Long before Thelma and Louise drove over the canyon’s lip, there was Quadrophenia. In director Franc Roddam’s 1979 film based on the Who’s rock opera about the mod scene in swinging London, the hero, Jimmy (Phil Daniels), is last seen on his scooter, hurtling full-speed toward the edge of the white cliffs of Dover. The final image of the scooter smashing into the rocks far below left viewers forever wondering whether Jimmy careered over the edge to a certain death or jumped off in time to watch the scooter’s destruction–a symbolic farewell to his mod persona and his troubled youth.
The ending of Quadrophenia was the first thing I thought of when I heard the news last June that Material Issue’s 31-year-old guitarist, singer, and songwriter Jim Ellison had been found slumped over a moped in the garage of his west Lakeview home. Apparently distraught over a recent breakup, he’d killed himself with carbon monoxide. But it’s the movie image of Jimmy rather than that sad final scene of Ellison’s real life that stays with me as I contemplate Material Issue’s fourth (and by necessity, last) album.
Telecommando Americano consists of 11 new tracks that Ellison started and bassist Ted Ansani and drummer Mike Zelenko finished, plus the 6 songs from the trio’s vinyl-only 1987 debut, thus bookending the band’s career. With roots in Chicago’s mid-80s 60s revival scene, Ellison, like Jimmy, was a mod. Everyone knows he dressed the part, and the influence of mod heroes such as the Who and the Small Faces is loud and clear on driving, upbeat pop songs such as “She’s Going Through My Head,” “A Very Good Thing,” and “Chance of a Lifetime” from the original EP. But maybe more significantly, Ellison also had the strong work ethic, the self-confidence bordering on arrogance, and the love of a genuine good time that characterized the 60s mods. “We think people pay to see someone enjoy themselves onstage,” he once told the Chicago Tribune. “We gladly admit to being full of ourselves and thinking we’re great, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing.”
This attitude turned out to be very much out of step with the prevailing ethos of the 90s. Though Material Issue scored a respectable hit with International Pop Overthrow, its 1991 Mercury debut, it–and everything else–was overshadowed by that year’s biggest success story, Nirvana’s Nevermind. It quickly became evident that the Lollapalooza nation preferred songs about rape to songs about first dates, angst and apathy to love and longing. Although they were nearly as strong as International Pop Overthrow, 1992’s Destination Universe and 1994’s Freak City Soundtrack (which included remade material from the first EP) each sold half as well as the last, and Material Issue soon found itself without a label.
Ellison was sending tapes of new songs to local writers by early ’95, but I don’t remember hearing any of the tunes that have now surfaced on Telecommando Americano. Songs such as “Satellite,” “Young American Freak,” and “2 Steps” boast Ellison’s usual indelible hooks, with big sing-along choruses and deft melodies driven home by new (to Material Issue) instruments such as piano, slide guitar, analog synthesizer, and xylophone; they’re every bit as memorable as the modern-rock radio staples “Valerie Loves Me,” “Diane,” and “What Girls Want.”
In retrospect, Ellison had a lot in common with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain: Both men were incurable romantics who bought into idealized and perhaps unobtainable standards for love and success, and both may have paid the ultimate price for that. A lot of critics dismissed Ellison’s lyrics as the usual trite rock crap about girls and cars, but they missed the fact that the objects of his desire were almost always poignantly out of reach. Like Lou Reed in “Satellite of Love,” Ellison appeals to a distant orbiting entity in “Satellite” to help ease the pain of romantic betrayal here on earth. In “976-LOVE,” he finds that phone sex is a poor substitute for a loving relationship, while in “Off the Hook” he discovers that his sweetheart is sending him a permanent busy signal.
Of course, as evidenced by the posthumous examinations of Cobain’s every utterance, the temptation is almost irresistible for English majors, armchair psychiatrists, and rock critics to seek answers about an artist’s motives in his lyric sheets. But we also need to acknowledge that the mood of the music is often directly opposed to the mood of the lyrics. There’s a palpable joy in every note of Telecommando Americano–singing and playing guitar were obviously life-affirming acts for Ellison. When I listen to his last album or Nirvana’s In Utero, I hear the sound of talented, if troubled, artists drowning out the voice of nihilism with a blast of feedback or a ringing power chord. But then I’ve always believed that Jimmy jumped off the scooter.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Material Issue by Paul Natkin, and album cover.