Cop and Speeder – A review and retrospective on Elliott Smith’s band Heatmiser

Cop and Speeder – A review and retrospective on Elliott Smith’s band Heatmiser


Elliott Smith is my favorite musician.
For the past 15 years, I’ve been collecting all of his official releases,
leaked b-sides, unfinished demos, just everything I could find, but I’ve always
overlooked a big part of his work. All this time I’ve been ignoring Heatmiser.
Not that one. There we go. Elliott Smith’s first outing as a
professional musician was as co-lead singer and guitarist of this band. Why
they chose the name of a vaguely creepy character in an animated Christmas
movie that was just 17 years old at the time I can’t even fathom. Oh, but it does
remind me, look out for the band I’ll be starting next year, we’ll be called Tom
Hanks in the Polar Express. Anyway, I gave Heatmiser a shot years ago but it turns
out I wasn’t ready for what they had to offer. Coming back to them now without
the burden of expecting them to sound like Elliott’s solo work, I found Heatmiser to be something totally unexpected that I never knew I needed in my life. in the late 80s, Elliott Smith was
attending college in Massachusetts. While he lacked faith in the value of academia
and would indeed never find much use for his degree in philosophy and legal
theory, he did get something important out of university. This is where he met
and befriended Neil Gust, with whom he would perform live music throughout his
time there, and when he returned to his hometown of Portland, Oregon upon
graduation, he brought Neil with him. Elliott then recruited his high school
friend Tony Lash as a drummer and talked accomplished but reluctant bassist
Brandt Peterson into joining them, and Heatmiser was formed. In true
do-it-yourself punk form, Tony would also engineer, mix, and master their recordings,
and Neil oversaw the creation of their album art. Seeing that Elliott was so
central to the creation of this band and knowing the prolific career in music he
would go on to have, you might expect that he would be the dominant force and
that you’d hear the beginnings of the fragile, angelic, folk rock sound for
which he has become so well known. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, Elliot Smith of all people once
tried the Pearl Jam super strained vocals thing, and in a time before his
lyrics warranted that kind of force. Most of what he was shouting was sort of
vague and just got repeated often to try and imply some kind of larger meaning to
it. This is what shocked me the most because I know Elliott to be a solid
contender for, no exaggeration, the greatest lyricist of all time. Heatmiser veered dangerously close to
grunge on their debut album Dead Air though the use of major keys and jangly
guitars did a lot to take the edge off. This only describes about half the
band’s output, though, as songwriting duties were split between Elliott and
Neil. Neil’s songs matched the intensity of Elliott’s but differentiated themselves
with a clear influence from 80s heavy metal, which lends credence to something
Patton Oswalt once said: If you were into heavy metal in the 80s, guess what, you’re
gay. Did you know that? Neil Gust was openly gay in the late 80s through the
early 90s, right at the exact moment when the AIDS crisis could no longer be
ignored and was finally being addressed by government officials. Shining a
spotlight on homosexuality for the first time also painted a target on its back,
making it a heavily politicized issue about which everyone had a strong
opinion. Merely being out of the closet was seen as an act of rebellion, and a
cultural movement called queercore responded by expressing LGBTQ identities
in aggressive music and artwork. Heatmiser was swept up as a part of this
movement, which is at most a footnote when people talk about them today, but if
you’re listening to them at the time, it was an unmistakable part of the
experience because Neil’s songs were super, super gay. Just so we’re crystal
clear, I think that rules and I am not straight myself. Now I’ll let Neil
demonstrate exactly what I’m talking about with Candyland, the first of his
songs to appear on their first album. I can’t say I follow exactly what’s
being described there, but I doubt it’s just my dirty mind thinking it could
be a sex act that was probably illegal in many US states under sodomy laws at
the time. Now this left fans with a burning question: Was Elliott Smith gay?
Rumors were fueled by the fact that he and Neil were living together, and
Elliott being the absolute glam rock queen front and center in this
promotional photo, but the photographer for this picture was JJ Gonson, Elliott’s
girlfriend at the time. Elliott was very supportive of his friend, though, and has
said at this time, At first, Elliott and Neil’s writing styles didn’t really mesh, and listening to Dead Air as an album feels like you’re listening to
two completely different bands on shuffle, but when it came time to perform,
they were all on the same wavelength and it was clear they were on to something.
They just needed some more time working together to develop a signature Heatmiser sound, and good fortune would give them all the time they needed after
their debut. In a stroke of luck, Elliott was fired from his day job and went on
unemployment, about which Neil has said: Escaping the soul-killing drudgery of force toil for survival led to an unprecedented flood of creative output for Elliott. He
followed the September release of Dead Air with an EP of original Heatmiser
music in April, his debut solo album in July, and Heatmiser’s second full-length
the following September. The solo album was a flight of fancy he had recorded on
a whim and had to be talked into releasing at all, but while it would
prove to be a major step in his artistic self-discovery, neither he nor his fans
were ready to embrace his shift to acoustic explorations of traumatic life
events just yet. For Heatmiser’s sophomore release, titled Cop and Speeder,
