Every Day of Your Life
The SIMS Foundation, Five Years Later
It just wasn't working out for Sims Ellison. Not Pariah's album, which had not turned out the way anyone in the band wanted and shoulda been a contender. Not with Geffen Records, who signed Pariah in 1991 when Guns N' Roses were kings and dropped them in May '95 after treating them like any other band -- shabbily. Not with his girlfriend, Renee Zellweger, whose acting career was beginning to take off in Hollywood. Sims had gotten a day job at Urban Outfitters, a new store opening on the Drag. It wasn't rock & roll, but it would pay the bills. Sims was at a loss for words about his life, why he was so depressed. Friends he had, friends who loved him as much as his family, as much as his mother Bonnie or father Don or his brother and bandmate Kyle. Friends would tell him things were okay and they meant it, that the next album would be better, the next label more human, that having a day job was fine. His friends meant well, but they were wrong. Things were not getting better.
And he'd tried. Tried with his family, who were as supportive as they had always been close-knit. Tried with therapists who frightened him with threats of hospitalization. Tried on his own, but the deep dark fears always came back to life. No more.
The heavy puzzle of metal weighted his hand with an unfamiliar heft. Sims had gone bird hunting with his dad before, but the handgun was different. It looked so different in movies and videos; the camera could always turn away at precisely the right moment. Only there was no turning away on this muggy June night. No turning away from the pain, the fear, the despondency, the disillusionment. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.
In his downtown apartment, he sat alone in his bedroom with the gun. There was so much to think about, and yet there was only the one thought: In the barrel of the gun lay the solution. An end to the pain, end to the fear, end to the despondency, end to the disillusionment.
His jumble of thoughts were as tortured as his decision. Please understand, Mom, Dad ... Kyle ... I am not doing this to hurt you, I love you. It's me ... I don't want to feel this way anymore ...
Sims lifted the gun and rested its muzzle to his skin. He pushed it hard into his flesh. A tear streaked over the sweet curve of his cheek. Then he squeezed the trigger.
His life should have ended that moment. It did not. Sims Ellison lay dying, unconscious as his life drained from his body, seeping into the carpet and staining it dark as the night, dark as blood.
After the fifth anniversary of his son's suicide, Don Ellison is on the telephone from his office in Houston. An engineer for energy resources ("We have green projects too," he volunteers proudly), his work takes him around the world, but the subject of his son grounds him. What happened five years ago, he says, "is like yesterday to me."
At Sims' funeral, Don and his ex-wife Bonnie wept openly for their beautiful son who seemed to have so much. The faces of Sims' bandmates, Shandon Sahm, Dave Derrick, Jared Tuten, and Kyle, were masks of grief, stunned by disbelief, devastated by the loss of their friend and brother, brokenhearted at not being able to help him. All moved awkwardly through the services, gratefully accepting comfort and support from friends and fans and members of the music community who filled the South Austin funeral home as full as Pariah once filled the Back Room. Austin had lost another of its sons too young.
Don Ellison's voice is taut with the kind of hyper-control exerted to suppress deep pain as he tersely confirms the wrenching details of his son's death.
Where was he?
"In his duplex apartment, in his bedroom."
When did it happen?
"About three in the morning."
When did you find out?
"About five that afternoon."
How did you hear about it?
"Bonnie called me."
Kyle had called her?
Words of sympathy came repeatedly from everywhere.
"God never closes one door without opening another," says an Irish aphorism, and a local columnist mused in print that a counseling service geared toward musicians would be an appropriate way to remember Sims. Inspired by that, the SIMS (Services Invested in Musicians' Support) Foundation incorporated just over two months after Ellison's death.
Don Ellison, musician-attorney Walter Taylor, and Austin Rehearsal Complex co-owners Don Harvey and Wayne Nagel became the foundation's board of directors, and in March 1996 the first of many SIMS benefits featured Alejandro Escovedo, Ian Moore, and Charlie Sexton.
Kyle Ellison is hesitant about this part of the story. He worries "the hardcore, gory, sad part" will focus too much on his brother's death, on his particular form of depression, and those details will distract from the mission of the SIMS Foundation.
However, Kyle is firm on one point: "You can't take that final action and sum up Sims' life. It was more complicated than that. I saw how scared he was with the depression."
