I was excited to get the opportunity recently to catch a screening of the Elliott Smith documentary Heaven Adores You at the 2014 Portland Reel Music film fest. A pained soul who left the world too soon, Smith is yet another artist whose absence makes our growing adoration for his work bittersweet. And the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death only serve to heighten our interest in his life.
The director was in attendance at the screening and told the audience he’d intended to make a film that would honor Smith’s music and that he intentionally de-emphasized the last year of his life and his death. After the drama and accusations that littered the blogosphere following his death, the film comes as a sort of healing balm to soothe the collective wound and bring the focus on Smith back to the thing that was most dear to him: his music.
I was immediately struck by the Neptunian theme that permeated the film from Smith’s discomfort with live performance but love of writing and recording music, to his decent into drug use, and his persistent cries for help from his friends. One of the hallmarks of his chart is a tight T-Square between his Moon+Ascendant in Taurus, Neptune in Scorpio, and Mercury in Leo in the 4th. Let’s take a look at that more closely, knowing what we do about his life.
Smith’s Taurus Moon at 27° is tightly conjunct his Taurus Ascendant at 29°. That makes me recall a quote from a fan who wrote, “I know that when I saw him being a complete mess on stage last year, I wanted to take him home and take care of him.” (1) You can find similar posts on many Smith fan blogs. With the moon on the Ascendant, Smith couldn’t very well disguise his feelings. They were on display for all to see—and to empathize with—whether he wanted that or not. His vulnerability was a draw, and his fans formed a deep emotional connection to his music. And many experienced that connection as the desire to nurture him.
The musical daemon is evident in Smith’s life from an early age. Coming from a supportive and music-loving family, he began studying piano at age 9. He played in two rock bands in high school, and in college formed the band Heatmiser with classmate Neil Gust. But at some point the band started to feel “too loud” and he turned his focus to more introspective solo work.
From his very first solo performances he connected with his audience in a more profound way than his band ever had. And it wouldn’t be long before he’d be playing what were typically noisy venues to a crowd of young folks sitting on the floor, listening reverently in complete silence. With his Moon on the Ascendant, we can speculate that he felt compelled to express himself emotionally in a way that couldn’t help but be readily visible to others, and that anything short of that wouldn’t feel authentic or meaningful.
The 4th house figures importantly in his chart not only because his Mercury (at 28°) is there in Leo at the apex of the T-Square, but also because his Sun is there at 13° Leo. If you know Smith’s music, you won’t be surprised that he has such a soulful placement for the Sun, which at the time of his birth was literally “under the earth” from his point of view. Using sect, we call this a nocturnal chart, which emphasizes the lunar dimension over the solar. And with the Sun in the 4th, we see also the night, yin, the internal world, coloring and influencing the Sun’s agenda.
Here we find paradox, since the Sun in Leo is inclined to shine, to be seen, to be appreciated, and to be witnessed. But in the 4th we find the motivation to cocoon, to focus on the internal, to go inside. In the documentary, a colleague of Smith’s confirms that he loved being alone in the studio, writing and recording. And that he only begrudgingly accepted the task of touring and giving interviews because that’s what he had to do in order to spend time doing what he loved most.
Some play for the love of the performance, and others for the music alone. Smith was definitely the latter. In what was a stereotypical Elliott Smith moment captured at a live performance, he’s shown stopping “Miss Misery” midstream, admitting that he can’t bear to play it live one more time. As he got further lost in drug use, he was known to play a few songs and then cancel the show altogether. Here we see the challenge in having an internally-driven fourth house sun with the conflicting motivation to share and be seen, as well as the push-pull dynamic of having a difficult T-Square—all three sides of the configuration competing for expression, at odds with each other’s agendas.
Spending quality time contemplating, being creative, lost in the reverie of his own ego impulses, following them wherever they led – these are all healthy expressions of his fourth house sun. Family and roots are also important, and we see in his biography that they left a larger imprint than usual on his life. He credits his strained relationship with his stepfather with much of his psychological pain. And the moves he made around the country relative to his family dynamics (and later his self-chosen clan relationships) were instrumental in shaping his understanding of himself and his music.
