"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)
“Be realistic. Demand the impossible.”
–Student slogan, May ’68, Paris
There was a moment in 1968 when anything seemed possible. When suddenly, unexpectedly, it appeared that my deepest desires were about to be fulfilled.
It happened when Lyndon Johnson, that towering contradiction, announced at the end of a televised address to the nation, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
“I did a backflip,” Tom Hayden recalls, “I was sitting in front of the television set and I fell over backwards.”
Todd Gitlin, another veteran of the ’60s, was equally astounded: “You’re often amazed when things you devoutly wish for actually come to pass, and this was one of those moments. It felt like we had won.”
I was a 19-year-old college student, staring incredulously at the flickering image of the commander in chief, when his words suddenly struck with the force of revelation. The war in Vietnam might actually be over! I might not have to make the fight-or-flight choice — jungle combat or exile in Canada — that had so tormented me, and thousands more like me.
We were all like Yossarian in “Catch-22.” We took this very personally. “They” were trying to kill “us.” But now Johnson had abdicated. We were free. It felt, quite simply, like a miracle.
Four days later, this mood was shattered. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis. The assassin, said to be a white man, had escaped. I went to a memorial service at my campus chapel, and when a black student — an acting major with a resonant, baritone voice — stood up, all alone, and began singing “We Shall Overcome,” I started to cry uncontrollably.
This had never happened to me before, and it scared me. I ran out of the church, stumbling across the campus; when I simply couldn’t stop crying, fear and shame drove me back to my room, where I crawled into bed and stayed there, trembling, for hours.
Perhaps there were other reasons why I broke down, but I know I experienced King’s assassination as the murder of hope.
I was hardly alone. “This just seemed like the definitive statement,” remembers Gitlin, author of “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.” “America tried to redeem itself and now they’ve killed the man who was taking us to the mountaintop.”
No wonder Washington was burning and troops had surrounded the U.S. Capitol. The fire this time.
That’s what 1968 was like: whiplash. A moment of euphoria followed by crushing despair. Events happened with such intensity, and in such rapid succession, they left people breathless.
“There was blood everywhere,” recalls the Rev. Samuel Kyles, who was standing on the motel balcony next to King when the assassin fired. “In the midst of all the chaos, I saw there was a crushed cigarette in his hand. Martin didn’t smoke publicly but he started smoking privately because of all the pressure. The Vietnam pressure [King had denounced the war, incurring the wrath of the establishment and alienating some of his own supporters]. The pressure the FBI had on him. I took that cigarette, just took it out of his hand.”
It’s a detail that lingers: A cigarette burning in his fallen hand. Martin Luther King Jr., the man, not the saint. A man who knew fear, and kept going.
“At that point I had been so knocked out of my middle-class assumptions that I didn’t know what would happen,” said Hayden. “Perhaps the country could be reformed and Robert Kennedy elected president. Perhaps we would be plunged into a civil war and I’d be imprisoned or killed. It seemed impossible to tell what country we were in and what was about to happen.”
If that sounds melodramatic, just consider how the narrative arc of 1968 in America continued.
Out of the ashes of the riots in the wake of King’s murder, new
hope came in the form of Bobby Kennedy, who had undergone a profound transformation
from Vietnam hawk and aide to Sen. Joe McCarthy to dove and spokesman for
Kennedy’s campaign was suddenly a romantic odyssey. The last hero. The
crowds — black and white, young and old, working-class and affluent — were
enormous, frenzied. People reached out to touch him as if he were a rock
star, tearing off cuff links, even shoes. He broke bread with a fasting
Cesar Chavez to support the farm workers’ union. He won the California
primary. And then he too was gunned down.
The two great reformers, King and Kennedy, were dead.
That led to the inevitable showdown. Both sides, rebels and rulers,
were spoiling for a confrontation. Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley made it possible.
He denied permits for protesters at the Democratic Convention. While “the whole
world (was) watching,” his police rioted, clubbing demonstrators,
reporters and bystanders indiscriminately. The Democratic Party
self-destructed. The system fell apart on national television.