The heart of the matter is that the SIMS Foundation exists now because Sims Ellison no longer does. Without the story of Sims Ellison, the foundation would not have its namesake, its tragic angel, its raison d'être. The story of Sims Ellison's death, as well as his life and its aftermath, must be told.
On the bare wood floor of a tiny South Austin house, Kyle Ellison sits with several photo albums and a box of pictures scattered before him. The house functions today as the SIMS office, but on this warm April afternoon with Kyle it is empty and un-air-conditioned. It is a reminder that summer will be here soon enough, and that the fifth anniversary of Sims Ellison's death is near.
Most of the photos Kyle brings forth are from Pariah's halcyon days in the early Nineties. The five members look so cool, yet so young and innocent, in their tough-guy rock & roll poses.
The hair and clothing styles change over the years, illustrated as Kyle spreads them out. The era of blond teased hair, cowboy hats, "Rattle Your Skull" T-shirts, and packed shows at the Back Room. Shorter hair and post-grunge with Dr. Seuss rave hats. The band ruled the Hard Rock category of the Austin Music Awards from its earliest days, due in healthy part to the legions of young fans who loved Pariah's pure, lusty rock.
"We must have been the only 'metal' band to cover R.E.M. and Roky Erickson," Kyle remembers, still chafing a little at the "metal" tag that plagued them through their many wins.
Pariah's huge fan base was marshaled by Bonnie Ellison, who set up tables at their shows and sold merchandise, T-shirts, and bumper stickers. She also created the mailing list for the Pariah newsletter, a substantial example of band-fan communication. It was so substantial that the mailing list developed upward of 25,000 names. When the bidding wars began, Pariah's established following was a crucial asset.
In the late Eighties, as Pariah evolved from a high school band in San Antonio to full-fledged Austin headliners, Geffen boasted some of the most successful hard rock acts in the music industry: Whitesnake, Tesla, and Guns N' Roses. When Pariah signed with Geffen it was a dream come true that, as in most label fables, became a nightmare. Don Ellison does not disguise his contempt for the label.
"Geffen told them all the things they'd do for the band and they did nothing."
The label finally got around to recording Pariah three years after their 1991 signing. By then, Geffen had a much different idea of what Pariah should sound like, not taking into account the band's personal growth in the three-year interim. What's worse, Pariah had been signed when Guns N' Roses-style rock ruled. But as Pariah lay fallow, another Geffen band's 1991 debut changed the rock landscape almost overnight.
No one would have guessed 18 months before that Nirvana would be so huge. Geffen was delighted with the monstrous success of the Seattle trio's album Nevermind, and by 1993 focused its efforts on developing them and other grunge bands. By the time Pariah recorded To Mock a Killingbird, the label had effectively written them off.
"We wanted to make a completely different record from what Geffen wanted us to make," recalls Kyle. "Tom Zutaut wanted us to call our record Bikini Roadkill. Those were his words. He wanted us to pose in the back of a pickup truck with bikinied girls looking like roadkill down the road. We were like, 'No way! You just don't get us at all!'
"A band needs the truth, not lies. Why don't they just say 'We're signing you as a write-off, is that okay with you?' The business still seems so corrupt. Sims was really practical. He could deal with the truth, whatever it was.
"I knew a lot of nice people at Geffen, and many of them quit over the way our band was treated," he continues. "Then I met some not-so-nice people there. It just seems like the music business has a little more leeway to be corrupt and take advantage. There's not a practical side to running it.
"My experience in the music business is that it's like smoke and mirrors, or the shell game. For the past 10 years of my life I've been shelved in a way. Not that I haven't recorded -- there's literally 80-100 songs on tape; it's all I've been doing.
"I just think Pariah could have had a normal career. If you can pack the Back Room with 800 people and do that in places like Colorado and a few other cities, you can have normal little life as a band and make a few records. Maybe one will be a hit.
"I've dealt with the same thing recently in the Meat Puppets. Meet an A&R guy and they just don't get it. I have this fantasy of starting the only cool record label, where when you sign you become a partner! 'How about you take all the money, how's that?'
"It's kinda sad because I only have pictures of [Sims] at certain phases. Pariah was together 10 years, and people try to sum up the whole band with a two-year phase, the one where we were a little too influenced by Guns N' Roses." Kyle smiles slightly, the memories of the bittersweet past fanned out in the photographs on the wooden floor.
