Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Elliott Smith's Heatmiser Work and the Subliminality of Masculine Conformity

I never really listened to Elliott Smith's work with his previous band, Heatmiser, until recently. Having the misfortune of once randomly putting on a song from their debut album, Dead Air, and sitting uncomfortably through the bombast of sludge, fuzz, and hoarse, croaking yawps, I sighed, rolled my eyes a little and turned back to Either/Or to cleanse my palette. When I heard the Heatmiser version of "Half Right," from their third and last album, Mic City Sons, I was thoroughly befuddled. It was a slightly jazzed up, full band version of my favorite sombre acoustic song on New Moon, a posthumous Elliott Smith rarities compilation. The experience made me want to cobble together Elliott's contributions to the band into a mixtape that could be like a faux extra Elliott album, because I'm that obsessed. Yet, listening to those albums and reading about his past, got me thinking about gender roles.

I did actually make the mix. To get an idea for how drastically Elliott's style evolved, compare the streamed playlist below the jump with any track from Dead Air, such as "Still" for example.

The music that Elliott started making with Heatmiser was drastically and shockingly different than his solo work. Elliott would eventually become known as a soft-spoken and shy stoic with a surprisingly high, but restrained singing voice and a twinkling acoustic guitar who could easily provoke bouts of depression. The trajectory of his musical style from hardcore growler to spirited singer-songwriter is a revealing analogy for the subliminal influence of masculine conformity.

If you started a band in 1991, like Elliott did with Heatmiser, in Portland, Oregon, which is 173 miles from Seattle, there was probably no way you could be taken seriously unless your sound fell in line with what everyone adored calling "grunge." This is something that Elliott's friends say over and over again in the documentary Heaven Adores You, released in 2014. In an interview with Pitchfork, Kill Rock Stars record label founder Slim Moon says, "indie rock was still coming out of the punk tradition, it was anti-a lot of the things the 70s had been known for, including heartfelt singer-songwriters." J.J. Gonson, Heatmiser manager and Elliott's once girlfriend, told Pitchfork, "It was embarrassing to be doing acoustic music. Nobody did it. Everybody was rough."

The sonic trends of the Portland music scene at the time are described in Heaven Adores You as "muscular," "loud," "angry," and "shouty." Elliott himself even called it "macho" in an interview. These words work as a description of cathartic music, but they're not really adjectives for the kind of guy I'd want to hang out with at a party. The point is, those adjectives are also ways to describe a man. The metaphor I'm creating is that the sound represents masculine identity. A lot of these types of scenes are male driven and for many of their members, the analogy is very literal.

So, now we're going to paint a picture of Elliott, 18 or 19 years old, trekking across the country from Oregon to Massachusetts to go to Hampshire College. At this point he's already thinking about his identity, because he changed his name from Steven to Elliott. In an interview, he apparently said this about his birth name, "there's no good versions of it, ya know like there's, Steven...Steven is like sort of too . . . bookish. Steve is like...like jockish, sorta. Big handsome Steve, big shirtless Steve, ya know, like football playin' blond haired Steve. Ya know? I didn't like it." He met Neil Gust, who would become the other singer and guitarist in Heatmiser, and they two would go to open mics and play acoustically. The thing is: Hampshire College's campus is smack dab in the middle of Boston and Northampton, big music regions in the state where post-punk and hardcore were flourishing at the time.

Imagine Elliott, shyly signing up to play with just an acoustic guitar, the only instrument he could lug across the country. Then, imagine him and Neil going to see a band like The Pixies or Dinosaur Jr. play in the a gritty and grimy venue like Boston's legendary The Rat. There's no way that experience and environment doesn't provide an epiphany of sorts. Smith, who already didn't want to be "bookish" or "jockish" found a path to an alternative identity through this music. The duo then start a band and when they move back to Portland after graduation, they got to be a formative part of the music scene there. They essentially got to become the guys that they might've been fanboys of in college.

The environment that Elliott fell into made it easy for him to adopt a sound like the resulting debut Heatmiser album. Elliott would eventually admit, "I was being a total actor, acting out a role I didn't even like," in an interview with a zine in 1997. The fact that he comes out and says he was playing a role is significant, because my analysis here is largely based on the idea that gender is a performance rather than a natural or biological state. It's a theory most notably put forth by Judith Butler, which you can check out here and here.

There's also a concept called "social norms theory" which potentially describes why Elliott became such an actor. In an article (that you can check out here), Dr. Alan D. Berkowitz writes that, “our behavior is influenced by incorrect perceptions of how other members of our social groups think and act.” It has been used to explain the influences that propagate binge drinking at colleges and universities.

The thought process is: "if this is the normal way people my age in my social group think and behave, this is the way that I should too." Or: "if this is the way a person in the social group I want to be in thinks and acts, this is what I have to do to be this type of person." It's an apt analogy for one of the ways that boys learn how to be men. Elliott was lucky that his acting pertained mostly to music. Plenty of scenes that sounded similar to '90s Portland had a lot of problems with misogyny and violence and plenty still do. Those are the kind of acts that are dangerous for people to fall into.

Personally, I identify greatly with what Elliott went through, especially when I look back at my last.fm listening history throughout the years. In doing so, I came back to Nirvana. I've always found parallels between Elliott and Kurt Cobain. They grew up in similar times, were influenced by similar music, had similar families and careers.

Kurt's unplugged show was a huge turning point in his career, because, I think, he showed himself that he didn't have to play the aggressive, distorted rock and roll that everyone expected of him. He always had a strong pop foundation for Nirvana's music and before his death, he had made plans to record music with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. I always wished that Kurt hadn't killed himself (conspiracy theories aside) if only so that I could've selfishly heard what his next musical direction would've been. I think he would've started putting out albums much like Elliott's.

