart will Go On, the Celine Dion-sung theme tune to Titanic. He didn’t seem to mind losing, he thought famous people were “weird”.
At 4.50am (SA time) on Thursday morning, Lance Armstrong, a famous man Smith would have thought very weird, sent out a tweet that had no words of wisdom nor condemnation, just a link. It was to Smith’s song Coming up Roses.
There is some discussion as to the exact meaning of this song, with some believing it to be about a girl addicted to heroin; others think it is about his own use of crystal meth. It was a strange time and a stranger song for Armstrong to tweet the link.
A few hours before, the United States Anti-Doping Agency had released their 220-page report detailing the “Reasoned decision” on the “disqualification and ineligibility” against Armstrong.
He stood accused of being the centre and bully-in-chief of the most sophisticated and intensive doping programme in modern sport.
Thirty minutes before tweeting the YouTube link to Smith’s song, he had posted: “What am I doing tonight? Hanging with my family, unaffected, and thinking about this. http://t.co/7b1XPi8t #onward”.
“This” was Livestrong, the cancer charity of which he is the face, founder and chairman. Coming up Roses is not the song of someone who is just thinking about a charity, nor someone who is unaffected.
If you correlate the lyrics to the situation, Armstrong could be pointing fingers, making a half confession and announcing that he will be seeking revenge on those who he feels have done him an injustice. The line, “your cold white brother alive in your blood” could be a reference to the drugs he and the former teammates shared.
In the comments section under the YouTube link Armstrong posted, the opinion is somewhat divided in favour or against the Texan, mostly, though, against: “Thanks Lance. Did you send me here because Elliott Smith was also a dope fiend?” was one comment; “Hahahaha ... He lulls himself with songs like this? LALALALALLA NOTHING GOING ON LALALALALALA,” posted another.
“I’m a junkyard full of false starts
And I don’t need your permission
To bury my love under this bare lightbulb
The moon is a sickle-cell
I’ll kill you in time
Your cold white brother alive in your blood
Like spun glass in your sore eye
The things that you tell yourself
They’ll kill you in time
Your cold white brother alive in your blood
Spinning in the night sky
While the moon does its division
You’re buried below
And it’s coming up roses everywhere
You’ve gone red roses
So you got in a kind of trouble
That nobody knows
It’s coming up roses everywhere
You’ve gone red roses.”
There are suggestions that at the end of his life, Elliott Smith was clean of drugs.
The coroner’s report after his suicide said there were no illegal substances in his system, just traces of anti-depression and ADD medication.
The coroner reported that “aspects of the circumstances” of Smith’s death were “atypical of suicide and raise the possibility of homicide”.
The stab wounds, it was found, did not match those of a suicide as they pierced through his clothing and there had been none of the “hesitation wounds” typical of a suicide.
His girlfriend at the time, Jennifer Chiba, has been suspected, but nothing has come of it.
When she heard of Smith’s death, Courtney Love, the former girlfriend of Kurt Cobain, called it “the best suicide I ever heard of”.
It would not be a stretch to say that Armstrong believes his trust had been murdered by his former teammates.
It might not also be a stretch that somewhere deep inside, Armstrong did not truly believe that he could hide the dark, deep horror of the fraud forever.
Perhaps he has convinced himself that it did not really happen, or that it was not truly wrong.
To quote Smith, Armstrong has got himself in a “kind of trouble that nobody knows”.
Every day he continues to deny it, the trouble will only get deeper. “The things that you tell yourself, they’ll kill you in time.”
Through Smith Armstrong may have given himself a clue as to the right path to take.