"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)
in a live recording of a 1968 performance, the radical folk singer Phil Ochs introduces a song by saying: “I was always a John Wayne fan when I was younger.” The audience laughs, thinking he’s joking, but Ochs persists: “One of the dilemmas we have is that many of America’s greatest artists are very right wing and reactionary, and not very intelligent. But they’re truly great in their own mediums. I think that John Wayne is one of the greatest men ever to step in front of a camera. This song is dedicated to John Wayne.” As he begins strumming chords through the giggles of the crowd he mumbles: “Nobody takes me seriously.”
Thinking about his politics is a way out of really looking at John Wayne. His brute Republicanism gives us an excuse for flinching from the awful contradictions he represents, without even stopping to name them. It’s a forgivable instinct. What other American icon comes so overloaded with reflections of our national disasters of racism, sexual repression, violence and authority? Who else thrusts the difficult question of what it means to be a man in America so forcefully in our faces, daring us to meet his gaze? Thank heaven he’s also a laughable political ignoramus, a warmongering hypocrite who never served in the armed forces. Thank heaven he’s associated with the western, an easily dismissible film genre. All this gives us the chance to avert our eyes, to giggle or scoff. And we do.
But Wayne won’t go away. As Garry Wills points out so brilliantly in the prologue to his “John Wayne’s America,” published in March, John Wayne haunts the American public imagination — his movies screen constantly, inspiring military conscripts and young film directors alike, and his persona echoes through lesser figures like Clint Eastwood and Ronald Reagan. Both Newt Gingrich and a generation of rap musicians imitate his swaggering walk. In July, Doubleday will publish “John Wayne: A Novel,” a highly touted first novel by Dan Barden, who grew up in Southern California with the real live John Wayne as his father’s close friend. For my part, I’ve spent the last three years working on a novel that features a thinly disguised John Wayne as the villainous central figure in a 13-year-old girl’s coming-of-age story.
why do intellectuals duck behind the easy shield of political distaste to explain away their discomfort with Wayne? For, sadly, Garry Wills goes on to betray his marvelous opening — instead of plumbing the dark, highly sexual depths of the Wayne image he describes at the outset, he spends the remainder of the book placing Wayne in a pointlessly specific political context, nit-picking about John Ford’s contributions to Wayne’s persona and correcting historical misapprehensions about subjects such as the McCarthy hearings and the Alamo. For me, John Wayne’s resonance cuts across the accidents of war and politics that happened to be his context.
Wills’ mistake is to focus on Wayne’s life, instead of the most resonant of his films — “Red River,” “The Searchers” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” especially — which are Wayne’s real legacy. In these, John Wayne stands simply as the most persuasive and overwhelming embodiment of our ambivalence about American manhood. His persona gathers in one place the allure of violence, the call away from the frontier, the tortured ambivalence toward women and the home, the dark pleasure of soured romanticism — all those things that reside unspoken at the center of our sense of what it means to be a man in America. No wonder we flinch.
Howard Hawks famously remade Wayne’s screen image in “Red River,” aging him and giving him the role of a bitter, obsessed patriarch, with failed love already behind him. It was the role that caused Ford to marvel: “I never knew the big sonuvabitch could act.” In “Red River,” the Wayne we know now was created. Before that film he’d played charming, brash young men, flirtatious but essentially still adolescent in their appreciation of women — often opposite worldly, even trampy actresses like Claire Trevor and Marlene Dietrich. In that one leap he moved from adolescence to a weary, suspicious middle age — one in which women and the home had already been taken from him or rejected — without ever pausing to see if there might be something in between, something like marriage.
It seems to me that no one has noted the resemblance between this mature Wayne figure and that other genre icon of American maleness: the hard-boiled detective. Both begin their narratives already irrevocably divided from women and the home, by a trauma that has happened before the story even begins. The source of these men’s bitterness is never demonstrated or justified — it is instead a fait accompli, a part of the background. Why do Americans have such a terrible yearning for this dark knight, this damaged and isolated paternal figure? Is Humphrey Bogart simply John Wayne for sophisticates who believe themselves superior to westerns? For that matter, is Batman merely a rudimentary John Wayne for children?
Wayne’s greatness lies in his ability to embody this figure utterly while somehow retaining a hint of innocence, of hope. He’s the hard-boiled man out on the frontier, after all, not trapped in the decaying, decadent city. While personal psychic redemption may be beyond him, he stands a chance of breaking clean ground for others, of protecting the women and the fresh-faced, naive young men (Montgomery Clift, Jeffrey Hunter and, most oddly, the 54-year-old Jimmy Stewart in “Liberty Valance”) who wander into the unfinished, dangerous West. America might have a chance for greatness on the back of a man like Wayne, but he’ll always take others to the mountain top, never get there himself. He’s seen too much ugliness, in the breaking and mastering of this wild land, in the purging of the hostile natives. In himself.
