In late 1990 I broke up with my girlfriend

“In late 1990 I broke up with my girlfriend of the last three years, the punk rock photographer JJ Gonson, and I moved from Boston to San Francisco. I am honored to say that she is still one of my best and closest friends. But for a couple of years after our breakup we had as little as possible to do with each other. She in turn moved to Portland, OR.

In January of 1993 we reconnected and she rather generously offered my band, Ain’t, a show in Portland with Heatmiser and Gas Huffer. She also offered us a place to stay: 2522 SE 16th Ave. on the corner of SE Division, where she lived with her new boyfriend, Elliott Smith, and where his band, Heatmiser, practiced in the basement. Elliott and the rest of the band (Neil Gust, Tony Lash, and Brandt Peterson) were kind of shy and I guess a little nervous at the show as they were performing for the first time for their new label, Frontier Records. I dug their music; it was introspective and melodic yet played through Marshall amps. Neil and Elliott shared lead vocal duties and I liked both voices. I was happy for JJ as well — she had a boyfriend who was nice to her and a band to manage that seemed to be going somewhere. Of course, I was jealous for I had no steady girlfriend and my band was nowhere near as good.

A few months later I was able to repay their kindness and Heatmiser stayed with me in San Francisco at my 365 Haight Street flat. I have a great photo of Elliott and me in front of that place taken by JJ. They would stay with me again six months later and I would have a cookout at my flat in their honor and lure my future wife, Laurian, by telling her that a Portland band would be at the party. Laurian was from Portland. Of course, I got too drunk to talk to her, but that’s another story. Elliott and JJ would stalk the San Francisco bookstores during their visits. Heatmiser played Bottom Of The Hill both times and I remember the sound guy getting his knickers all in a twist about how softly Elliott sang. “How the fuck am I supposed to mic those vocals with them playing Marshalls?!” Funny how doing something original gets folks all pissed off, only to see every band in the world trying to copy it in a few years…

Cut to a year later and Laurian and I were a couple (Yes, I managed to get my act together and I’m honored to say that we’ll be celebrating our 23rd wedding anniversary this August!), and she was now the singer for Ain’t. We were recording in Portland with her old pal Thee Slayer Hippy (drummer of Poison Idea and producer of Heatmiser, Hard-Ons, etc.), and I asked Elliott to come sit in with us. JJ dropped Elliott off to play guitar on some songs. Pete Krebs also came by to play washboard. Elliott had worked with Slayer on Heatmiser’s Frontier debut, ‘Dead Air,’ and he sat in the control room with Slayer and laid down some cool guitar tracks on our song, “Suit Of Running Water.” We then set about recording an acoustic version of Reid Paley’s (Paley & Francis, The Five, Reid Paley Trio) “Stop It, Or I’ll Drink Myself To Death.” Slayer played sparse drums (almost nodding off on the stool while doing so), Pete played washboard, Laurian and I sang, and I played acoustic guitar. Elliott dragged a large black plastic bag of beer bottles around for atmosphere. Probably the only song in existence to feature Elliott Smith dragging a garbage bag of empty beer bottles.

Because Thee Slayer Hippy was in a rather bad drug phase (heroin, wine, and triple espressos all at once), there were often long waits between takes. I remember him nodding off during a take, coming to at the end of the take, and yelling in the microphone to us, “Your guitars are out of tune!” Anyway, during these lengthy pauses Elliott would be noodling around on his guitar, playing kind of skiffle/country-ish licks that were both extremely proficient and really cool. Pete Krebs noticed. Pete had been in grunge-ish Portland bands Thrillhammer and later the beloved Hazel (Sub Pop). He confided in me years later that seeing Elliott play that day convinced him to switch his musical career entirely from sort of grunge-ish stuff to the Americana/country/swing-ish music that he has purveyed to much success ever since. Pete said that Elliott blew him away that day, just quietly sitting in a corner strumming away.

