“I only found out when the book came out that people didn’t know it was a photograph,” J.J. Gonson told me. We were talking about the cover photo she shot for Elliot Smith’s self-titled second solo album. A 25th anniversary edition of the beloved record along with all manner of other extras including a coffee table book of photographs she took of Smith was just released by Kill Rock Stars.
“Apparently all along people thought it was some kind of collage. I’ve had all these comments like ‘Oh my god, I never knew. What the hell is going on here?’ If people thought it was a piece of art, then they thought it was a piece of art about people jumping off a building. That changes my entire concept of how people perceived the record. They thought he put a picture on the record of people committing suicide. That makes the record suddenly way darker.”
Making a record with songs like “Needle in the Hay” on it seem any darker than it already is would certainly be hard to do. Instead the art installation outside of a museum in Prague she shot in the early nineties while backpacking around Europe felt playful she said. More like people floating to the ground than plummeting.
That’s something people who knew him often say about Smith himself too. For all his much touted suffering and darkness there was a lighter funnier side that most of us rarely got to see.
Alongside the photos the book is filled with remembrances from his friends and colleagues.
“The thing that stood out when you hung out with Elliott was his sense of humor,” Slim Moon the founder of Kill Rock Stars writes. “A spontaneous humor made possible by physical worldliness, fathomless insight, fearless honesty, and flagrant humility. Can any song in the world contain more of those qualities than ‘The White Lady Loves You More’?”
“From that first night [he saw him play] on, I always suspected that the most obvious interpretation of his words was just a dodge; an easy outer layer of the onion. There are actually a trillion interpretations intentionally built into the imagery and the irony and the internal contradictions. You know he had integrity, and the song had a ‘true meaning’ to him alone, and you believe in that meaning, but you also know he completely also meant all the other meanings too. ‘The White Lady Loves You More’ means exactly what you think it does, and also it does not mean that at all — it means something truer and deeper and a lot more funny.”
I’ve written in here before a lot about my love of Elliott Smith like the first time I saw him play in Providence in the late 90s and learned that openly crying like a baby at a show is something that could happen to a person or the time I bumped into him at the bar at the Troubadour in Los Angeles and completely bummed him out as this jocky guy wearing a yellow winter hat in the heat trying to talk to him about how much he meant to me (lol). Lately I’ve been listening to playlists of songs he covered and songs he simply liked to listen to like a real normal guy.
Gonson, a native of Cambridge, MA, who I know from the local music scene and her role as the proprietor of Once, a music venue in Somerville that is like all of the others everywhere currently struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic has a lot more stories of her own. She moved to Portland in 1990 where she would befriend Smith and go on to shoot iconic photos of him, Nirvana, Black Flag, Jane’s Addiction and many others. We spoke about the photos she took of Smith and how the club she runs has been affected by the pandemic.
Once is also holding “virtual venue” performances during the shutdown if you’d like to check them out here.
Obviously the music is great, but I don’t really “revere” too many musicians in too precious a way, even the ones I love. For some reason Elliott means a lot to me in a way that feels different. Why do you think people still care so much?
He was just unusually brilliant and he had the ability to put feelings into words. And in addition to that he had this voice. He would sing very quietly, and mic himself singing very close to the mic, so you really felt like he was talking into your ear. He was practically whispering sometimes, and there’s no way you could hear that unless you were very close to someone, so it has that feeling like it’s very personal, and you have to listen very carefully. And then there’s this guitar playing thing. I can’t think of many people who could do what he did playing rhythm and lead at the same time. I don’t know, I watched it a lot and it was quite something. He could write, sing, and play. There was so much intelligence all over the place.
One of my favorite lines is from “Clementine.” “The street's wet you can tell by the sound of the cars.” It’s a nothing statement. I just did it yesterday. I was sitting on a porch and I could hear it. It’s this simple but elegant statement. “They're waking you up to close the bar…” Then he does this thing, when I talk about the writing being brilliant, he takes this classic song and turns it into his own. “Oh my darling clementine…” He captures what’s going on around him, and then he goes into like “Maybe the whole thing's wrong. What if she thinks so but just didn't say so?” These are all things that we feel … What if the whole thing is wrong?! Capturing that, putting it into such simple words, and then sharing it in this whisper where it’s almost in your head. You’re locked into it, right?
Yesterday for the first time in my life I thought: I’m an Elliott Smith fan. By definition. I think about him. I talk about him. His lyrics play through my mind. I think he’s one of the greatest songwriters, certainly in my experience and his beautiful lyrics touch us because of his intimate style.
What do you remember from the day of the album cover photo?
I was in Prague. I was doing this walkabout. I was twenty two. I started in Lisbon and ended up in London. I went all through Spain and into Morocco up through Italy. I had had all these wild adventures along the way and gotten used to sleeping in hostels. I was wandering around Prague a lot and came by this museum of contemporary art. There was this installation outside of people hanging, dangling from wires like they were falling. Not so much jumping but kind of falling in a soft way, like floating. And I took a picture and there you go. Ta dah!
Later on he was looking through your photos and just picked that one?