As he matured, he could have found solace and healing in seeking out, building and fostering a family that felt supportive. Whether those bonded relationships were blood relatives or committed friends didn’t matter. What mattered was creating the feeling of nurturing familial-style trust based on a shared experience of seeing, sharing, being seen and appreciated, and mutual generosity. Sadly, the documentary gives evidence of many friends who were willing to show up for him in that way, but he pushed most of them away, burning bridges left and right as his depression and drug use got the better of him.
Mercury in the fourth suggests that communication was a key resource in terms of building these supportive relationships. When we have a planet in a house, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll do a good job expressing it. In fact, a planetary placement usually indicates an area where we’ll be constantly nudged to grow. We could say that Smith was being encouraged to find his voice among his tribe, to express himself freely, and perhaps most of all, to cultivate a childlike curiosity and wonder deep within himself. Communication is a two way street. When we have a strong communication signature like this, we’re learning how to both talk and listen.
With Mercury in Leo, one danger is to overshare—to be so attuned to one’s need to have one’s thoughts heard that we forget to give space for our dear listeners to share their feelings too. Some of his friends in the film commented on how after a show, Smith could talk well into the night about what was troubling him. I have to wonder if he could have used a nudge to develop better listening skills too. Listening may have been healing for him, not only because it would have been key to creating those crucial relationships that could have helped him grow and heal. But also because setting aside our worn-out sad story and listening to someone else’s can help us get much-needed distance and perspective from our own drama. After listening to a good friend pour her heart out, we might feel lighter and more compassionate, both towards her, and subsequently, towards our self.
Let’s turn now to Neptune, the planet Smith seems to have had the most difficult time with. Smith’s sister claims that he wrote about drugs in his songs long before he started using them. Whether that timing is accurate or not, we do know that his descent into drug use was intense and dark. It included heavier-than-usual quantities of alcohol, heroin and crack, sometimes up to $1500 worth in one day. (2) In addition, his prescription med use was off the charts, including prescription tranquilizers as well as various mental health drugs, all of which he was known to abuse. By one report he was using as many as a dozen prescription meds at once. (3) We could stop there and already have a full picture of his T-Square: His drug abuse both inhibited and magnetized his issues around the free expression of his feelings, leaving him without the inner resources he’d need to create the meaningful, nurturing relationships with others that could have provided one of the keys to his happiness.
Though the film skirts around the details of Smith’s personal history, it does give us a hint at a few things that could have been complicating his healing process, leading to such an extreme reaction. And the topics are classic Neptunian ones: idealization, projection and escapism.
When I got home from the film screening, “by chance” I opened Liz Greene’s book The Astrological Neptune to a section on Neptune’s association with mirroring and projection. She describes how mirroring is an asset of talented actors (and musicians), who have a gift at blurring ego boundaries enough that they can appear to be someone else on stage. She suggests that this kind of mirroring, which easily interfaces with the audiences’ projections, works best when the ego and personality is less developed. She writes: “This is why certain stage and screen “idols,” permanently addicted to Neptune’s elixir, invoke so much intense adoration in their audiences, yet as individuals flail helplessly in a fog of depression and loneliness, often descending into alcoholism and drug addiction because they have spent their lives mirroring others but have never found out who they actually are.” (4)
With most of his song material made up of other people’s stories, Smith became an expert at mirroring others’ pain, and also at inspiring a deep connection with his audience. His creative muse was adept at mirroring, maybe out of an innocent curiosity, but maybe in an attempt to avoid direct contact with his own history. His pain was still there. It was probably just easier to project that onto others. Which isn’t such a bad approach at first. Many body-mind healing therapies employ similar techniques as a stepping stone to being able to work directly with one’s too-painful source material. But ultimately, the focus has to come back to the self to complete the process. Over time, he could have jump-started his healing process by shifting his songwriting towards his own experience.