Kyle holds up a picture of his brother taken the Christmas before he died. Sims holds up a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger doll, looking at the camera with a childlike smile, but Kyle sees something else.
"He's smiling here, but it is grim. I can tell he's sick. That was Christmas Day," Kyle avers.
"I call it sick, when he was depressed, because I truly believe it's an illness. Look at his eyes, his skin ..."
Kyle holds out the photograph of his brother, then puts the pictures in a stack as he looks up.
"As I sit here and try to tell bits of the story, I feel like I haven't told any of it, so it's kind of weird," he says. "Whether it's true or not, it's a good thought to believe he's guiding this effort, and that's what he did, try to make things better for everyone, for his friends. He was the kind of person who could walk right up to Madonna.
"And he did. He went right up to her and said, 'Hey, how's it going?' and she liked it. 'That's weird,' she said, 'No one just comes up [and] starts talking to me.' 'Well, let's go play pool,' Sims said. 'I can't go play pool,' she said. 'Really? That sucksí' he told her, and she just looked at him. 'Wanna be in my video?' she said.
"That was so normal for him to do that," Kyle reflects. "I was thinking, 'Oh no, here we go again but this time it's with Madonna!'"
This memory makes Kyle grin.
"Sims was blunt and honest. The wrong reason started SIMS, but the right reason kept it going. It has to be the real deal or Sims' name is not going to be attached to it.
"I went with him to counseling. We had a group session with my mom and dad and Sims. We went to maybe three different counselors. I remember the first psychiatrist we went to clearly. I remember him talking about not wanting to go. She introduced herself and asked why he was here. And Sims, all blunt and honest, said, 'Well, I bought a gun.' 'Heard enough,' she said. 'I'm committing you.'
"'Wait,' Sims said. 'I'm not there yet. I just bought the gun.' And he ended up running away out of her office. She said she was going to call the cops to get him, and all she needed was one more signature to commit him. Meanwhile, my dad and mom were talking to her saying, 'Look, if you could, back off, we can't find Sims, he's scared to come home.'
"And she was insisting, no, she wanted to commit him. It was three months before we could get away from her. In retrospect, you might look and say she was right, but she went about it all wrong. Her timing and not building trust with Sims ... he was the kind of person that if she'd said, 'We're not forcing you to take pills, you just need to get away from this situation and get a new perspective,' just some way to relate it to him, it might have been different.
"We were trying to get him help for months. And I truly believe what they say, that it's most dangerous when you're feeling better. You have your feet knocked out from under you and get back up enough times, one of those times you get back up on your feet and you've got the strength to ... you know..."
Kyle lets the words trail off, like telling the ending to a movie everyone knows.
"The week before it happened, I was almost amazed. He looked so good it almost made me cry. I had to ask him point blank, 'Promise me you're not going to hurt yourself.' He looked too good. I was sitting across from him at Güero's, and he was glowing. And I could tell he was feeling better. Just a week before it happened.
"The last three days, he was down. He was on medication a little, but he was scared of drugs, even Tylenol. He tried Xanax with his psychiatrist but it made him feel really weird. He stopped taking it because he hated it. Some people spouted off to him, saying he was weak for taking medication -- you have no idea how sensitive some people are, what's going on in their lives. I actually heard someone say, 'Oh, another whiny musician committing suicide because he lost his record deal.' I had to restrain myself."
Kyle's smile is wry. He looks down at the photos again.
"The music press has been good to SIMS locally, but on a national level, the real industry that is lining each other's pockets, they're not embracing it. Willie Nelson's cool like that, he came through. But the others ... it would be nice to see someone like Geffen endow something like SIMS.
"Look how many artists at Geffen have committed suicide. It starts with Kurt Cobain, and I think his suicide definitely influenced Sims. And Pariah didn't even get a card from Geffen after Sims died."
The SIMS board of directors hired Peyton Wimmer to be the foundation's executive director in April 1996. His job was to oversee its operations and design a program of mental-health services. Wimmer came to Austin from Tennessee in the early Eighties and settled into the life of a musician pursuing a college education. Little in his background suggested he was the man for the SIMS job -- except a newly acquired counseling degree from Southwest Texas State University, years of experience as a musician, and a sincere desire to help the music community.
Under Wimmer's direction, SIMS emphasizes community education about drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and mental illness as well as professional counseling for musicians. He has helped developed a network of professional counselors and therapists who scale down their fees for musicians and music-industry workers referred by SIMS.
