If you weren’t part of Baltimore’s suburban youth rock scene of the ’90s, you may never have heard of Eli Jones, a musician his friends and fans — Rjyan Kidwell AKA Cex, local music writer Tim Kabara, Human Host’s Mike Apichella, and Tempsound Solutions’ Shawn Phase among them — refer to variously as “brilliant,” a “rock star,” a “young Captain Beefheart,” and “one of the greatest artists of any kind who ever lived.”
Eli died of a heroin overdose in 2000 at the age of 23, leaving his dream of “making it” in the music world unrealized. Fortunately, he left behind a wealth of recorded material, mostly tapes, in the possession of his friends and bandmates. Alison Kogan saw Apichella begin to document online the ’90s Towson-Glen Arm music scene (of which Eli was a part) and was inspired — after years of googling “‘Eli Jones’ hoping maybe someone with access to his recordings” had put them online — to begin the process of chasing down and digitizing his music herself, for her own website Eli Lives!
Listening to the tracks currently available on Eli Lives!, I am honestly struck by how good they are. A song like “Be the One” would fit perfectly on a mix tape with Dinosaur Jr. or Nirvana or Ween. It — like most of these songs, really — captures that certain liberated, wry belatedness of the ’90s — that peculiar era when we had finally decided that listening to punk rock didn’t mean renouncing Led Zeppelin — even as his contemporaries remember him as an iconoclast among his peers. (Apichella remembers Eli’s “ironically misanthropic” metal band Shovel raising the eyebrows — and hackles — of the “predominantly politically correct activist crew that made up TGA.”)
I’m tempted to think that if Eli had stuck around and continued to make music that he would, by 2012, be famous, that he would have “made it.” But even if his life weren’t cut short, it might have been an uphill battle attaining the level of success he was eager for. As prolific and virtuosic as he was, he couldn’t seem to stick with one band or project for very long.
Kogan, a friend of Eli’s who was not directly involved with the Towson-Glen Arm scene herself, remembers hanging out with Eli and asking about whichever band she last remembered him mentioning: “His response would usually be something like, ‘What?? The So and So’s? That was like three bands ago… God,’ as he rolled his eyes. ‘Now I’m in this band with these people… Oh, but I’m also in this other band…’”
Kabara agrees, describing Eli as “prolific in an ADHD kind of way: always coming up with something new, always working on a new project or band or idea, always handing me a tape of his new project or talking up his new group. This new group was going to be the best and the greatest and was excellent and was how he was going to ‘make it’ as a musician.”
Apichella sketched out for me a rough timeline of Jones’s musical output from 1993 to 2000 from memory. The list included 18 or 19 different projects (depending on how you count them), several of them unnamed, some lasting long enough only to record a single tape, which was sometimes indefinitely shelved.
On the other hand, he kept up with Lesbian Chicken Maggot Blasters, his solo recording project (Apichella recalls Eli assembling a live band for a single performance). The Unheard Ones, for which Eli played drums, also achieved relative longevity and acclaim at a time when “a good review in Maximum Rocknroll, a release on Dischord Records, and wallet chains all held some cache,” according to Apichella.
Tim Kabara, The Unheard Ones’ guitarist and vocalist, recounts the “slow and painful” breakup of that band only two years before Eli’s death. “We had lost our free practice space in the Copy Cat…. We were all pretty poor at that time, but Eli… [refused] to put any money into his drum kit or any other aspect of the band. This stemmed perhaps from thinking of our band as a ‘part time’ thing. His hope was to be the guy on the mic singing and playing guitar (something he was doing in other local groups). Maybe he was just even poorer than we were. In any case, I kicked Eli out of the band over this issue. I insisted that he take the band as seriously as I did and he did not seem capable of doing that. I was a very intense, angry young man with no sense of humor at that time.”
Eli’s longtime collaborator, and Glorious Fourlane bandmate, Shawn Phase remembers a change in Jones in those last few years. “As he got older, he got a bit more reclusive in showing the goods to people,” he recalls. “Maybe it was because he knew he had something special.”
I asked Rjyan Kidwell if he could see any Eli Jones influence on the current Baltimore City music scene. He said, “It’s funny because the straight-forward rock bands like Dope Body and Roomrunner who are blowing up right now are the most Shovel-esque bands I’ve seen in Baltimore since those TGA days.
“Eli might take exception to that — he held himself to the standard of skill in classic rock and metal, and I think he thought a lot of the alternative bands those guys are cribbing from were hacks. And I don’t think those bands ever got to hear Eli’s music, but Eli was in a band with Tim Kabara, who actually taught high school English to two of the Dope Body guys, and Tim’s infamously deep love and knowledge of Baltimore music has everything to do with Eli and I would bet money that that had an influence on Dave [Jacober] and Zach [Utz].”
But Jones’s even more powerful and lasting effect might be the deep aversion to heroin he instilled in those who knew him. Kidwell again: “When Mike [Apichella]’s old band Charm City Suicides used to play their song ‘Heroin Sucks’ everybody in the room would sing along, and a lot of us were pissed at that drug for taking that guy away. He was not a junkie. He was not what I think anyone would call a user, nothing like that. And it still got him, a strong guy, a guy who dealt with his sadness and loneliness in such a beautiful and productive way, and that will always be immense and frightening to me.”