memory lane

Looking at Elliott Smith

By
Photography JJ Gonson

Published August 25, 2020


Elliott Smith was nothing short of extraordinary. The legacy of the late singer-songwriter, whose melancholy melodies became the unofficial soundtrack of Gen X, has loomed over music history. But when his self-titled second album came out in 1995—adored by fellow musicians like the Beastie Boys—it was largely ignored by the press. To help do him justice, the Kill Rock Stars label is releasing an expanded 25th anniversary edition of the album, accompanied by a book of previously unseen photographs by JJ Gonson, the former manager of Smith’s band and his dear friend. The photographs are at once vulnerable and shamelessly punk rock, much like Smith himself. Below, the photographer shares some of her favorite exclusives of the elusive artist, and how she got them.

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Peter Frampton’s Star

“Throughout the ’80s, when I was shooting three punk bands a night in dark venues, I shot primarily Tri-X. Classic, 400 ASA, black and white film. Not only was the exposure less likely to go wrong (or if it did, I could probably fix it in the darkroom) but I was going to art school and working in a photo lab and I had unlimited access to black and white photo processing. Color was a luxury item in my mind, and I did not really start playing with it until the 90s, post college/free lab, when I got out of mostly shooting live music in dark rooms and into daylight, where color was great fun to shoot.

When I first started working with Elliott’s band, Heatmiser, I asked them what they wanted from a manager, and they said, “to make a living.” We were kids, all of us. Our living expenses were low, and “making a living” was not as lofty a goal in Portland, Oregon in the ’90s as it is now. So “making a living” was where we set our sights, and we spent the next couple of years putting the pieces in place, slowly, slowly… playing locally until eventually there were tours, then there was an indie label, and then along came a terrific A&R guy, named Andy Factor, and he asked what it would take to get the band to have a meeting. I said, “We will come to L.A., but you have to take us to Disneyland.” I know now that Andy was less than thrilled, but he was far too nice to let on.  If I had known then how much he truly disliked those rides I would never have asked him to go with us!  He was a trooper, and he spent a long, silly day with us, spinning and swooping and pretending to enjoy with us the goofier side of L.A. 

I had never really explored LA, and I wanted to see the touristy stuff, so Elliott and I spent a day looking at the stars and walking around Hollywood Boulevard. We were classic tourists, really. I have photos of us with a bunch of stars on the walk. I guess this must have been what Elliott thought was a cool Peter Frampton pose. I was way more into Big Bird’s star, myself. Andy, I am sorry I made you go on Space Mountain, but thank you for doing it. It was a sweetly memorable day.”

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City Lights Bookstore 

“I love the dreamy, soft quality of this image. I would like to say I meant to do it, but it is more likely because I shot with a fairly low-end Minolta with a fixed 50mm Vivitar lens that had been through the pit, multiple times. I was really loyal to that camera. My grandmother gave it to me for my Bat Mitzvah because it was an affordable SLR option, and it turned out to be a tank of a thing. I think I was superstitiously unwilling to change my gear, and now I’m glad I didn’t. I like the softness.

I booked all but one of Heatmiser’s tours, as well as tour managing most of them (which meant driving, doing laundry and standing up to be paid at the end of the night, which is extra fun if you are a small girl). I would always do my best to land any extra days in the best places, like San Francisco. A day off with friends was gold. We usually were sleeping on people’s floors, in this case probably Sluggo’s, and the town-to-town schlep was exhausting. So days off were often times when we sought out solace, not parties.

I love bookstores. So did Elliott. When they used to be everywhere, pre-digital age, I never would have thought I would be sentimentalizing them. They were a big attraction on a day off. Quiet. Private. Away from the van and the other guys. The smell— old paper, a little bit of mold, a little bit of ink, a little bit of leather. We would get a cup of tea and sit and soak up the good book energy in silence. 

My old memories are stirred by the bracelets he is wearing. He went through a phase of coveting silver ID bracelets. They were harder to find than you might think, and we really looked. These were beloved and he wore them all the time. He looks a little sly and antsy here—maybe we were getting ready to go and I posed him. I think there was probably a Mission burrito calling our names. Portland has Powell’s. S.F. has City Lights. Last of the breed. I hope these amazing places, already knocked back by the digital age, will survive shutdowns. There is nothing that can replace a bookstore when you need a break from a van full of noisy boys.”

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Hat Tip

“This photo was taken on a trip we took up to Vancouver, B.C. just for fun. We had played there and the short amount of time we had been in the city was not enough. There are many photos with bridges and trees, sunlight forming straight lines, and lots of shadows. On most of the roll I was looking at the shapes of nature and making images of them, which I love to do. Little vignettes. Tiny treasures. You can see the relaxation in this photo. You can tell we are on vacation, not working. No agenda. Just hanging out.

That hat he is wearing is one that he wore a lot. You might have seen it in other photos. It said Heli-jet on it, and it amused me so much. For a photo this tight, I would have been right in his face. I point my camera at my friends a lot, and sometimes I catch a moment like this that is just for me. A sweet smile and a tip of the hat.”

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Coffee People

“Coffee People was a small, local chain of shops in Portland in the 90’s. Very popular, not least of all because we knew a ton of people who worked there. If you were a coffee shop person, you worked at Coffee People or the new guys from Seattle, Starbucks. I’m guessing most of the time we didn’t pay much. The best location, IMO, was “Motor Moka,” a drive-through on the East Side on MLK. My favorite thing was a dark espresso shake that I couldn’t remember the name of. I had to ask Jason Mitchell, who introduced me to Heatmiser and was our dear friend, and who was one of the tons of people we knew who worked at a Coffee People. Jason reminded me that it was a Black Tiger shake. Apparently Black Tiger was the blend they made with robusta instead of arabica beans that had way more caffeine. I have no idea how he remembers that, when I couldn’t even remember the name! 

Coffee People coffee in general was really strong. Elliott is probably totally jacked in this photo. Just on caffeine, though. To me, this photo tells a whole story of 1990s Portland. Wet streets, an ironically hipster coat (probably from the Goodwill bins), the double hoop earrings, the “fuck you I’ll wear what I want”-ness of the cat-eye glasses, and the Coffee People cup.”