It may sound counter-intuitive to imagine a Leo Sun person with a weak ego, but we can see evidence in the trajectory of Smith’s music career that he struggled to develop healthy ego. When he started to realize that his loud band didn’t express who he really was, he felt dissatisfied and control issues began to pop up with his bandmates until the discord led to the band’s break up. Once Smith was solo he was more in charge of the creative output, which was a step in the right direction towards a healthier manifestation of his Leo Sun. In one of the few funny moments in the film, we see Smith at his first self-directed recording session post-breakup wearing a telling hat emblazoned with the words “I’m the boss, that’s why.” So we know the necessary ego development was happening.
Elliot’s pain ran deep, which we can hear in his music but is also apparent in his friend’s stories of late-night drug-induced phone calls and repeated suicide threats. We know that Smith took the important first steps towards healing by asking for help from friends, but it seems he didn’t always reach out to the right people, that he couldn’t receive help when it was offered, and that he burned bridges with people who truly loved him. And here we see signs of the savior-redeemer complex that is possible under a challenging Neptune aspect.
Greene shines light on this kind of Neptunian imbalance when she writes, “There is no sense of being real and worthwhile in oneself; there is only the desperate craving to adore and be adored, so that one can love oneself in the mirror of the lover’s eyes. Neptune is always ready to offer its romantic magic when we despise ourselves.” (5) The antidote is seeing oneself clearly and loving exactly what you see. Only then can you cut through the illusion.
So while it was important for Smith to acknowledge his own pain and to ask for help, it was also his task to receive that help, to accept himself for who he was, and to let go of the illusion that he could find total redemption by projecting savior onto a friend. Since he wasn’t able to do that, he’d repeat the pattern of pleading for help, then turning against those who loved him. He hadn’t addressed the false core belief that he was unlovable and that he could be somehow “saved” from the pain of his humanity.
His audience fed into this pattern too. Although he was known for deflecting attention from himself onstage and in interviews, fan adoration grew exponentially. Then fame came quickly. When his song “Miss Misery” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song for the film Good Will Hunting, some friends say it was too much too soon. We can imagine that the infusion of adoration gave him both a taste of healing and also negatively reinforced his Neptune complex. Greene writes, “Being idealized in this way, whether by parent, child, lover, disciple, or patient (or even a whole crowd), is an extremely seductive experience, because it makes us feel gloriously healed of our flawed humanity.” But like most drugs used for a quick fix, the comedown is rough if we don’t have a stable emotional baseline to return to. And it wasn’t long after that that Smith was well on the road to a drug-induced haze.
Smith seems to have cycled through friends and girlfriends, another example of repeating the more negative aspects of this pattern. Greene writes, “Cloaked with the mantle of idealization, it is hard for the individual to accept his or her ordinariness, for the ordinary cannot enter Paradise. As every relationship, over time, reveals humanity and diminishes the fantasy of perfection, it may become necessary to have a regular “fix” of adoration from a fresh, unspoiled source. This is one of the classic Neptune patterns in love.”
Because he couldn’t ultimately accept his own “ordinariness,” his own humanity, genuine support from friends and even constant adoration from his audience wasn’t enough. Along his descent to rock bottom, his T-Square acted like a live-feed conduit for his inner struggle to engage with the general public. It’s possible that his habit of stopping songs midstream was an unconscious attempt at challenging the audience to see him as “ordinary.” Evidence that something in him longed to break the Neptunian spell just as much as he longed for the adoration . . .
