The very first guy who helped me out when I got to Chicago in ’86 was Jim Ellison. I did not know him as “the guy in Material Issue”. I just knew him as “the guy who booked Batteries Not Included”, a dingy little club that seemingly held about ten people. I remember seeing Green (a band that Jim had been in briefly) perform at the club, the only light in the entire place was a bare light bulb hanging over the stage. The near-darkness just made the band seem that much bigger; the audience a sweaty glow mere inches below them. It was a magical night, one of my first in the big city, and I immediately decided to try getting a gig there.
Within seconds of contacting Jim, he and I were talking about bands we loved. We bonded over early Bee Gees and the Sweet. Without even hearing my band, he gave me a gig opening for, of all bands, Green.
At the show, I remember looking out at the audience from the stage and seeing one guy who, despite being at floor level, was still taller than me. After the show, he sought me out and introduced himself. He told me we put on a great show and that he dug our cover of “Stepping Stone”. Jim explained his plans for a gig, Battle Of The Trios – three bands, each with three members. It would be Material Issue, Urge Overkill (who I hadn’t heard of before), and the other band was still up in the air.
“Do you guys wanna play the gig?”, he asked.
We had just hired a fourth guy to flesh out our sound, but here Jim was egging me on to ditch him so we could play this gig as a three-piece. Knowing a good gig when I saw one, my band was immediately trimmed back down to a trio for the gig. We told our new guitarist (and fourth member) that it would just be for this show, but he was so pissed that he quit the band altogether.
It was an amazing show. My first taste of Urge Overkill was that they were sloppy as hell, but the crowd was going ape-shit the whole time. Material Issue were tighter than Jim’s jeans (if you’ve seen him in person, you know what I’m talking about) and played a revved-up brand of Cheap Trick-meets-Badfinger rock that I dug completely. In hindsight, we must have paled by comparison, but the crowd was intensely supportive and we made a ton of new fans whose faces we saw at later shows.
Material Issue was Jim’s first love and, truth be told, he was his own biggest fan. This rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but he always went out of his way to be cool to me. Nine times out of ten, our interaction seemed to involve him offering to help me out in one way or another. Come to think of it, he never asked me for a darn thing. Still, there were people on the scene who thought he was a huge jerk. Turns out that even people who were close to him had very mixed feelings about the guy.
A mutual friend, who had begrudgingly invited Jim over for Thanksgiving when they discovered he had no other place to go, later commented that they’d initially found it odd that Jim wouldn’t just spend the holiday with his parents, who lived nearby. After spending the entire day with Ellison, though, they could understand why he had no other place to go. They didn’t offer specifics, nor did I ask, but it was implied that Jim had overstayed his welcome.
Jeff Murphy, who produced the band’s first two albums for Mercury and was a member of the band Shoes, had this to say about Jim in an interview:
“I enjoyed the music tremendously, but Jim could be difficult to work with and there were times when he and I would argue over things. He was not at all technology based and would not even tune his guitar; I did it for him. He once broke a string during a recording while doing a lead and the guitar went flying out of tune. When I stopped the tape and told him to re-string his guitar he argued that he ‘meant’ to do that. But that was just Jim. We remained friends and he called me at the studio about something a few weeks before his death [in June, 1996].” (courtesy of PerfectSoundForever)
In ’95, I was playing drums in the Longfellows (led by my longtime friend Jim Allen, who had also been in Montserrat/The Plaids with me). We were playing a gig in support of our pals, The Elvis Brothers at Schuba’s and Ellison came out to the show. I was standing at the bar waiting for my drink when he came up, shook my hand, and told me that he dug my drumming. He then let it slide that he was forming a new band apart from Material Issue, who had been dropped from their Mercury deal, and asked if I might want to play drums in the project.
Turns out he had asked quite a few guys to play drums in the band, but none of them wanted to be in a band with him. My slant is that most of these guys had egos as big or bigger than Jim’s. Me, on the other hand…
He was also doing gigs with The Wild Bunch, a somewhat cheesy bar band that included Gilby Clark, Pat from the Smithereens, and a few others whose names escape me. Between this and some continued work with Material Issue (including a collaboration with Liz Phair), he was pretty busy. We rehearsed a few times, cut some incredibly rough demos, and then I just hit the wall. Sick of Chicago and wanting a change, I split for the postcard panoramas of Colorado.
Months later, Jim Allen called to tell me the news: Jim Ellison had killed himself, supposedly over an ex-girlfriend. I remember being so dumbfounded by the news that my girlfriend thought for a moment that the late-night call might have been about a death in my immediate family.
The local Chicago scene was abuzz over the news. There was talk that drugs were involved and all sorts of sordid rumors were flying around. Most sickening of all was the fact that tapes of phone messages Jim had left on his ex-girlfriend’s answering machine were now circulating. A lot of people were all having a good laugh at Jim’s expense. After all, he was the cocky rock star who killed himself over a girl. To them, he deserved it.
Before I’d left Chicago, Jim had given me a tape of new Material Issue demos. I admit that I wasn’t that wowed by the tunes initially and just filed the tape in my huge “box o’tapes”. A few days after his death, though, I dug out the tape and sat on my futon in the dark listening to Jim’s voice, trying to hear something that might have been a clue to why he chose to end it all. The song titles on the cassette were scribbled in Ellison’s own handwriting: “Satellite”, “976-LOVE”, and one called, simply, “Boyfriend” which, when I heard it, chilled me to the bone.
“What if I killed your boyfriend/What if I shot him down?
What if I killed your boyfriend?/Maybe then you’d want me around.”
I thought to myself ‘How many months had he been aching for this woman, losing his grip the harder he tried to keep her?’ Christ, what must the guys in his band have thought when he brought in a song like this? They had to know something was wrong.
I admit that I was initially very confused by Jim taking his life. He was the one guy I’d have never thought capable of such a thing. He was confidence personified. That Jim would take his life because he couldn’t be with the girl of his dreams seemed absurd.
Then, as luck would have it, I lost the girl of my dreams and spun into the very same abyss from which Jim never escaped. I felt as if I was living one page after another from Jim’s diary.
Complicating matters further, cancer was also having its way with me at the time so I felt attacked from all sides and was just too exhausted to deal with things rationally. I came so close to ending it all, too. I tried. I went so far as to write notes saying goodbye to family and friends, then I realized what an overly dramatic little puss I sounded like and promptly burned them in the fireplace.
Thankfully, a few people who weren’t really even my friends yet showed immense kindness and understanding during that time. They became great friends and showed me that it was possible to start life over again. Thanks to them, the part of me that wanted to live won out over the part of me that didn’t.
Going through that ordeal, though, I gained a completely new appreciation for Jim Ellison as a person. I have him to thank for years of friendship with no strings attached and for kindness beyond reason. I also have him to thank for some great music, some of which I’d like to share with you now.