Backlash “law & order” candidate George Wallace stirred up the angry
white male vote. The country was dangerously polarized. Cold warrior
Richard Nixon — back from the political dead — won the presidency by a
razor-thin margin. The war in Vietnam would last another seven years,
engulfing Cambodia and Laos.
And that was just the year at home. In May ’68 there was very nearly a
revolution in France. In August, Russian tanks invaded Czechoslovakia and
crushed the Prague Spring, the experiment in “socialism with a human face.”
And in October the Mexican government massacred as many as 500 students
demonstrating for democracy in the streets of Mexico City.
Why was ’68 such a convulsive, extraordinary year? One theory,
popular among the chattering class, was that it was all Dr. Benjamin
“Permissive child rearing, which actually I never experienced in
my own life, was supposed to be the source of the movement,” observed
author/activist Barbara Ehrenreich. “We heard over and over again that we
were a generation of spoiled kids, Dr. Spock’s kids. But that wasn’t true
of Germany. It was not true of Italy or Japan. The fact that this
outpouring of protest was international completely refutes that simplistic,
So what was the cause of this international phenomenon?
Demographics is no doubt a key. This was the arrival of the baby boom
writ large across the Western world. Universities were teeming from Paris
to Mexico City to Berkeley. By ’68 there were some 8 million students
enrolled in American colleges, many more than ever before.
“An enormous generation swamped the institutions that were supposed
to civilize them,” bemoaned Judge Robert Bork, who had his thumb in the
dike at Yale.
We were a generation in the midst of self-discovery and eager to
assert ourselves. The mood was distinctly rebellious on campus — for a
variety of reasons. In the United States, the struggle for racial equality
in the South clearly inspired and galvanized a youth movement.
But the war in Vietnam and the draft were absolutely central. I
remember a cover of Ramparts magazine that captured how I
felt: “Alienation is when your country is at war and you hope the other
The Vietnam War “broke my American heart,” said Students for a Democratic Society leader Carl
Oglesby, and I know exactly what he meant. It shattered forever my
childhood patriotism and made me question everything. The war not only
caused the greatest rift in American society since the Civil War, it
generated violent protests worldwide in ’68: London, Rome, Berlin, Tokyo.
Another factor was rising expectations. Not only were we
protesting social injustice, we — students, activists, freaks — came to believe
we were creating a new society, a counterculture. In the midst of ’68′s
tragedies, there was tremendous exuberance and joy. The economy promised
more affluence, the Kennedy-Johnson years brought more reforms, from civil
rights laws to the War on Poverty. Our motto, in a way, was: “More.”
And then, there was the music. From James Brown’s “Say It
Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” to the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting
Man.” No matter how many times the music has been cynically recycled as
nostalgic hooks in car commercials, the rock ‘n’ roll of ’68 was in real time
incandescent, sometimes incendiary.
It was on every radio, AM at that: Aretha Franklin’s
“Think,” Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” Sly and the Family Stone’s
“Dance to the Music,” the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain,” Otis
Redding’s “Dock of the Bay,” the Doors, Cream, the Chambers Brothers and
the Beatles’ “Revolution” (warning about the dangers of carrying pictures
of Chairman Mao — excellent advice).
Much has been made of the impact television had on the ’60s
generation. But I would argue that radio was even more important. Cheap
transistors and car radios were like drums in the jungle for a worldwide
youth movement. They made the music nearly universal at a time when even
schlock rock — the Rascals’ hit, “People Got to Be Free” — carried a
No one caught the mood of impending doom more accurately than Bob
Dylan, who always seemed to be six months ahead of everybody else. In his
first post-motorcycle accident song, “All Along the Watchtower,” which Jimi
Hendrix transformed into a hit, Dylan wailed, “There’s too much confusion,
I can’t get no relief.” And in words that riveted me in ’68 and stayed with me ever since, Dylan implored: “Let us not talk falsely
now, the hour is getting late.”