many of his songs bore the trademarks of the debut, still grungy and angry and
repetitive, but he cleaned up his raspy vocals, wrote
clearer, more personal lyrics, and wasn’t afraid to dip into slower compositions.
Despite Eliot’s rapid growth as an artist, Cop and Speeder is, if anything, a
showcase of Neil’s talents. He gets the opening track, the album’s single, and the
line from which the title is derived, the sick burn, “You’re more cop than
speeder.” Neil’s songwriting had shifted dramatically since Dead Air and no
longer clashed with Elliott’s but complemented it, meeting his fast paced
repetition of powerful riffs with slow builds to explosive payoffs. Best of all,
five of the six songs Neil contributes are blatantly about that gay shit. Most
of these songs deal with the unique and not-so-unique difficulties he faced in
the dating scene, but the opening track, Disappearing Ink,
cut to the core of the broader queer experience. The song goes through the
difficulty of discovering oneself, the angst of enduring erasure, and the
empowerment of refusing to accept being treated as inferior, all in just two and
a half minutes. Elliott takes the momentum established by
the first song and builds on it with two songs of his own, demonstrating his new
cleaner singing and a maturation in a song writing while setting a blazing
pace for the album. After that, however, is a third consecutive song from him, and
this one would have fit right in on Dead Air. The beats per minute take a dip and
even the vocals are noticeably more gruff than the rest of Cop and Speeder.
Unsurprisingly, this song and a similarly out-of-place one by Neil later in the
album were released as a single the year previous, then re-recorded for inclusion here. Neil’s second song, titled Why Did I
Decide To Stay?, was selected to represent the album as its lone single. It’s a
brooding tune about the aftermath of a regrettable hookup featuring a lot of
build up to the most fun you’ll ever have singing along to the words, “Because
I’m lonely.” The subject, while decidedly sexual in nature, is kept relatable by
never specifying the gender of the person he slept with, though it is
perhaps notable that the video doesn’t feature any women. From here, Elliott and Neil trade
up-tempo tracks for a while until Elliott slows things down with Antonio
Carlos Jobim, then slams the brakes with Something to Lose. These songs gave Heatmiser fans a taste of Elliott’s darker side and at the time, the melancholic
warbling he would ultimately find himself pigeon-holed into was the last
thing people expected. These are still decidedly Heatmiser songs though,
replacing the energy of the faster songs with the sheer impact the rhythm section
delivers with each note, and they both have a moment where they break into
full-on rock. These uncharacteristically contemplative songs could have stopped
the album dead in its tracks but instead make for a welcome change of pace and
the rest of the album honors that by taking a more laid-back approach. The
mood lightens considerably, not so much in terms of lyrics, the remaining songs
are about discontentment with interpersonal relationships and
substance abuse, but they sound catchy and upbeat, with the closing tracks, Trap Door and Nightcap, being two of my favorites on the album… and very hard to say in
such close succession without accidentally saying Night Trap. Everything I’ve just described about
what makes Cop and Speeder so good would never cross your mind while
actually listening to it. The strength of the album is the way it effortlessly
holds your attention and just takes you along for a ride without making you
think too hard, with no heart swerves into completely different genres or
challenging road blocks. The depth is there if you want to explore it, but it’s
far more important to say that it provides what I’ve always loved about
music since buying my first Blink-182 CD when I was 13. If an LGBT lifestyle
happens to be part of your lived experience as well, the album works on a
whole other level as a forgotten piece of queer art, showing the kind of
uncompromising messages people were putting out in the time when their
identities were criminalized, even potentially life-threatening. Those of us
that identify with the reclaimed slur ‘queer’ do so to acknowledge that there
are people who think our very nature is worthy of mockery and degradation, and
taking that term by choice shows our history of defying this stance and
overcoming it. Queercore art like Heatmiser captures a snapshot of a moment in time before LGBT identities were co-opted by corporate interests,
sanitized of counter-cultural implications, and sold back to us by the
very people spearheading efforts that would have devastating effects on our
lives. The punk ethos of this movement serves as an important reminder that
assimilation is a carrot on a stick, chasing it only serves to abandon the
more vulnerable members of our community and weaken our overall cause. Elliott had
his second solo album out within a year of Cop and Speeder’s release and was
rapidly building a fan base that would eclipse that of his band. More
importantly, he had discovered his true calling and there was no going back to
the heavier sound of Heatmiser. The band probably should have just ended there,
but Elliott tried to continue upholding his obligations to his friends while
also writing and touring as a solo act. Tensions between members of Heatmiser
skyrocketed as Elliott pulled them further and further from their signature
sound, risking the future of a band that had just signed to a major label, Virgin
Records, and had the potential to be something
big. Shortly after Cop and Speeder was completed, Elliott fired bassist Brandt
Peterson, citing his reason for doing so as, quote, “That guy was such an asshole.”
Adding, “His sense of humor was such the always had to be making fun of somebody.”
After his departure from Heatmiser, Brandt left Portland for graduate school
and never worked in music again. His position was filled by Sam Coomes from
