Suicide Is No Solution

The S.I.M.S. Foundation

For nearly a decade, Sims Ellison played bass for Pariah, a local hard rock band whose long, steady grassroots build, fanatic fanbase, and eventual major-label signing made them seem like Austin's next big thing. And in 1991, when the band finally inked a multi-album deal with a label well known for breaking hard rock acts such as Tesla, Whitesnake, and most notably Guns 'n' Roses, Geffen probably thought the same thing. Unfortunately for everyone involved, when Pariah's debut, To Mock a Killingbird, was finally released two years later, the musical climate had changed considerably -- thanks mostly to another Geffen release, Nevermind.

Though it was released in 1992, Nirvana's second album nevertheless starting cashing in the following year, and its overwhelming success probably played no small part in Pariah's debut dying on the vine without much help from its label. Hard rock was, after all, dead. Still, all parties seemed to be moving towards a second Pariah album when it was announced in early 1995 that band and label had severed ties. Few in the local music community were then surprised when the band announced its "indefinite hiatus" shortly thereafter. Shock, however, was what rippled through that same community several weeks later when 28-year-old Sims Ellison committed suicide.

Ironically, Ellison chose to end his life the same way that Kurt Cobain had a year earlier; a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head. Yet unlike Cobain, who had a well-known, well-publicized history of death wishes (the infamous gun-in-mouth photo shoot and Nirvana's "Hate Myself and Want to Die"), Sims Ellison had never given friends or family any indication what he was contemplating. As with most suicides, no one saw it coming.

Afterwards, local pundits began guessing that Ellison's suicide had been fueled mostly by the band's split with Geffen and Pariah's impending break-up, even though counseling experts said there were almost certainly more substantial reasons for an act so desperate. And yet, family and friends readily admit they never detected Ellison's depression before, during, or after Pariah's inner troubles came to a head. "With Pariah, we all started pointing fingers at each other, when we really should have just been trying to get off our Geffen contract," says Kyle Ellison, who, like his brother, had played exclusively with Pariah since high school. "And it became a really sad ending to a good hard try. I could have handled Pariah breaking up, but Sims being gone is a whole different issue... because that's really forever."

The search for a reason why may be the most obvious reaction to anyone's suicide, but experts warn that speculation is just that. So today, while the Ellison family seems painfully aware they'll never actually know why Sims choose to end his life (a year ago this month), they also seem positively determined to respond to suicide's ultimate call for help with their own productive answer: a call for preventive counseling and education. "I've read a lot on depression since all this has happened, just trying to understand it," says Kyle Ellison. "But therapists tell me depression is the most under-diagnosed disease there is. And with musicians, lacking a support line they can turn to, it's even greater uncharted territory [in the music community]."

While killing time may be de rigeur in the music industry, the Ellison family wasted no time at all in forming S.I.M.S. (Services Invested in Musician Support) after their son's death. With the help of Austin Rehearsal Complex co-owners Wayne Nagel and Don Harvey, the ARC's Kristal Stephens, and a team of local counselors, they envisioned S.I.M.S. as a simple and unique concept: a non-profit outreach hotline that matches interested Austin musicians with professional counselors. And because S.I.M.S. counselors believe health-care costs can be the deciding factor in a musicians' search for help, S.I.M.S. not only arranges for the counseling but also picks up nearly all the cost, save a $10 minimum payment.

"The idea is for musicians taking care of themselves," says Nagel. "Through word of mouth, and successful musician-counselor meetings, they're beginning to find out there's a place to turn to. For us, it isn't that suicide is a dirty word, it's just that we want to prevent it from happening again and again. One year later, there's already good being done. The fact that it was Sims who took his life is telling in itself, because on the surface he looked like he had his life together. He was talented and well-liked, and in a band that had a deal, toured, and owned its own van. But obviously, he had inner demons or he wouldn't have left us. Seeing that it was Sims, you know it could be anybody."

Although dozens of local musicians have used the service since last July, even at discount rates counseling is expensive. Initially, S.I.M.S. operated on funds from in-lieu-of-flowers donations and a pair of Sims Ellison tribute shows at the Back Room and San Antonio's Sneakers. A March fundraiser at Liberty Lunch featuring Ian Moore, Charlie Sexton, and the Meat Puppets' Kirk Kirkwood, as well as the proceeds from a Sunday night SXSW Steamboat showcase, also added to S.I.M.S. coffers. But it was last week's announcement by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) that it would pledge both financial and promotional support to S.I.M.S. that is proving to be the foundation's biggest gain yet. NARAS' financial contribution, say the S.I.M.S. directors, should not only alleviate overhead office costs, but may also cover the costs of emergency, long-term treatment for musicians in need of help. Additionally, the two organizations hope to collaborate through NARAS' own "Music Cares" program, a national 1-800 hotline that could soon begin to refer regional calls directly to the S.I.M.S. Foundation.