In ’68 the Mexican students sang Beatles songs as they took to the
streets. Bernadette Devlin and the civil rights marchers in Northern
Ireland echoed, “We Shall Overcome.” In one of my favorite stories,
recounted by Paul Berman in his book “A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political
Journey of the Generation of 1968,” the young playwright Vaclav Havel
visited New York in the spring of ’68, went up to Columbia to observe the
student strike and purchased Frank Zappa and Velvet Underground albums to
take back to Prague, where they inspired a dissident band, the Plastic
People, and other cultural rebels.
For Havel and his comrades in the Prague Spring — who finally
succeeded 20 years later in their Velvet Revolution — Frank Zappa and
Lou Reed are heroes of the anti-authoritarian spirit that helped end Soviet
domination of Eastern Europe. (It’s a concept, incidentally, that Judge
Bork just can’t grasp. When I told him about the Havel-Zappa connection,
he just shook his head. Bork still wants to censor Zappa.)
And what of the relevance of all this, 30 years later? If nothing
else, knowing what transpired in ’68 is a way to understand our generation, the ’60s generation.
My father’s generation endured the Depression and fought World War II. But ’68
was our crucible. It was the year a generation raised in the
optimism of the New Frontier and the Beatles lost its innocence.
1968 remains a fault line in American politics: What side were you
on? As Pat Buchanan, who was a Nixon speechwriter in ’68, told me, “I
think there’s an amount of bitterness and animosity that our generation is
going to carry to its grave. These wounds aren’t going to heal.”
This is one of the reasons Bill and Hillary Clinton are the objects
of such venom. Clinton may not have been much of a street-fightin’ man,
but he was of that time, and hey, he dodged the draft, didn’t he?
Reporter Jules Witcover called his book on ’68 “The Year the Dream
Died.” The dream, that is, of King and Kennedy, of a nobler, more
inclusive, reformed America. Instead, we got Nixon, Watergate, Ronald Reagan and
25 years of political backlash in Washington. In a political sense, ’68 in
America was not the beginning, but an end.
Buchanan is fond of saying that conservatives won the political
battle, but lost the cultural war. The feminist protest at the 1968 Miss
America pageant certainly presaged the women’s movement, though contrary to
myth no bras were actually burned there. But, sure — legalized abortion,
gay rights, student power, drug enjoyment (and abuse), affirmative action,
uncensored expression — they’re all part of the cultural transformation
set in motion by the upheavals of the late ’60s.
But ’68 was also something quite specific. A year of high moral drama.
A sort of distillation of the ’60s when politics mattered and adrenalin
was the drug of choice. Before self-indulgence and narcissism set in.
Jack Newfield wrote that after the deaths of King and Kennedy we
became a generation of might-have-beens. What if Kennedy had won? What if
the Vietnam War had ended in 1969?
In other countries, the story is a bit different The
French students lost at the barricades but ultimately managed to
reform the antiquated educational system and to rejuvenate the
Socialist Party, which took power a decade later. Their cherubic leader,
“Danny the Red,” is now a member of the European Parliament.
In the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, class of ’68, is president.
And in Mexico, at long last, democracy has stirred and an opposition leader
has been elected mayor of Mexico City. In a symbol of the change, a
Mexican congressional committee this year began investigating the army
massacre of student protesters in ’68, the “Night of Sorrow,” which the
government had shrouded in secrecy for 30 years.
In Paris ’68, the audacious slogan was, “All power to the
imagination.” That was the pure spirit of ’68. Question everything.
Dream. A simultaneous cultural and political revolt. That spirit — what
Paul Berman calls a “utopian exhilaration” — swept the globe. What became
Assassinations, repression and exhaustion extinguished the spirit
of ’68. But like a subterranean fire, it resurfaces at historic moments:
the student pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, or the end of
apartheid in South Africa. Berman argues, I think persuasively, that the
embers of ’68, especially in Prague, helped ignite the revolution of 1989
that brought liberal democracy to Eastern Europe and ended the Cold War.
Turn-of-the-century America, by contrast, seems an unlikely place for a revival
of utopian idealism. I don’t know where we might, in this skeptical, fragmented, self-absorbed country, locate the flickering spirit of ’68.
Stephen Talbot's summer movie picks are "Smoke Signals" and "Bulworth."More Stephen Talbot.
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)