"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
lifestyle features have heralded the Return of the Swinger and the End of Moderation for the better part of two years now. Apparently, collectively weary from decades of having to watch what we eat, smoke, drink and most especially say, “we” are returning to a simpler time of boomerang coffee tables and pupu platters. A time when, at worst, “Mad Cow” was a frothy drink for the ladies. A time when chicks knew how to shut up and cats “swung.” Think back to the old “What kind of man reads Playboy?” ads; high fidelity systems, scotch, Sulka dressing gowns, the work of Leroy Niemann, etc.
Restaurants featuring smoking areas with cute, retro names like the Havana Room — I’m still waiting for the Missiles of October Lounge — are springing up like mushrooms, or rather, metastatic tumors. Even my formerly staid neighborhood, once the elegant home to Washington Irving, New York’s only private park and the charmingly prim National Arts Club, is rank with the smell of the Death of Restraint: prime rib, Bombay Sapphire, Ketel One, tobacco and, of course, the unfortunate result of all of these at the end of a long evening, vomit.
I hate the Nouveau Swingerati. I will freely admit it. I quite enjoy a good martini, and will occasionally still take one in the privacy of my own home, although I’d sooner eat glass than be seen drinking one in public. I am also fairly obsessed with Frank Sinatra. I know the words to most of his songs and can emulate the phrasing on the important recordings more than passably well, not to mention sing both the Betty Garrett and Frankie parts of “Let’s Go to My Place” from “On the Town,” thank you very much. But you won’t catch me out in public singing “Angel Eyes” while swirling an olive through my gin.
Swingers have ruined my life. The martini is now tied with the cell phone as the leading semaphore for “Hello, I’m a schmuck.” (The cigar, it should be noted, is something entirely more direct than a mere semaphore). And my beloved Frank has been co-opted as the god of Cool by precisely the kind of thick-necked douche bags I’ve spent my entire life assiduously avoiding. Not yet even dead, Frank hovers, shimmering perpetually above us all, like a beacon, like Noah’s Dove.
So, it was with a mixture of trepidation and the anticipatory bloodlust of a hatchet job that I went to the Museum of Television and Radio to see “The Rat Pack Captured,” a 90-minute version of a recently discovered 1965 kinescope of a benefit concert by Frank, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., hosted by Johnny Carson — allegedly the only known video recording of an entire Rat Pack performance.
the audience at the museum on the rainy Saturday turns out not, however, to be made up of the Date Rape-oisie at all. For the most part, we are men and women of a certain age who have come to see the boys sing. The evening is opened by a startlingly young Johnny, at that time only three years on the air, who explains a bit about the Dismas House of St. Louis, a facility for ex-offenders for which this event is a benefit. And then comes Dean Martin. I brace myself, having never liked his boozy persona. He is a caricature of dissipation; shiny-faced, eyes lowered to half-mast, beatifically stoned. But boy, is he adorable. Imagine my surprise that I come to you now as a prophet of the Church of Dino.
Dean Martin sings like an angel. And this came upon me in a blinding flash of light: In the same way that, despite the seemingly extemporaneous ease with which Fred Astaire danced, we all know he rehearsed doggedly, I realized Dean isn’t really a drunk asshole! Actually, there’s nothing assoholic at all about his drunk act.
Unlike with his former partner and icon of the French, Jerry Lewis, you’re not waiting for the vicious undercurrent. Dino smiles in a vaguely surprised, ain’t-this-nifty way throughout his set, as if the music pouring out of him was not of his doing at all. Something else he shares with Astaire is a vocabulary of the tiniest physical gestures. While singing “King of the Road,” that pre-hippie ’60s anthem to barefoot, boho insouciance, he gives it a nice little gender-fuck by punctuating a riff with a lock of the torso, a cant of the head, his wrist a relaxed teapot handle, and singing, “Queen of the Road.” At a time when gay-baiting humor relied on the wide swish and the hostile mince with the unspoken promise of ultimately kicking someone’s faggot ass, Dean, for just an instant, makes a surprisingly sympathetic and counterintuitively convincing bottom. I sit there, homo that I am, charmed and unoffended.
By the time he finishes his set and brings home “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You,” he does so with such a touching sincerity that I am thinking to myself, “Yes, Dean. So true, so true. I am nobody.”