Wimmer clearly distinguishes these goals from similar human-resource services available to the public at large, such as crisis counseling or emergency intervention. SIMS has no legal or debt counselors or attorneys, and does not provide social services. He emphasizes that the Foundation's plans are oriented toward further educational projects and research.
"It is impossible to deal with a problem if you don't address it," Wimmer says. "When I am dealing with someone dealing with addiction or suicide, both are talking to me because they don't want to be doing that or they are at least ambivalent. That's the common ground, we all want to get the most out of life."
Peyton Wimmer did not know Sims Ellison, which surprises many people. He never met Sims during his life, but in death, Ellison had a tremendous influence on Wimmer -- himself a struggling musician.
"I had been a musician and gotten my graduate counseling degree," he explains. "When I read about Sims' death, I thought there should be a way to offer musicians counseling. I called up Don Harvey at the ARC and he invited me down to meet with the others who wanted to help. It was the first time I knew what I wanted to do -- today, tomorrow, five years from now.
"I can't speak for Sims. I didn't know him, but he is my spiritual guide. The spirit of Sims permeates the foundation, the whole mission. Maybe it had to be Sims. He was a gentle soul who touched a lot of people, very compassionate. I wish he knew that. Maybe he does."
Wimmer answers to the board of directors, which includes Alejandro Escovedo and Martha Guthrie in addition to original members Don Ellison, Wayne Nagel, Don Harvey, and Walter Taylor. He depends as much on a group of people he calls "the shadow conspirators," those who volunteer their time for SIMS, like Kristal Stevens in the office, or the countless folks who work the endless rounds of benefits.
Wimmer is also adamant that "the SIMS Foundation is not just about musicians, mental health is not just for musicians. Our strength is that we are grassroots, community-oriented people helping people who have slipped through the cracks."
As with any organization, there is a financial bottom line. The SIMS Foundation relies on benefit profits, public and private donations, and any other support they can get. The money comes from the ongoing benefits, donations, and efforts such as KGSR's annual check from the profits of its popular Broadcasts CD. But that money comes slowly and is spent quickly, especially from the high-profile, moderate-profit benefits.
"We don't go out beating the bushes for money," says Wimmer. "KGSR is such a bright spot with what they have done for us. They've donated about $200,000 in the last three years. Without that we wouldn't have been able to do much of anything. Jody [Denberg] gets choked up every year when he gives us that check. Last year we raised $100,000. Well, $73,000 came from KGSR. That's not a lot left to be coming from donations and shows."
Kyle Ellison expresses frustration at his experience trying to talk to his label about financial support for the foundation.
"I talked to Todd Sullivan at Geffen Records while I was on tour with the Butthole Surfers in L.A.," he says. "I handed him a packet on the SIMS Foundation. He picks up the packet and looks at it, then he sets it down, leans back in his chair and crosses his legs and says, 'This isn't something Geffen would be interested in, I can tell you that right now. How's your mom?'
"That was his next question to me -- how's my mom?!? About like you'd expect after her first-born son committed suicide! He says, 'Well, I'm happy [you're getting] $20 per diem to eat on and you get to ride the bus.' That's what he said to me.
"I got up, said, 'Thanks,' and walked out. I'd taken a cab there and walked back to the hotel. Now, I understand David Geffen is a humanitarian and I haven't talked to him personally, but with the lower end of the company responding like that ..." Kyle looks dismayed and starts fiddling with the photos again.
Peyton Wimmer has an unusually generous attitude about looking for financial support. He sees nothing wrong with going beyond endowments or donations and courting the alcohol industry on behalf of the SIMS Foundation.
"Alcohol sales in the clubs are what usually pays for the bands," he says matter-of-factly.
"Use is not a problem. Abuse is. I'd like to educate people as to what they're doing, what addiction is. I think the SIMS is in a position where we can have an impact. We have a very good success rate with treating heroin addiction. If alcohol were not a disease, it would affect 100% of my cases I deal with. It only affects about 10%, which is really close to the national average.
"There's no problem with asking beer companies to be involved. Ninety percent of the people don't have a problem, and I want them to understand with the other 10% what is going on with addiction. You can't tell kids on campus 'Just say no.' They'll just get another drink. But if you can say 'Let's talk about it,' that's progress. If 10 of them go out drinking, I want them to know that, statistically, one of them will not be able to quit. We don't want to lose another 18-year-old for the next 15 years of their life."
