For Sims Ellison, 1990 was the year to kick all other years' asses. After five years of practice, performing, and tireless self-promotion, Pariah*, the hard-rock band formed and driven by Sims and his younger brother Kyle, had graduated from playing sold-out shows in San Antonio gymnasiums to warming up the crowds at Austin's biggest rock arenas. Ditching their hometown for "the live music capital of the world," Pariah quickly became Austin's most popular hard-rock band, an honor rewarded with opening gigs for the biggest touring acts of the day.
Along the way, Pariah released two self-produced cassettes, Pariah and Rattle Your Skull, which inspired rave reviews and ongoing coverage in Metal Edge magazine. The articles were a windfall for the band--before long, Pariah was receiving thousands of fan letters a month, from all over the world. Sims worked with his mother, Bonnie, to assemble a mailing list of 25,000 passionate Pariah fans--a remarkable following that would serve as key leverage in the bidding wars that erupted after Pariah's career-best performance at 1990's South by Southwest music conference. The band signed a seven-record deal with Geffen, home to Pariah's beloved Guns N' Roses, who, two years earlier, had rewritten the rules of rock with their ferocious debut, Appetite for Destruction.
The success of Appetite created an unprecedented demand for more--more hard, fast rock played by skinny long-haired guys wrapped either in denim-and-leather or spandex-and-scarves, banging out songs of booze and screwing and slapping your bitch around when she needs it. Thankfully, Pariah went easy on the spandex and misogyny (and Sims stayed away from all intoxicants), but in most other respects Pariah was your prototypical hard-rock band. In addition to Sims on bass and Kyle on guitar, Pariah contained vocalist Dave Derrick, guitarist Jared Tuten, and drummer Shandon Sahm (son of Austin music legend Doug Sahm). Geffen treated Pariah like heirs to the throne, brandishing the title "the next Guns N' Roses" in front of the band members with intoxicating ease.
As the band's primary writer and business director, Sims experienced Pariah's breakthrough as a personal dream come true, seemingly down to the last detail. He was blessed--with a band, a supportive family, and a girlfriend so great the whole world would eventually fall in love with her. In retrospect, those closest to Sims must wonder if there were clues to be found of the mental illness that would soon enough drive him to take his own life. But in 1990, all anyone could see was a star being born.
And then came Nevermind.
In September of 1991, the relatively unknown Northwest band Nirvana released its second album, Nevermind, a record that would change the world. By year's end, Nevermind would be credited with instigating the "Alternative Revolution," which found a worship-worthy anti-hero in Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, and a slew of despicable villains in hard rock's recently deposed old guard.
Rarely has a musical backlash been as decisive and merciless. Only disco has suffered a comparable downfall, plunging virtually overnight from worldwide phenomenon to worldwide joke. Nirvana's raw artistry and razor-wired wall of sound knocked the late-'80s rock gods on their spandexed asses, instantly rendering the codpiece-wearing, model-dating, excessive-by-design rock star of the '80s obsolete, or at least deeply uncool. Bands who'd spent years touring the world as objects of worship--Poison, Warrant, Skid Row--found themselves objects of ridicule, relics of a bygone age of mindless hedonism and brain-dead sexism that contemporary citizens were morally required to scorn.
For most of the hard-rock set, life after Nirvana consisted of half-filled shows on triple-billed nostalgia tours, klutzy grunge makeovers, royalties from radio and stadium play, and tragicomic "Where are they now?" exposés on VH-1.
For Pariah, life after Nirvana meant--nothing. After signing with Geffen in 1990, Pariah returned to Austin, where they started playing out as full-fledged headliners while awaiting marching orders from their label. "Sims was a nervous wreck," says Betsy Eades, a close friend of Sims throughout Pariah's career. "He was on the phone to Geffen every day, trying to pressure them into moving forward." After two years of fruitless waiting, Pariah released the self-produced CD Make Believe, on the band's own label, Sick Kid Productions.