the band The Donner Party, but the dynamic of the band had shifted. The
entire rhythm section now operated as a utilitarian tool rather than the driving
force it had been as the punk, metal, and grunge influences were all drained from
their sound, both singers instead producing a sort of power pop that was
devoid of aggression. If you were following Heatmiser solely through
radio play, then over the course of just three years, you heard them go from sounding like this: to this: The strain of such a rapid change proved
too much to bear and Heatmiser broke up in 1996, just before the release of their
final album, Mic City Sons. The creation of this record was profoundly embattled.
Originally, Tony was set to be the producer, but Elliott opted to instead
bring in the producers of Beck’s Mellow Gold. A rift was driven in their friendship
that would take years to heal and Tony quit the band before their final tour. As
for Elliott and Neil, I’ve seen reports saying that they stayed friendly through
the breakup and held a high degree of respect for each other’s creative
processes. I’ve also seen contradictory statements suggesting Neil was hurt by
Elliott’s apparent disdain for the music they had made together and that towards
the end, they weren’t on speaking terms. I get the impression that no one really
wants to talk too much about what went down and the little information that’s
available has been interpreted in some very different ways. Regardless of the
circumstances, the end of Heatmiser was complicated, painful, and inevitable. After Heatmiser, Tony Lash shifted his focus from performance to production and works
as a music producer to this day. Sam Coomes founded the band Quasi and
collaborated with artists in the booming Portland music scene for years to come.
Elliott Smith’s solo career took off in earnest and he soon dominated the
independent rock scene, became a staple on film soundtracks, played the Oscars,
and broke into mainstream success. Neil Gust also continued to create music,
forming a new band the same year Heatmiser ended, the unfortunately named
Number Two. Now I know what you’re thinking, but that name is not a
self-deprecating dig about having been second fiddle to a musical legend. It’s
just a reference to this being his second band on Virgin Records, but it
makes the two albums they put out almost impossible to find today. They are still
out there, though, and well worth the effort it takes to dig them up.
Neil stuck with the power pop sound of Mic City Sons and perfected it,
making more catchy, accessible music while covering the same sort of lyrical
themes we’ve seen from him before. He even wrote a song you’ve been singing
along with for years without ever having heard it. Okay, that’s not exactly a highlight, but
most of their music is excellent. Elliott appears on both No. 2 albums
as a guest musician and engineer, as do Tony and Sam from Heatmiser, everyone
having put the sour note on which their band ended behind them. In 2002, Elliott
invited Neil to his home studio to record together. They spent two weeks
working on a single song before Neil had to return home or risk losing his job.
During this time, Neil says Elliott spoke of an interest in officially reuniting
Heatmiser. Tragically, this would be the last time the two would see each other.
Elliott Smith died in October of 2003 after suffering two stab wounds to the chest
that are widely believed to be self-inflicted, though the coroner’s
report remains inconclusive. His career had lasted only a decade, but he touched
countless lives with his mastery of the craft and ability to find beauty in
darkness. Although he distanced himself from the sound of Heatmiser and would
even call some aspects of his work with the band and embarrassment, it’s clear
that it represented a fondly remembered time in his life. The celebration of
Elliott’s life and artwork is ongoing and unreleased recordings still surface
from time to time. The song he recorded with Neil Gust during their final meeting,
titled Who’s Behind the Door?, was released on a charity compilation in
2011 and later added to a 2017 reissue of No. 2’s second album. Heatmiser’s
full band rendition of the Elliott Smith solo song Christian Brothers was leaked
by Tony Lash in 2013, and throughout 2019, Tony has been posting songs from bands
he and Elliott played in before Heatmiser to his YouTube page.
This often overlooked side of Elliott Smith shows a sort of music that he
would never attempt to make again, which can make it hard to get into if you’re a
fan of his already. But I’d recommend checking them out whether or not that’s
the case as Heatmiser provides a treasure trove of fierce, easy-to-enjoy rock, a
deeper understanding of what Elliott was capable of, and an introduction to a
group of musicians that he would continue to work with long after this
brief but important period in his life. And that’s the story of Heatmiser, folks.
Thanks for watching, I hope you enjoyed it. If you feel inclined to do me a favor,
you can leave me a comment letting me know what you think. Should I make more
videos like this? Should I retroactively not have made
this one? Should I never have been born? These are all things you can decide for
me in the comments section. Just be aware that my tastes lean heavily in favor of
metal and the sort of weird metal bands that even metal fans tend not to like, so
if I haven’t talked you out of it yet, please let me know and thanks again.
-Fiendly

2 thoughts on “Cop and Speeder – A review and retrospective on Elliott Smith’s band Heatmiser

  1. I agree on wat u said about Elliott being a contender for greatest lyricist of all time. I’m of the opinion that he’s the best songwriter and imo greatest acoustic guitarist ever to live as well.

  2. As a person living outside the anglosphere, this is the first time I heard of Elliott Smith or Heatmiser. I have to say, it's easily the best new music "find" of the past few years for me. Also, love the retrospective.

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