When I was in high school, my parents were really concerned by how obsessed I was with Kurt Cobain because of his suicide. But, that wasn't why I was interested in him. Kurt Cobain showed me that there are other ways of being. A man could go against the mainstream and advocate for things he believed in, like the way Kurt did for women's and gay rights.

When Elliott figured out something similar, he turned against his past strongly. There is a line in "Between the Bars" on Elliott's Either/Or that goes, "People that you've been before that you don't want around anymore." Before I even knew anything about Heatmiser, I always personally associated that line with my own past identities that I was embarrassed by and ashamed of and wanted nothing to do with anymore. This may be what happened between Elliott and his bandmates that resulted in the group's breakup.

Heatmiser signed to a huge label, Virgin Records, but the band fell apart immediately after. Elliott says to Under the Radar, "I was the guy who made that gravy-train crash so to speak, and it was a gravy-train at the time." Elliott moved out of his apartment with Neil and moved in with his girlfriend. He was literally trying to get away from his band, but not because of his identity issues. He did so in order to record his experiments with quiet songs without his bandmates overhearing, judging, or influencing him. Again, the sound is an apt metaphor for his masculinity. He had to separate himself from normative influences in order to find himself. And he found himself with the help of a woman, which is also a really important part of the analogy.

Some of Elliott's friends have assumed that the recordings he did in 1994, which would end up being his debut solo album, Roman Candle, were intended to eventually be Heatmiser songs. I'm guessing that he showed them to the band and they didn't like them very much. The tension in the band probably arose over the direction in which Elliott wanted to take the music. All of Elliott's contributions on Heatmiser's last album in 1996, Mic City Sons, are more in line with his solo albums that were to follow. They make the album feel unbalanced lying beside Neil's songs. In the documentary, the band members say that the group never really talked about things. My theory is that Elliott was trying to claim his independent identity and he felt that could no longer do that with these three guys.

That's not to say that the other band members forced him to be a certain way and it's not to say that making Heatmiser music was bad or acting the way Elliott did in that band was bad. Just that it wasn't who Elliott wanted to be and he had lost control of that.

Elliott sacrificed a lot by changing.  He became a bit estranged from his former close friends, especially Neil. Elliott told Under the Radar, "Sometimes I think I said, 'That band [Heatmiser] sucked,' which is really not cool. That's one of the things I regret. Since then I've talked to Neil. He understands that it's just one of those things you can't take back. It sucks. I think it hurt him for a while."

That road is hard. Plus, people started saying his new style was too "pretty" and starting calling him Paul Simon. He signed himself up for some heavy mockery and judgement. But, it was worth it. We got seven great albums from Elliott. Imagine the tragedy if all of his solo material sounded like Heatmiser. If "Say Yes" were more like Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters."
I cringe.

In all the interviews, Elliott never seems to fully understand why he decided to play that role. He says, "It was kinda weird – people that came to our shows, a majority of them were people I couldn't relate to at all. Why aren't there more people like me coming to our shows? Well, it's because I'm not even playing the kind of music that I really like." This is something that Kurt Cobain noticed as well. Eventually, Nirvana shows were full of people that Kurt said were, "the kind of guys who used to beat me up in high school" (from the book Experiencing Nirvana). The biggest irony was that Elliott and Kurt broke from the mainstream to find themselves in another kind of mainstream.

Elliott may or may not have felt like he was forced to perform a musical and gender role that was not representative of how he really felt or was. The point of this whole article is to demonstrate how subliminal the process really was. It happens without you knowing it's happening. It was only once Elliott realized what he was actually doing that he realized that it was what he didn't want and that he was able to change it.

Awareness was the key. The most amazing thing about the feminist movement is how it has brought awareness on some level or other to all women. There's really no parallel for men about their own situation. Men have certain privileges that can help them, but most men might have no idea that they do. What's worse is that they might even really believe that they are disadvantaged and start blaming people that are far more oppressed. This has already been made clear by certain groups' political views. And at the same time, men are influenced by many of the same forces as women are, particularly when it comes to image in an image culture.

I think people just need to talk about things more. Awareness is what takes the power and control away from those that would make your image for you or pattern your behavior for you. It gives you the power to change and decide your own identity. I think I'm finally aware of why I've always been so obsessed with Elliott Smith and what he really meant to me.

Elliott Smith - The Miser of Heat
  1. Half Right - Mic City Sons 1996 (Also appears on New Moon as solo acoustic)
  2. Plainclothes Man - Mic City Sons 1996 (Also appears on the Heaven Adores You soundtrack as a solo composition)
  3. Antonio Carlos Jobim - Cop and Speeder 1994 (Live solo acoustic versions exist that are great)
  4. See You Later - Mic City Sons 1996 (Also appears on New Moon as solo acoustic)
  5. The Fix is In - Mic City Sons 1996
  6. You Gotta Move - Mic City Sons 1996
  7. Something to Lose - Cop and Speeder 1994 (Live solo acoustic version)
  8. Get Lucky - Mic City Sons 1996 (Live solo acoustic version)
  9. Idler - Yellow No. 5 1995
  10. Everybody Has It - 1996 Single
  11. Christian Brothers - 1995 Heaven Adores You soundtrack (Also appears as a solo acoustic on Elliott Smith)

Check out my other posts on Elliott Smith:

Two "New" Elliott Smith Albums: A Shot of White Noise & Violent Girl

Elliott Smith Rarities Archive