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Review: Two musicians, dying young

Elliott Smith bio gives insight; Bobby Darin effort shallow

By Todd Leopold

'Roman Candle'
  • By David Evanier
  • Rodale
  • Biography
  • 288 pages
  • 'Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing'
  • By Benjamin Nugent
  • Da Capo Press
  • Biography
  • 230 pages
    Elliott Smith
    Bobby Darin

    (CNN) -- Bobby Darin lived his life as if every minute truly would be his last, literally sucking oxygen after vigorous, all-stops-out performances to keep his weakened heart going. He died in 1973 at age 37.

    Elliott Smith lived his life, particularly towards the end, as if his psychic pain were a heavy chain strapped to his legs. His death in 2003, at age 34, was an apparent suicide.

    One would think that Darin's bold life would make the more colorful book, but it's the biography of Smith, Benjamin Nugent's "Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing" (Da Capo), that does justice to its subject.

    In contrast, David Evanier's "Roman Candle" (Rodale) is rather shallow, and despite Evanier's bona fides -- his book on singer Jimmy Roselli was shortlisted for the prestigious Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award -- "Roman Candle" reads like a record label biography padded out to book form.

    Versatile to a fault

    That's too bad, because Darin's life had the blaze of a supernova. Raised in poor circumstances, a sickly child, Darin knew his days were numbered. He hustled and he slaved, and by 22 he had hit the Top Ten with the novelty rock number "Splish Splash." A year later, his cover of the Kurt Weill song "Mack the Knife" was the No. 1 song of the year.

    He sold out the top nightclubs. He was a golden boy. He even had a (short-lived) celebrity marriage, to film star Sandra Dee.

    But Darin was almost too versatile; he wanted to be the consummate entertainer but wasn't quite charismatic enough to be at the top of any form. His swing was not quite Sinatra's and his growl was not quite Elvis'. Darin could act -- he was nominated for an Oscar -- but he didn't devote himself to the craft. After the British Invasion hit in 1964, he struggled to find his place in the musical landscape, with just one Top Ten hit thereafter (1966's gentle "If I Were a Carpenter").

    Darin's life was one electric jolt after another -- besides his performing talent, his family hid some strange secrets -- but Evanier glides over events, dampening their impact. He's too dependent on Darin boosters, particularly mercurial Darin friend/manager Steve Blauner and publicist Harriet Wasser; and he gets names and dates wrong, calling longtime Warner Bros. Records head Mo Ostin "Moe Austin," actor Melvyn Douglas "Melvin," placing the Watts Riots in 1964 (they were in 1965) and remarking that Darin was rehearsing for a TV show on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, "November 23 [sic], 1963."

    Most embarrassingly, there are passages like this: "Where the hell did he come from?" Evanier writes, saying Darin "fit right in" with the likes of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jack Benny and George Burns despite being many years their junior. "Some questions about the nature of genius can never be answered or resolved."

    A spectral presence

    "Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing" doesn't get very close to its subject, either. But it's not for lack of trying. One gets the feeling Nugent was trying to heal his own heavy heart by embarking on a search for Elliott Smith, and though we only get glimpses of the rather private musician, that's usually enough.

    Smith, raised near Dallas, Texas, first gained note with his Portland, Oregon, band Heatmiser, then cut a pair of raw, personal albums -- "Roman Candle" (of all things) and "Either/Or" -- in the mid-'90s. His song "Miss Misery," featured in "Good Will Hunting," was nominated for an Oscar, and he suddenly was a leading alt-music light, hailed for his songwriting. He was a talented multi-instrumentalist, too, playing most of the instruments on his 1998 breakthrough album, "XO."

    But Smith was also a lonely and grasping soul -- Nugent recounts stories of his wandering through subway tunnels, equipped with a Walkman, or running into the darkness in an alcoholic daze -- and lost himself in drink and drugs. Just when he appeared to be coming out of his tailspin, he was found dead, a kitchen knife in his chest. His death has been ruled a suicide, though some people are convinced he was murdered.

    Nugent sometimes gets a little too insider-y -- too many details about too many '90s indie bands -- and his insistences on Smith's sense of humor, though no doubt true, ring hollow.

    Still, if Smith is a spectral figure -- and he seems less to inhabit the book than haunt it -- Nugent manages to gather enough of his spirit to provide a clear picture of his talent and impact without overstating his case.

    On the other hand, Evanier's presentation of Darin's life is superficial and fawning; one wonders what Wil Haygood, who wrote last year's perceptive Sammy Davis Jr. bio "In Black and White," could have done with the material.

    Both musicians had their moment of importance, and interesting lives. But only Smith has received the thoughtful treatment he deserves.

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