Yeah. There were contact sheets of the fifty rolls of film or whatever it was I shot on that trip and of those he chose three images, all of which appeared on covers. When I got back I went into the darkroom and printed some of the greatest hits, from my mind, from that experience, and I gave them to my parents. All three are on the wall at my parents house doing this kind of cool thing, I didn’t fix them long enough, so they're doing that thing where they turn silver. We, Heatmiser, on tour we’d stay wherever we could, and we did stay with my parents more than once, so it’s possible he first saw that picture on the wall there.
One of those pictures went on a Heatmiser cover for “Sleeping Pill.” That’s a photo I absolutely adore. It’s a picture of a kid sitting on a beer keg, playing a handheld cheap little casio piano. Behind him there’s another kid leaning on the bar looking out the window and the sun is washing on his face. It’s two kids in a bar. That was taken in Portugal. So Elliott was looking through this book of contact sheets asking me to print them.
The other one, that’s a nothing photo, but has a good story to me. It’s on the back cover of the self-titled album. It’s the ferris wheel in Vienna from the film The Third Man, the 1949 film.
Based on the Graham Greene book.
That’s right. And it stars a very young kind of sexy Orson Welles. He has this wrestling match where they try to push each other off the wheel in Vienna, and that’s the wheel. I think we were both more enamored of the fact it was from this movie we really liked. But it’s also a good background photo.
[If you’ve never read my Hell World essay about moping around Vienna and Prague you should. It’s “one of the good ones.”]
I was looking through some of your other pictures. One was Kurt in Watertown. That stuck out to me because I lived in Watertown for like thirteen years never thinking for any reason that Kurt Cobain would have ever visited. What was going on then?
They played at Green Street Station and I got a call from a friend who knew them in Seattle saying this band needed a place to stay for the night. I went to see them, but I didn’t have a camera on me because my boyfriend and I were on a date. He didn't like it when I took pictures when we were on a date because it was working. So we went to see them. There were about thirteen people in the room. Somebody recorded it which is great. At the end of the show they followed us back to Watertown. I shot everyone the next day hanging out.
You’re talking about the one where he’s holding the strawberry Quik right? So they all brought in their camp pads and threw them all over the floor of our living room. Those pictures are in my living room. You can see my tarot deck in the background and some records and I think Krist’s feet. I guess I thought it was so funny that he would walk to the corner store and by this box of strawberry Quik. And now I know that he drank it for his stomach.
Any good Evan Dando stories?
I don’t know I met him when I was like thirteen. I could tell you about babysitting with him.
Evan Dando babysat you!?
No, no. I can’t remember. I used to babysit someone and he was a neighbor and come out and we’d all play together when we were teenagers. But nothing really. I feel like I’ve known him my whole life. He’s Evan. Hi Evan. We both hang out on the Vineyard. He’s a great songwriter I can tell you that. My husband and I are both big fans of his voice. That baritone is really special. You don’t get a lot of pop singers singing that low.
I was just looking at another series you did, Slam Dance, about hardcore and punk shows in the 80s. What do you think, having been in that scene, and now operating a club today, are the biggest differences between Boston then and Boston now?
Well I’m a mom, and an owner, so I’d like to think the clubs are safer. You know, fire safety I don’t think was very great…. I’m guessing the sound is better. Do I think there’s a big difference with the people bouncing around… Well, right before we closed, I saw a video of someone jumping off the lounge balcony into the crowd at Once, so that still existed. I hope it exists again some day.
What was different about those shows was there was this time, maybe 1985-1988, there was this circuit of bands travelling in vans who toured all the time. Maybe they can’t make any money now? Maybe that’s why they don’t do it as much anymore. And they’d play real venues, and they’d pack it a lot of times with afternoon matinees. We never get asked to do that and I’d be happy to any time. I don’t know why people aren’t doing them now. But they were great. Younger people with a ton of energy. There’s still a ton of exciting new music don’t get me wrong, but maybe not as many on that level. Now to get out there maybe you need to be coming out of the gate a little more advanced as musicians, maybe not taking as many risks. When I toured I used to have jobs where I’d say I’m going on tour, then I’d come back and get another job. Or they’d hold it for me. I don't know if people do that now. I’m too old to know that. Hey kids, do you still peace out and go on tour? And when I mean tour I don’t mean a little run over four days I mean all around the entire damn country.
It was cheap to live in Portland then so it was easy to take a break. Where I live now is one of the most expensive places in the country. I don’t know if people can take time off like that anymore.
You’re the first person that’s ever asked me about two of my lives. Usually I’m only ever being interviewed about the venue, or my photos, but nobody has ever asked about both at once.
Well it seems a logical connection to me! I don’t know why.
I don’t usually get to talk about one life and then the other. They are two separate things. One of them I think of as a hobby, but maybe now that I’m being forced into this place it will have to stop being a hobby. Anybody want a portrait? I’m for hire!
What is going on with the club?
