biography - page 6

v. "feel this pretty burn"

Heatmiser was far from encompassing Elliott's world at this time. It was probably around this period in his life that he got his Ferdinand tattoo; the picture on his arm made a certain statement about his life. "People took him for a failure because he refused to fight, but I know it's not true. He just wanted to live outside the system. I see myself a lot in Ferdinand." In a 1998 interview with the zine Comes with a smile, asked about why he chose Ferdinand, he said: "Mainly I just wanted a bull on my arm [laughs]. It was between this and the Schlitz Malt Liquor bull, which I almost got at the time. Thank god I got this one. And the other arm, it's a map of Texas. I didn't get it because I like Texas, kinda the opposite. But I won't forget about it although I'm tempted to 'cause I don't like it there."

Heatmiser did provide an arena in which he could hone his performing skills and work out the punk roots that had been such a big part of his early musical life. He joked in an interview once about being in the "Scorpions camp" as a Texas youngster in the late Seventies and early Eighties-and commented once in an interview that Scorpions songs are unexpectedly difficult to sing, if you try them out. (His tour in the Fall of 2000 included a deft, tongue-in-cheek tribute performance at the end of several shows of Blue Oyster Cult's death anthem, Don't Fear the Reaper.)

Other musical and personal contacts during this time provided the makings of an intentional community which nurtured the lyrical musings that led him towards his own voice as heard on his very first solo LP, Roman Candle. Some of his colleagues and collaborators during the Heatmiser years included Rebecca Gates of the Spinanes, Pete Krebs of Hazel and Golden Delicious, Sean Croghan of Crackerbash, Mary Lou Lord (who rescued "I Figured You Out" from the trashbin-Elliott thought this composition "sounded like an Eagles song"), Bill Santen (a Lexington, KY native who performs under the name Birddog, and has toured with Elliott), the Softies, and Heatmiser manager J. J. Gonson who co-wrote the song No Name #1 with Elliott.

Of all the musicians with whom he worked during the Heatmiser period, the one with whom he formed the most lasting personal and professional relationship was bass player/keyboardist Sam Coomes. A gifted songwriter in his own right, Sam first came to the attention of audiophiles in the mid 80s as vocalist and composer for the San Francisco based cult band, Donner Party. In the early 90s, he moved to Portland where he formed Motorgoat, and then Quasi with his then wife Janet Weiss. In 1998, Quasi toured with Elliott in 1998, and Sam played on sessions for both XO and Figure 8. Besides the fact that they've played so many gigs together, Sam and Elliott share a certain appreciation for the absurdity of existence that's reflected in a similar artistic philosophy. In a 1998 interview, Sam said of his work: "They tend not to be happy songs because they happen when I'm not happy and I'm trying to work through it. A song pops out here and a song pops out there-pretty soon you've got a whole depressing album." Another experience Sam and Elliott have shared is the day job from hell. "I've had crappy jobs all my life. I try to have a sense of humor about it at least."

Roman Candle, Elliott's first solo album, was released in 1994, the result of J. J. Gonson sending a copy of the tape off to a producer at Cavity Search Records. When Elliott got a call from the Olympia, Washington based label, he expected to get a deal for a 7 inch. Instead, the label proposed putting out the entire tape as an album. Some fans regard this as his finest work; the album certainly has a tightness that gives it a marvelous artistic unity. It's a signpost from a subtly shaded spiritual landscape of lost chances, carefully nurtured last hopes, free falling abandonment into oblivion.

The title track may be another of the songs he wrote about his stepfather. It limns a rage so all-consuming, the narrator feels as if he is hallucinating: "my head is full of flames ... I want to give him pain and make him feel this pretty burn." The "No Name" songs inhabit the same embittered universe as "dead air," but on this record, the singer's sandpapery, mothwinged confidences and quietly whispered tales seem to pan slowly over the emotions that inhere in this series of membra disjecta: "every thought a ricochet," "the mighty mother with her hundred arms," "a strip of wet concrete, her name was just a broken sound," "killing time won't stop this crying," "the dying day blushing in the sky ... everyone is gone home to oblivion." The glimpses into a tortured relationship ("dysfunctional" seems the wrong word for something that never worked in the first place) continue in "Drive all over town," in which a man is seen in a photograph "smiling full of teeth clenched tight" looking at his girlfriend/wife. In No Name #4 Elliott does allow his sense of humor to surface; his comment to one of his characters, "but you did wear cowboy boots-that's your fame" is a funny aside to the story of an abused woman fleeing her home with her little increment of records, photos and clothes, into the gloom of a cold car that "smelled like old cigarettes and pine." The album ends with an instrumental track that is often cited as an offbeat fan favorite: "kiwi maddog 20/20": a sweet-and-sour sequence of cool chords that blow lazy blue smoke rings around the listener's memories of the sad stories we've heard during the evening of the record.

The earliest surviving private recording of Elliott in solo performance dates to this period-September 17, 1994, an opening act at Umbra Penumbra. It shows Elliott in a quietly reflective mood, using his voice to send "whisper smoke signs" to the audience (Condor Avenue was requested by a listener). The set ends with Elliott and Neil playing Not Half Right, which was to be the last track on Heatmiser's final album; Neil used Sean Croghan's guitar. (Elliott had just written the song on this day; he commented about how hard his own handwriting was to read.)