One writer (and fan) brilliantly captures the dynamic in his description of his experience at a live Elliott Smith show in Chicago:
“From the moment he settled awkwardly into his chair, it was clear that Smith was not himself. As his distractions rapidly overtook the performance, my self-satisfaction at seeing Smith so intimately quickly shifted to awkwardness. It was like surprising a loved one, only to walk in on a scene of intense privacy and perversion. And it was heartbreaking, because each fleeting moment of focus was brimming with effortless grace and concentrated genius. That’s no exaggeration – imagine the see-saw feelings of romance and disillusion, of depression and gorgeous, heady abandon that coursed through Smith’s albums. Now, imagine that same range of emotion cooked into a rush of three, maybe four cohesive minutes. Either/Or? X/O? It was madness and beauty fighting it out in a figure 8 of white-knuckled desire.” (6)
Smith’s tale isn’t just one of a downward trajectory towards the tragic end. Miraculously, in his last year alive, Smith cleaned up his act and showed signs of making real progress. He checked himself into a (non-traditional) rehab center and got off drugs. Then he started weaning himself off the prescription meds. He built his own recording studio and started work on a new album. Then without warning, he was found dead in his apartment with two stab wounds to the heart around noon on October 21, 2003. At first, the papers reported his death as a suicide, though the coroner’s official report was “undetermined.”
Most friends say they were not surprised to hear that Smith had committed suicide. They’d heard him threaten just that on many occasions. But when the details started to come out, they didn’t add up. Jennifer Chiba, his girlfriend at the time, was there when it happened. By her account, she and Smith had been fighting that morning and she locked herself in the bathroom. She says that Smith then threatened to kill himself but that she refused to come out. Next, she claims, she heard him scream, rushed out, found him with a knife in the heart, removed it, and called 9-1-1.
As the only witness to his death, she’s been the focus of angry speculation that his death wasn’t a suicide, but a murder.
In true Neptunian fashion, the truth of what happened that day may be impossible to get to. Fans and friends alike asked, “Why would he have killed himself just when everything was getting better?” What’s more, no drugs were found in his system at the time of death, which took place midday on a sunny day in Los Angeles.
Still, there’s reason to speculate that even under the strange circumstances, his death really was a suicide. Although it isn’t logical, the gravity of his actions that day could have had everything to do with the way he came off his meds. It’s statistically true that people who stop mental health meds are at risk for dangerous behavior immediately during the period of withdrawal, especially if they stop too quickly and without proper support, which was apparently the case for Smith.
A previous documentary contains footage of Chiba defending herself in an attempt at vindication. The director of that documentary says he believes her and hopes that viewers will too. In the end, the truth doesn’t change the fact that Smith’s death was an untimely and terrible tragedy.
In his last few months, although newly sober and on a career upswing, Smith seems to have been still struggling with his core issue of being comfortable being an ego in a body and taking up space. In the last interview published before his death, he said: “It’s a problem if you’re trying to get out of your own weird headspace, and you’re having a lot of conversations on tour, where no matter how much you try and talk about, say, music or something, the questions are constantly redirected back to yourself and who you are. I don’t think it’s important who I am. I really like playing music, but I don’t really want to be anything in particular.” (7)
If I could say one thing to Elliott Smith, it would be this: Actually, it is important who you are. We see you and we adore you for who you really are.
And now Heaven adores you too. Rest in peace.
Notes and Sources
(1) Brown, Jake; Elliott Smith – Dead at 34
(2) Elliott Smith: ‘Mr. Misery’ Revisited, 10 Years After the Singer-Songwriter’s Controversial Death
(3) Letting Go: Leaving the Memories Behind With Music and Drugs Understanding Weakness Blog
(4) Greene, Liz. The Astrological Neptune and the Quest for Redemption. 1996 p.186
(5) Greene, p.190
(6) Loftus, Johnny; Elliott Smith – Dead at 34
(7) Elliott Smith: Better Off Than Dead Under the Radar
- The Final Moments of Elliott Smith’s Life LA Weekly
- Director Gil Reyes on what he found in Searching for Elliott Smith Denver Westword Blogs
- Exclusive: Elliott Smith’s biographer William Todd Schultz – ”Elliott was in love with depression” Entertainment.ie
- Elliott Smith: New Moon review Pitchfork
- Heaven Adores You IMDB