Sammy, on the other hand, is a wraith of pure energy, a pipe cleaner man in a tuxedo, with his hair plastered against his head like an LP. He is also so immediately sweet and unctuous, so afflicted with the inability to refer to anyone without the Homeric moniker “My dear friend,” that I almost sank into a diabetic coma. This is pure telethon Sammy — the sycophancy ripe for parody. But it’s just opening artifice. Who knows, perhaps in 1965, in front of an entirely white audience, this ritual self-declawing was required of any black entertainer. It is when he sings that the façade drops away. He is being played as surely as any other instrument up on stage. It is a miraculous, intimate, personal act. He is still, for want of a better expression, Mr. Entertainment, but the music moves through him.
It had been so long since I’d actually heard Sammy that I’d forgotten the depths of his talent, and it is profound. His version of “One For My Baby” alone, which contains uncanny imitations of Billy Eckstine, Mel Torme and Nat King Cole — all dead on and not remotely obsequious — would almost be enough to justify an entire career. When he demonstrates the latest dances — the Mashed Potato, the Frug, the Pony — for the glaringly unhip crowd, he is not unaware of their innate campiness, the dopey names, the prescribed, vaguely bogus looseness. But he does them so beautifully and with such graceful abandon that you’re reminded of how marvelously sexy and free it must have seemed to be able to dance like that alone. If partnered dancing was a metaphor for love, watching Sammy shake his little can while doing the Swim must have seemed like a national exhortation to go jack off.
And, finally, the Chairman of the Board, who is, at least as far as “The Rat Pack Captured” is concerned, the least compelling of the three. “Your hoodlum singer,” says Johnny. True indeed. Sinatra is no longer the beauty he was and his face has taken on a leathern, thuggish quality, which is not relieved by a surfeit of smiling for the audience. There is a Great Star Reserve in evidence, however justified, that I find simply threatening. Dino and Sammy, as it turns out, had not yet done enough to soften me toward Vegas-Heyday-Frank. Even his own goofiness — miming shooting craps way too many times on “Luck Be a Lady,” substituting “St. Louis” for “Chicago” on “My Kind of Town” to the point where even a St. Louis native would scream “enough” — merely make him seem more unimaginative than human.
And yet, as my sister says, “They don’t call him Beethoven for nothing.” He is still Frank Sinatra. Even if he phoned it in, it would be worth it.
But none of the three do phone it in. These guys are all about talent. Transcendent talent. The ancient Greeks got it right; talent this prodigious becomes a moral virtue. So that by the time they spend the last half-hour of the concert breaking themselves up in their not terribly funny, mildly punch-drunk, highly exclusionary frat-boy way, it seems entirely earned and materially different from the annoying rough-housing that goes on of a Saturday night on Park Avenue South.
It is only this last part of “The Rat Pack Captured” that I associate with the new Swinger culture. The unrelenting irony with which Rat Pack culture has been adopted entirely ignores precisely why these guys were allowed to behave the way they did. Because they were some of the greatest interpreters of the American Popular Song that have ever lived.
Moreover, they only behaved that way some of the time. There has been an effacement of the historical record. “The Rat Pack Captured” is, in the end, a benefit for a halfway house for ex-cons, as they used to affectionately be called. What mainstream white entertainer today, other than Susan Sarandon, say, would take up such a cause? Sinatra was a progressive long before he became a Reagan Regular. Even the original founder of the Rat Pack, Humphrey Bogart, was a vocal opponent to McCarthy and a supporter of the Hollywood Ten.
Facts all lost in the Rat Pack Revival. The recuperated aspects of that time, the drinking, the smoking, the wardrobe, are not only the least important as regards the Sinatra signature style, but they are also the very attributes that resonate of a time and a world that was far less hospitable, kind or gentle. It’s all a bit like going to Beyreuth and coming out an anti-Semite instead of an opera queen.
The Swingerati have ignored the gallery entirely and gone straight for the gift shop. They don’t even know from Frank Sinatra that much, beyond the swagger. When the hi-fi gets fired up, likely as not it is the strains of Esquivel, or the camp-right-out-of-the-box lounge music of groups like Combustible Edison that one hears. I said earlier that I wouldn’t be caught dead singing a Sinatra song out in public. But I’ve changed my mind. I could make it all the way through to the end of “Come Fly With Me” and nobody would even recognize the tune, let alone the words. And that’s the saddest part.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)