A few months later Laurian and I were visiting her folks in Portland and we stopped by to see JJ where she lived with Elliott at Southeast 29th Avenue and Taylor Street. She took us upstairs and played a cassette tape for us. It would come to be Elliott’s first solo record, ‘Roman Candle.’ It was recorded entirely by him in this basement. Years later JJ would be driving by the house for old times’ sake and would strike up a conversation with the present tenant. It became quickly apparent this tenant was a musician, so JJ told him the story of ‘Roman Candle.’ The tenant/musician’s jaw dropped: It was James Mercer of the Shins, who is a huge Elliott fan!

On an Ain’t tour in 1997, we were all camped out in our crappy motel room in Memphis watching a rather unmemorable made-for-TV movie starring Parker Posey (it isn’t even findable anymore on Google). All of a sudden our collective ears perked up when we heard “Say Yes” by Elliott on the soundtrack. This is before “Good Will Hunting” and before any Elliott song had appeared in movies that I knew of, and I realized for the first time that he was going places. This was also my favorite Elliott Smith song because it is the perfect combination of sweet melodies with swear words. A year later I wrote a song called “My Life Was Ruined By Rock ‘n’ Roll” and I recorded my Vietnam Vet homeless friend, Kent Wahlgren, speaking the lyrics to my song: “So, I’m sitting in the motel, listening to Elliott Smith on the TV.” Both Elliott and Kent were gone a few years later.

On May 18, 1998, Laurian and I went to see Elliott play at the Bottom Of The Hill, a 350 capacity San Francisco club. He had started to really gain popularity and the show was sold out. We saw him briefly as he walked by us in the club. His head was hung down a little in sort of a sad fashion as I saw the herd of record company biz folks following him. He called out a greeting and then disappeared backstage. By the time he appeared on stage, the club was rowdy and packed with alcohol-fueled fans yelling stuff at him like, “Elliott! play [insert song]!” He came out onto the stage, sat down, picked up his acoustic guitar, looked out at the crowd, and sat there. He didn’t make a motion, he didn’t say a word. He sat there…until the entire crowd completely quieted down. You could hear a pin drop. He still did not say a word. Then he started to play. I felt a chill down my back, and knew at that moment that he was definitely going somewhere.

That Christmas Eve Laurian and I stumbled into Elliott at Club 21 on Sandy Boulevard (since razed for condos) and while hanging out and drinking with him, he told me that he used the title from my song “Sea Of Trash” in his song “Stupidity Tries” on the ‘Figure 8’ album. JJ loved “Sea Of Trash,” which I originally recorded when I was living with her, so I’m assuming that she had played it for Elliott. Interestingly, I just recorded a new version of that song, retitled “Trash,” for my new project REQ’D.

The last time I saw Elliott was in June of 2000. He was in town to play two nights at the Fillmore. He and JJ had broken up years ago, he’d moved to Los Angeles, and I had lost his contact info. I guessed that he was likely staying at the Phoenix Hotel, where the up-and-coming rock stars stayed in San Francisco, so I called over and asked to be connected to Elliott Smith, figuring I didn’t have anything to lose. The operator said, “Hang on a minute and I’ll connect you.” There was no answer at the room so I left a message. I got no reply that day, but the next day Elliott called me at my work, “Hey Sluggo, sorry I couldn’t figure out the hotel VM thingy, but sure, come on down and I’ll put you and your friends on the guest list for tonight.” Laurian and I hung out with him for 30 minutes or so while the support act, No. 2 (Neil Gust’s great band), was on. I brought him a copy of the Ain’t album he played on as well as a Sonny Smith CD that I thought he might like. I told him that I was proud of him. I never saw him again.

Elliott and I share an August 6 birthday, though I’m a full decade older. Here’s to Leo singer/songwriters and to a hell of a talented and supremely gifted human that will be forever missed.”

Sluggo Cawley 

IWMag

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