We’re obviously dark but we are around. First of all there’s a lot of keeping an eye on things, making sure the water main doesn’t break or something. We’re also doing two things right now in our struggle to find some revenue sources. We’ve turned the stage into a soundstage where we have a whole set up with five cameras. And we’re cooking out of the kitchen desperately trying to get some revenue.
You said something about getting fucked over on bills even while you’re largely closed?
We had a higher level artist come in to record on the sound stage, so I turned on the air conditioning. I’ve been trying not to run up the bills but I figured it’s worth the hundred or so dollars for the a.c. The bills for that room were on average $1,500 a month. About $100 a day for a hot show. I was ready for that. What I wasn’t ready for was a bill of $778. It was $18 of actual electricity and then about $750 of “delivery fees.”
Delivery fees? What is that?
I called Eversource and I said how is it possible I used $18 of electricity and you billed me $750 for delivery, and they said if you turn on something that draws a lot of electricity, we assume you’re going to use electricity in the way you used it a year ago. So we deliver a lot of electricity to you to be prepared for that. I said it’s a global pandemic. We’re closed. You can’t base anything on the prior year that’s ludicrous. They said there’s nothing we can do. You can set up a payment plan with one of our partners.
So they charge you for hypothetical energy you never used and they won’t cut you a break?
And there was no way we were going to use it. So I looked back through my past bills. I discovered we always pay three or more times than what we use on delivery. So on a $1,500 bill it would be $300 or electricity and the rest on delivery. So what I want to know is do we get a credit? Will I be using electricity they already distributed to me because in the past they’ve sent four or five times what I needed every month.
Eversource is all over the place with “We want to support our customers. We love you in this hard time.” Bullshit. They’re not giving anybody a break. They’re delaying bills. They’re not turning anyone’s electricity off, but only because they’ve been told they can’t. And what’s going to happen is everyone is going to get walloped with huge bills. I can’t get anyone on the phone who has any ability to do anything. They just keep giving me the same line over and over which is that I can take a loan from one of their partners, which reallypisses me off. So I’m supposed to pay interest on top of what I’m already paying? We have a choice who we buy our electricity from, the city of Somerville, but we don’t have a choice on who delivers it. It’s always Eversource. It's a monopoly. They basically own our asses. I’m getting really angry. Are they really screwing us this badly for their own interest? Now other people I know are saying, wow that happened to me. We turned on one air conditioner for three hours. In my mind that could’ve been $50-100. Not $778 for three hours of air conditioning.
I wanted to ask more generally about shutting down the club and lounge. How has that been? Are you holding on?
We got a PPP loan. Part of what I’m freaking out a bit with this whole stupidity is that, and I might be misunderstanding this, but somewhere down the line I learned that you can apply for forgiveness on these loans and hope they become grants. There are all kinds of rules and they keep changing. One, I believe, is that you have to stay current on all your utility bills, which to me sounds like an antitrust thing, because ...why? Why is that part of this equation and other things aren’t? I’ve been trying desperately to follow the rules so I can get this loan forgiven. This bill will actually take away my ability to employ someone for a week. This is directly coming out of the pockets of somebody. We don’t have unlimited resources and there’s no breathing room right now.
We’re finally starting to find things, renting the soundstage, and this macaroni and cheese club we’re doing, but… Nobody should have to recreate a business in five months. So what do we do? I don’t know!
Are you in danger of closing? How dire are things?
I think that it should be noted that when you talk about closing that everybody has closed, past tense. We are looking toward the city and National Independent Venue Association and other organizations that are specifically recognizing that the performing arts are going to be in big trouble. It’s not going to be good over time. There are groups pressuring Congress to pass specific relief for the performing arts. It’s not just about me it’s about everybody. The Save our Stages Act is what was written by NIVA. There’s also one called the Restart Act. Neither one from what I understand made it do discussion before they recessed.
Think about how many interest groups are asking for money right now though. Are we going to be heard over, say... Eversource? We’re making a lot of noise, performers are making noise, but is it going to be recognized how much we contribute to the economy? The people that came to our venue, we would open at nine, and they would all come over from Highland Kitchen. So what kind of bump is HIghland Kitchen missing now too?
When I was thinking about calling you I realized, man, I would really love to go to Highland Kitchen and have a bite, then go over to a show at Once. Who knows if I’ll ever be able to do that again.
I totally hear you. In the short term we need policy and financial support. All the venues and event spaces are asking for it and we all need it.
What about your employees? Are they fucked or…
We’re all fucked. Everybody’s fucked as of the end of July. Now they’re getting a percentage of what they were earning instead of that little bit extra to take them up to what they need. Bartenders...ugh. I just want to cry when I think about the position bartenders are in. I have a bartender named Scary. Turns out she’s a terrific cook, which I never knew, so now she’s in the kitchen. We’re doing a little catering and personal cheffing. So it’s about pivoting.
Well I hope I see you at the club again some day ever.
Keep on the #saveourstages thing. It’s possible. It happened in other countries where they recognized the importance of the performing arts and if we don’t protect these places… There will be Live Nation rooms. There will be AEG rooms. But there won’t be small independent rooms. I guess people will just play basements and we’ll go back in time. We’ll go back to Prague in 1992.