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The story of an Elliott Smith Figure 8 tattoo

Tim Bass shows his tattoo, inspired by the Elliott Smith album Figure 8
Tim Bass shows his tattoo, inspired by the Elliott Smith album Figure 8
Sarah Stanley-Ayre

In 2008, Tim Bass left his hometown of Champaign, Illinois in his band's van and headed to L.A. It was under the spell of a dream and his group's fame-crazed frontman, who Bass describes as a "real controlling, sort of dick guy." It was an ill-fated attempt rooted in idealism, as Bass quickly found. "It sucked. I was miserable out there. I had no friends," he said. It was there that Bass first found comfort in the 2000 Elliott Smith album, Figure 8.

See Also: "What's with the banana on your arm?" A Velvet Underground tattoo tale

Bass recalls living with his entire band in a cramped apartment, taking turns sleeping in the van just to get some space from one another. The dream of making it big in L.A. was crumbling quickly around them. Bass packed his bags one night and slipped away at dawn, determined to make it to Minneapolis and start over yet again. "I just kind of escaped from L.A., in a way," he says. "I didn't tell anyone in the band that I was leaving, I just fled."

Tim Bass
Tim Bass
Sarah Stanley-Ayre

In Minneapolis, Bass reunited with his two best friends from Champaign, who had relocated here. Still, his depression worsened. He reminisces, "I used to walk around Minneapolis with Elliott Smith playing in my headphones, kicking my way through the snow, going to the bar to get drunk." The more he listened to Figure 8, the deeper his connection with it ran.

"In a way, the album became a part of my identity," says Bass. He started putting energy into music once again, joining the band UMAMI as their bassist. Still, he struggled with finding happiness and escaping the emotional turmoil that had been haunting him since LA.

"Maybe I got a problem
But that's not what I wanted to say
I'd prefer to say nothing
I got a long way to go
I'm getting further away"
Elliot Smith - "I Better Be Quiet Now"

Time passed, and circumstances worsened. After getting kicked out of UMAMI, Bass spiraled quickly out of control. Early in 2013, desperate and alone, he realized that he was facing a deadly serious choice -- either continue down a doomed path of self destruction, or grab hold of a strand of hope. He began to pull himself from the murky pool of self-hate he had been drowning in. When he emerged from that void, Figure 8 was waiting.

 

"It helped me connect with writing music, sober. It helped me reconnect with music in general," says Bass. "After getting sober I couldn't connect to music for months, and it was awful. I didn't know how to write without at least a beer in my hand."

"Riding high again, high on the sound
Everyone wants me to ride into the sun
But I ain't gonna go down
Laying low again, high on the sound"
Elliott Smith - "Color Bars"

Bass began playing writing his own stripped-down music, and teaching himself classical guitar. He has tediously reconstructed his broken life, clinging steadfastly to the promise of finding a stable and contented existence on the other side of the dark. Late last year, UMAMI invited him to rejoin the band, and he traveled with them to play in the Totally Gross National Product showcase at CMJ in New York City. Today he is able to reflect upon what he's learned, and is reminded of it every time he looks down at the tattoo of the Figure 8 pattern on his right forearm.

Bass holds "Happiness," a promo single off Elliott Smith's album Figure 8
Bass holds "Happiness," a promo single off Elliott Smith's album Figure 8
Sarah Stanley-Ayre

"This tattoo symbolizes a part of me that is really 'emo,' which is okay. I don't care. A lot of people aren't okay with acknowledging that. People brush it off and go, 'Oh, that dude's a pussy.' You know?"

"Whatever," he says. "I am a man. But, I'm still soft on the inside."

Bass' tattoo was created by Jeff Marek at Holy Mackerel tattoo in St. Paul.


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