And what about those hostile natives? In “The Searchers,” John Ford’s self-recriminating meditation on racism, Wayne is a man drawn to the thing he most fears and despises — in his violence and isolation he has a dangerous resemblance to the enigmatic, murderous Comanches. When they destroy a family’s home in the first reel, the Indians seem to be acting on Wayne’s own buried impulses. And when they kidnap his 7-year-old niece, Wayne’s righteous fury at the risk of sexual race-mixing is persistently compromised by hints that Wayne himself has consorted with the Indians in some way. Why does he speak their language and know their customs so well? Why did he “find” a half-breed orphan child and bring him to civilization to be raised? What exactly was he doing in the long gap between the end of the Civil War and the start of the film? Might he have been living with an Indian woman?
Ford’s genius, and Wayne’s, is to hint at the knot of sexual panic at the heart of racist obsession. Here’s also where biographical detail may become suggestive. Wayne, that icon of xenophobia, defender of the Alamo, married Latin American women not once but three times, fathering several mixed-race children. This irony is at least as interesting as the oft-mentioned fact that Wayne the war-booster never saw battle, yet Wills disappointingly leaves it unexplored.
Dan Barden, In “John Wayne: A Novel,” gets us closer. The novel is simple, elegant and surprisingly slim considering its massive subject. Like so many first novels, it’s highly autobiographical. Barden grew up with an alcoholic father who revered Wayne even before he became the actor’s buddy and confidant. The clench-jawed, brooding, laconic style they shared was, Barden quietly demonstrates, nearly as much a disaster for Wayne as it was for Barden’s father. Both men lived under the shadow of the image Wayne cultivated so carefully, an image of manhood whose enormous power and charisma is matched only by the vast realms of human feeling and connection it makes forever impossible.
Unlike Wills, Barden doesn’t try to deny the tremendous importance of Ford in the formation of this image, and make no mistake: Despite Hawks’ “Red River,” Ford is very much the key to this story. Ford was a man of powerful contradictions, alternately sadistic and maudlin on the set, a poetic genius of pure cinema who denied his artistry to the end and (as Wills’ research does uncover) an inveterate liar and manipulator whose gruff, self-made-man image was as artificial as the one he helped concoct for Wayne. Wayne never stepped free of this magnificent bully, who lorded over Wayne’s career as he did over those of so many other performers and, indeed, over the early history of American film itself. Barden brilliantly suggests that Wayne’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism was as much a capitulation to Ford as to Jesus Christ.
Impressively, Barden explores the role of homosexuality in the story of John Wayne without any overstatement or hysteria. That repressed desire runs through even the dullest westerns, but it’s only one important facet among many — and too often pointing it out provides yet another excuse to ridicule and disregard the genre. Barden gently takes up the threads dropped by Wills in his first chapter to speculate on Wayne’s awareness of the sexual volatility of his own physical style, that pantherlike grace with which he moved his huge body, that blustery tenderness his characters expressed toward younger and weaker men — think not only of Clift and Hunter, but of Robert Mitchum and Dean Martin in “El Dorado” and “Rio Bravo.” Barden writes of Wayne eating at a restaurant in Orange County in 1975, considering the waiter:
Although he was powerfully built and athletic, this young man was also pretty like a girl. Duke decided not to be bothered by it. There was a time almost fifty years ago when he himself was pretty like a girl.
This is not at all to say that either Wayne or the characters he played were repressed homosexuals (though Ford’s ritual brutality toward his young actors rightly raises suspicions). But films that use male beauty so potently and depict again and again an emotional world that excludes women yet scrupulously denies the possibility of same-sex desire have a hypocrisy at their core — a hypocrisy that can, paradoxically, serve as a battery, a source of creative energy. How much violence, how much pain in our culture can be ascribed to shame at glimpsed homosexual or bisexual desire? And how much genius, how many works of immortal art? The westerns of John Ford may be among them.
No doubt, it’s easier to talk about politics-as-politics-alone than to wade into the uneasy territory where loneliness, sexual confusion and family dynamics shape our public lives. Phil Ochs himself fought fiercely to understand his own unhappiness in political terms — he could never recover, he told his audience, from the collapse of the radical dream in Chicago in 1968. Yet when Ochs took his own life, he was plainly the victim of the leftist machismo of his own cultivated persona, a role as isolating and nihilistic as any right-wing cowboy’s. It was a death as much inspired by John Wayne’s example as those of the soldiers in Vietnam. Abbie Hoffman’s might be another.
Dan Barden’s success suggests that the myth and meaning of John Wayne may be at once too big and too small to fit the bounds of conventional biography, and may instead be best understood in sidelong glances, by analogy and metaphor. The man’s life itself is strangely beside the point. John Wayne is finally something other than either a man or a film star, but rather a kind of archetypal figure. Through this figure, the deeply American resistance to settling into the bounds of family and community — a resistance echoed not only in the various anti-government sentiments that plague our nation today, but in the struggle of any man to learn to properly love and be loved by women — can be played out again and again. And, if we’re lucky, understood.
Jonathan Lethem, the Roy E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College, is the author of, most recently, the novel "Chronic City." He is currently at work on his next novel, "Dissident Gardens," publishing October 2013.More Jonathan Lethem.
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)