Drugs and alcohol are only a small part of the problem, Wimmer admits. The larger issues, led by depression and anxiety, are much more common. The challenge is to connect the person with the right service while reassuring them they are doing the right thing.
"Ninety percent of our calls deal with depression and anxiety, only 10% involved drugs and alcohol," he says. "I will talk to the client however long I need to get an idea of what they are looking for therapeutically, 10 minutes, an hour. Most of them are just exploring their options.
"Musicians are concerned with losing their muse, so they have to understand counseling doesn't just mean they will wake up happy tomorrow. Life is problematic wherever you are, but let's finish this old song and start a new one. It's a way to break patterns."
"Breaking patterns" is a phrase that sounds like shrink-speak, but like aphorisms and parental advice, it holds a basic truth. Where does the breaking of patterns start, and how does such assistance occur in the SIMS Foundation? Who actually uses the SIMS services? Moreover, isn't this expensive? Wimmer's reply makes it obvious he answers these questions frequently.
"We find out what the person is looking for and refer them," he explains. "The difference between the SIMS Foundation and every other human-services organization is SIMS is set up to catch people who fall through the cracks. The No. 1 concern of the foundation is the client, not protecting our resources.
"No hoops to jump through; I don't micromanage the caseload, I don't tell them how many times they have to go to therapy before they're well; it's client-focused. It might cost $25 to help a client or it might be $20,000.
"When we asked them for money, the city of Austin told us they wanted accountability. I'm not real good at accountability, so I said, 'What do you mean?' 'Like we want 50% of the money to go to services.' 'Okay, what do I do with the other 50%, because it normally all goes to services,' I said. 'What about aftercare?' the city said."
Wimmer looks bemused as he relates the conversation. "There is no 'aftercare' with us, it's all care."
"'Aftercare' implies that at some point you quit caring," he says. "We don't do that. They are worried about their resources. We don't have a lot of people abusing our system. How would you abuse it? You come in and use the services.
"The city wants to know how we 'qualify' someone. We don't. If they feel like they are in the music community, if they feel comfortable using services set aside for the music community, then yeah, come in."
To that end, the SIMS Foundation does extend its services to everyone in the music industry: club employees, band personnel and staff, even families of musicians. A spouse support group, career counseling, and a program designed to counsel bands as a whole are SIMS efforts unique to Austin. As a grassroots organization, they are sensitive to the community's growing needs; if there is a service SIMS doesn't offer, just ask.
"There are great rewards at this foundation," Wimmer believes. "There are great rewards for being in mental health. Great rewards for the community. We get asked so much, 'How do you talk to kids?'"
For his answer, Wimmer dabbles in musical metaphors.
"Well, the music community has an ongoing dialogue with kids. We try to be in harmony with that. And we take requests."
On that sunny and terrible morning of June 1995 when Louis Black walked into my office and told me about Sims Ellison, I felt my world tilt. Pariah was a pet band of mine; having known Shandon Sahm since he was four, it was especially delightful to see them win in the Austin Music Awards year after year.
But Sims was my buddy in Pariah. Sims had written a few times for the Chronicle, and we would sit at Steamboat on the bleachers or stand on a Sixth Street corner and talk about writing, not music. Sims would call me at work, tell me about the band's adventures, and let me bug him about doing more writing. He was gregarious and charming and beautiful, and had so much to give.
Photographer Todd Wolfson brought the Chronicle a portrait of Sims where the glowing fragility Kyle spoke of is painfully evident. I kept
the photo after it was used in the obituary and taped it on the wall by my desk. People who didn't know who Sims was sometimes commented on how ethereal he looked, how serene. Sims' photograph stayed up in my office until I moved out of the Chronicle offices last year and started writing at home.
At Sims' funeral, I sat at the back of the chapel. I could see Don and Bonnie Ellison and the bewildered grief on their faces at the death of their son, their child, their baby. I wanted to tell them gently, I know how you feel.
I could see the same expressions on Dave, Jared, Shandon, and Kyle, and knew that deep, stabbing pain they were feeling. I wanted to take all of them in my arms, hug them tightly, and whisper, "It will be all right. You will think about Sims and remember him every day of your life."