In early 1992, Geffen finally brought Pariah to Los Angeles, where the band met with legendary heavy-metal producer Tom Werman, and Sims had a run-in with the most famous woman in the world. (Upon bumping into Madonna in the green room of an L.A. recording studio, Sims introduced himself and asked if she wanted to shoot some pool. Work required Madonna to decline, but she repaid Sims' friendliness by inviting him to appear in her "Deeper and Deeper" video--that's him with the long hair on the couch.)
In late '92, almost three full years after their signing, Pariah finally entered a studio to record what would be the band's major-label debut. Angling to repackage Pariah as a grunge-acceptable rock outfit, Geffen suggested the album title Bikini Roadkill, to be illustrated by a cover photo of the band in the back of a pickup truck, trailed by a row of girls in bikinis, splayed out on the road like armadillos. In retrospect, Geffen's suggestion is so bizarrely offensive--Look! Sexy dead feminists!--it almost qualifies as genius. But for Pariah, it was just another crushing example of Geffen's utter ignorance of the band it had once so passionately courted. "Throughout the wait, Sims had struggled to trust Geffen," says Eades. "Pariah's A&R rep had always presented the delay as being for the band's benefit, 'holding out for just the right time,' that sort of thing." As it turned out, Sims' fears of being screwed by Geffen, of Pariah's "moment" slipping away, proved too legitimate to ignore.
In January 1993, Pariah's Geffen debut, To Mock a Killingbird, hit the streets and promptly went nowhere. Geffen dutifully sent the band out on tour, but pulled the plug after three weeks, ordering the band to return home until further notice. A defiant Pariah wrangled private funding and continued the tour on their own. The band agonized over their desertion by Geffen, but were thrilled to be back playing their music for people who wanted to hear it.
After six months, Pariah returned to Austin, where Sims took a day job at Urban Outfitters, devoting the rest of his time to writing new material with the band.
By the end of 1994, Pariah had 30 new songs.
In May 1995, the band was unceremoniously dropped from Geffen.
One week later, at Austin's Backroom, Pariah played what they announced would be their final show.
Two weeks later, Sims died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
It's impossible to contemplate the death of Sims Ellison without considering the death of Kurt Cobain, who, 13 months earlier, had ended his life with a rifle blast to the head. It's tempting to imagine the deaths as somehow linked--not by anything so crass as cause-and-effect (though Nirvana's success played no small part in Pariah's "failure"), but as two sides of a coin. On one side was Sims, the poor heavy-metal boy who played the game and lost and blew his brains out; on the other side was Kurt, the world-renowned alterna-genius who played the game and won and blew his brains out.
Of course, such a simplistic reading of Sims' and Kurt's deaths requires near total ignorance of the facts of the individuals' lives. Kurt's suicide was undoubtedly tied to his heroin addiction; likewise, Sims' death was certainly linked to his depression, an affliction that grew increasingly problematic as Sims entered adulthood and began experiencing the periodic spells that left him hollow-eyed and desolate--"sick," Sims' family called it, accompanying him to a number of counselors, with limited success. The factors behind Kurt's and Sims' suicides could hardly be more different, but viewed together, the men's deaths tell a horrible story, positing the pursuit of rock stardom as a game in which both winner and loser wind up dead.
Sims' suicide hit his loved ones--and the Austin music community at large--like a bomb. Those closest to Sims knew of his breakdowns, his family's ventures into group counseling, his unsuccessful trial runs with antidepressants. They knew that Sims' frustration with the fate of Pariah was compounded by his heartbreaking breakup with his girlfriend, Renée. As Sims' career stalled, Renée's shot forward, with the quirky Texas beauty finding regular acting work in Texas' burgeoning independent film scene. For Renée, the horror of her first love's suicide would be followed, so quickly that it seemed almost cruel, by the break of a lifetime--a starring role opposite Tom Cruise in 1996's Oscar-winning blockbuster Jerry Maguire. Sims was gone before Renée Zellweger became a household name, before Pariah-styled rock made its semi-ironic comeback in the late '90s, before anyone who loved him had a chance to beg him to stay.