"It's really mind-boggling to step back and realize that within a year we're dealing with NARAS," says Peyton Wimmer, a S.I.M.S. Director and musician-turned-counselor. "To have the respect of an organization with such a unified voice is the equivalent of starting a business and in one year going in with IBM. Our primary concern is the Austin music community, and we'll never take the focus off of that and let the people at home slip through the cracks. But at the same time, NARAS is going to need someone at this level in every town. It's a franchise concept, and with S.I.M.S., we already have a very good reproducible system we'd love to see go nationally, with the strengths shown locally."

Yet because musicians have become so indoctrinated by the succeed-or-die-trying roar of sex, drugs, and rock & roll, Wimmer says counseling itself needs somewhat of an image revision within the music industry. In fact, the local foundation says it's hoping a 15-minute video featuring Alejandro Escovedo, Moore, Sexton, Ellison, and other former Pariah members will not only complement the S.I.M.S. word-of-mouth campaign, but also use the respect associated with these high-profile local names to "normalize" counseling -- thereby reducing the fear and embarrassment that experts say commonly stands in the way of seeking help.

"It's very important that the musicians don't think of counseling specifically as something you go to when you're over the edge," explains Wimmer, "but rather as a place where you can go to explore options and think things out. And it's not that they're going to go and simply be told to quit whatever they're doing; it's more of a personal experience where you can find out what you're doing and how it is you're doing something you really may not be into."

With the Cobain and Ellison suicides, and the recent drug overdoses of Blind Melon's Shannon Hoon and Sublime's Brad Nowell (drug dependency is often seen as a form of depression), record labels are only now beginning to support their artist's counseling and rehabilitation needs -- mostly, say S.I.M.S. counselors, because friends of the deceased and rehabilitated musicians have applied public pressures. S.I.M.S.'s directors say they hope their organization can apply similar pressure from and within Austin.

But what about artists who are successful -- those musicians who seemingly have it all? Not surprisingly, Wimmer contends that successful, major-label musicians are often just as depressed as seemingly unsuccessful locals, and that S.I.M.S.'s mission is to not only cater to both camps, but also to extend services to wives, bartenders, road crews, dancers, and support players -- in short, any Austinite who might be battling the music industry's tough expectations and losing.

"Just how success is defined in the music world is a really important thing to look at," says Wimmer. "Kids look at Jimi Hendrix and how he's bigger today then he ever was and want to be just like that. The simple fact that he happens to be dead [overdosed] never really registers. That stereotype needs to be changed, just as it's important to remember you don't have to be clinically depressed to be creative and you don't have to be happy and laughing to be satisfied with your work.

"You also don't have to be on a major label to be successful. So often, you can lose creative control and become real unhappy that way. It's a matter of stepping back and looking where you can make yourself the most happy, which may not be as the lead singer of a band on a big label. And in that sense, what S.I.M.S. also offers is a kind of career counseling."

Outside of Austin, S.I.M.S.'s best promotional vehicle may just be one of its founders, Kyle Ellison. Only five months after his brother's death, Ellison began touring with the Meat Puppets as their rhythm guitarist, a job that would ultimately lead to his latest stint -- supporting the Butthole Surfers in the same capacity. He is, of course, a walking, talking example that there is life after your band breaks up. "I think Sims would be proud," reflects Ellison on what his brother might have thought of his new gig. "Three years ago we went together to see the Buttholes with Stone Temple Pilots and talked about the show itself all throughout it. I like playing guitar, always have and always want to. But for me now, anything I do feels like it's for Sims and to help other people."

On the road, Ellison travels with a bag of S.I.M.S. promotional videos, which he shows fellow musicians and whatever record company personnel he encounters along the way. So far, both of Ellison's bands, the Meat Puppets, and the Buttholes, have promised to contribute tracks to a S.I.M.S. compilation he's planning. "My part has been the musical side," Ellison says, "trying to get this CD going. It's hard for me to go to all the meetings, but it's not as hard to put together a cool CD I think other people will like." Between tours, Ellison has also lined up commitments for musical contributions from locals like Moore, Sexton, Seed, and Pork. The next step, he says, will be approaching both Geffen and new DreamWorks A&R honcho Michael Goldstone about major-label distribution. At the same time, he's already got another S.I.M.S. benefit CD in the works; this one collecting re-mixed versions of Pariah's final demos -- Sims Ellison's final work. Meanwhile, Kyle Ellison completes his own counseling program on the road.

"Obviously there's a lot of memories in Austin," says Ellison of his decision to tour and support S.I.M.S. from the road. "Every street I drive down is a trip down `Sims and Kyle Lane.' So it's kind of been good to get out. It makes me do stuff even when I'm having a bad day and am finding it hard to be motivated to do anything. Sims and I lived together our whole lives and played together in the same band for 10 years, so it's hard every day and every day his death means something new to me. It's an ongoing thing. I don't have much of choice now, and can't help him personally now, but hopefully S.I.M.S. can help people in similar situations." n

For help and/or non-profit donations, call the S.I.M.S. hotline (512) 494-1007.

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