Sims was found dead on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, Austin American-Statesman columnist Michael Corcoran suggested that Sims' memory might be best served by setting up a counseling program for musicians--"a service that would make available therapists who understand the complexities of being in a band," wrote Corcoran. Almost instantly, the idea of a musician-friendly mental-health network took off. When Sims' obituary ran on Wednesday, it closed with the suggestion that "in lieu of flowers," well-wishers send donations to the organization that would soon christen itself the SIMS ("Services Invested in Musician Support") Foundation. On Friday, a crowd of family, friends, and fans packed into Austin's Backroom--home to hundreds of blowout Pariah shows--for a memorial tribute to Sims, and the first of many fundraisers for SIMS, which would become incorporated as 501(c)(3) nonprofit and announce its board of directors--including Sims and Kyle's father, Don Ellison--within two months of Sims' death.
Whereas Kurt Cobain's death seemed to inspire little beyond Courtney Love's career and Richard Lee's psychosis (see pg. 27), Sims Ellison's death galvanized Austin. "If only I'd known..." was the common refrain among Sims' shell-shocked associates. Close friends say Sims himself only began to understand his mental state in the year and a half before his death. "Until then he didn't realize that his brain was different from other people's," says Eades. "Only at the end did he learn that therapy might be an option." Sims learned too late. But Austin's diverse, tight-knit music community would soon prove itself willing to do whatever was necessary to prevent another of its own from suffering in isolation and giving up too soon.
"We're here because the lifestyle of the musician is extremely difficult," says Don Harvey, a 25-year veteran of the Austin music scene and one of the SIMS Foundation's founders. "At all stages, whether you're struggling to get a tour or you've been touring for 10 years, it's hard. Work is sporadic, income's unreliable, and very few people have health insurance. If a musician's having a problem, he or she is not necessarily going to have a hundred bucks to go see a therapist."
Which is where the SIMS Foundation comes in. "Basically, we're a referral service," says Harvey, pointing to SIMS' network of mental-health professionals ready to help Austin's musicians with everything from addiction and depression to stage fright and sex problems, for a fraction of their usual fees. After the patient covers a minimal co-pay, SIMS takes care of the rest.
Still, cost of care is only part of the problem. Equally daunting is the social stigma and long-standing code of silence surrounding issues of mental illness. To combat this insidious problem, SIMS rigorously maintains a vital public presence, keeping both its name and its mission at the center of Austin's civic and cultural life. But for many Austin musicians, the fate of Sims himself effectively obliterated any lingering stigma; if it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone.
Now in its seventh year, SIMS continues to operate solely on donations and proceeds from its various benefit shows and fundraisers, the most successful of which is Austin radio station KGSR's annual Broadcasts CD, a collection of live-in-the-studio performances by such artists as Willie Nelson, Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams, and Beck. All profits from the Broadcasts CDs go directly to SIMS; for the past few years, Broadcasts has provided the foundation with nearly 70 percent of its annual operating budget. (In 1999, SIMS raised $100,000, three-quarters of which came from KGSR.)
Maintaining the sanity of a community known for living on the edge may seem like a dramatic battle, but the SIMS Foundation's daily concerns are far more prosaic. "Staying on budget is our biggest concern," says Harvey. "If we can do that, we'd love to expand, work with other cities to help build safety nets for musicians' mental health. But in the meantime," Harvey adds, "people should feel free to rip off the SIMS model as much as they want."
Here's hoping it doesn't take another gunshot to make Seattle follow his advice.
*Not to be confused with England's Pariah, the late-'90s metal band that also recorded under the names Satan and Blind Fury.
For more information on the SIMS Foundation, see www.simsfoundation.org.