"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)
There’s hardly a single major ’90s pop music phenomenon that doesn’t have its antecedent in the sugary, ironic, thrilling pastiche of Blondie. Madonna’s obvious inspiration was Debbie Harry, not Marilyn Monroe (“Everybody admits that but Madonna,” says Blondie keyboardist Jimmy Destri). The Spice Girls, too, are Harry’s daughters. An ex-Playboy bunny, Harry perfected the marriage of airbrushed, blow-up doll glamour and tough, me-first attitude that every MTV nymphet strives for — the insistent, carnally aggressive chorus to “Call Me” prefigured do-me feminism by a decade. Even hip-hop, which everyone from Vibe to Time magazine acknowledges as the music of the ’90s, has a few blond roots, for while Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc invented it, Blondie brought it to the masses — “Rapture” was, after all, the first No. 1 rap song ever. The sweet and sour harmonies of critical darlings Sleater-Kinney follow straight from songs like “In the Flesh” and “X Offender,” Blondie’s punk takes on the girl-group sounds of the Shangri Las and the Angels. The Beastie Boys are often credited for merging punk, funk, hip-hop and dance music, but again, Blondie did it first, pumping out disco hits and keeping their CBGB street cred at the height of the “disco sucks” backlash. This remarkable genre diplomacy was made possible by the band’s sophisticated use of parody and winking exaggeration (especially the bitingly blasi lyrics to “Heart of Glass”) and by Debbie Harry’s indomitable coolness — a glamour that, at 53, still seems to burn as intensely as it did two decades ago.
When Blondie announced that they were reuniting, 17 years after their less-than-mediocre final album, “The Hunter,” and subsequent rancorous breakup (two ex-members have recently filed a lawsuit against the band), even loyal fans might have groaned a bit, picturing the pathetic recent Sex Pistols tour or the geriatric, increasingly self-parodic Rolling Stones. Once again, though, Blondie amazes, producing what may be the most triumphant comeback record ever. Unlike the desultory greatest-hits packages of Blondie’s past-their-prime peers, “No Exit” has all the manic energy and confectionery gloss of classic albums like “Parallel Lines” and “Plastic Letters.” “That’s why we tried to work on all new music. We didn’t want to do this retro trip. We felt it was really important that we do something fresh,” says Harry. “I don’t think we would have done it otherwise — we couldn’t ever have pulled it off.”
Says drummer Clem Burke, “I’m friends with Glen [Matlock, the Sex Pistols' bassist] and Steve [Jones, the Sex Pistols' guitarist], and they both seem to have regretted that they weren’t able to make new music during their reunion. We didn’t want to do this as a business venture, like ‘Let’s go out on tour and make a whole bunch of money.’ If we were going to put all this time, energy and emotion into it, we had to become a band again. That’s the difference between a Blondie reunion and a Sex Pistols reunion or a Kiss reunion. Those were more nostalgic, and they disappointed fans because they didn’t make any new music. We all feel very credible now that we’ve made the new record.”
The reception of the new album has been almost uniformly ecstatic. “Maria,” the deliriously catchy, operatically passionate first single — a pop gem as perfectly crafted as any in their oeuvre — debuted at the top of the charts in Britain, making Blondie the first band ever to have a No. 1 U.K. single in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. No one in the group ever expected to be so prominently back in the pop spotlight again, but at the same time they say there’s no feeling of disorientation or dij` vu. “It really does feel like just the next Blondie album. It could have come between ‘Eat to the Beat’ and ‘Autoamerican,’ or after ‘The Hunter,’” says Destri. “My thing is that, even though I got married and started a really wonderful family and am happy being at home, the 16 years I was at home were the surreal years. Doing this feels right. There was no death after Blondie for me, but I felt incomplete, even with a family and everything. Now I feel very much at home, like ahhh yeah, where did we leave off?”
If anything, “No Exit” is the most ambitious Blondie record ever, tighter and more wildly eclectic than anything the band has done before. There’s a whiskey-rough country tune on “No Exit,” “The Dream is Lost on Me,” as well as a noirish ska song, “Screaming Skin,” and the title track, a Gothic rap featuring a furious cameo by Coolio. It all works, probably because it’s the kind of experimental fare Blondie have tackled from the beginning. And while “No Exit” is in no way a retrospective, there is a sense that Blondie are consolidating their influences, making a statement about their own inventive legacy. Hearing them pull off ska, rap, pop, country, jazz and old-fashioned torch songs on the same album gives a contemporary listener a new appreciation how visionary Blondie were in fusing hip-hop, punk and disco, three genres that appeared eons apart in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
“We’ve just done a remix of ‘No Exit’ with Wu Tang Clan and Mobb Deep. They say the first time they heard rap was with ‘Rapture’ — it’s funny, you’d think they’d cite NWA or Public Enemy,” says Burke. “Had we not done ‘Rapture’ back then, I don’t think it would have rang true to work with rap now. There is an acceptance of Blondie [in hip-hop], and people recognize Debbie as being, in a way, the first female rapper.”
Coolio got involved with “No Exit” after Harry sent him a tape of the song — he responded by recording his own rap to go along with it. “His performance was extraordinary,” says Harry. “We really didn’t have any intimate collaboration working in the same room. He liked the song and he did his thing and sent it to us. The process was kind of existential, which sort of fits the title.”
There’s also a strong jazz influence on “No Exit,” especially on Harry’s vocals. The playfully snaky phrasing on the loungey “Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room” and the funky “Happy Dog” seems gleaned from her work with the Jazz Passengers, a New York avant-garde jazz combo known for its theatricality and wild improvisations. Bittersweet ballads like “Double Take” and “Night Wind Sent” are ideal showcases for Harry in her chanteuse mode. Age agrees with Harry — her voice here is richer and sultrier, as sexy as ever but tempered with wisdom. “Double Take” especially aches with a world-weary compassion born of outrageous experience and resilience in the face of loss. After all, one of the most striking things about Blondie is that, despite their dizzying trip from the insanely nihilistic, drug-drenched New York punk scene to worldwide fame and then to relative individual obscurity, its founding members are all still alive.
“So many people have died in our lives, with the drug epidemic and AIDS epidemic,” says Harry. “I was at a photo show about the punk scene at CBGBs a couple years back, and as I walked through the show and saw all the faces, I realized at least 50 percent of the people in the pictures were gone. I don’t think that’s normal for people in their 20s and 30s, except during wartime.” Adds Destri, “We’ve gone though our own little hells. We consider ourselves lucky that we made it out the other end. We’ve lost so many friends to the plague, drugs, freak accidents. It’s a rough game we’re in, but my three closest friends all came through it unscathed.”
Seeing so many of their friends and contemporaries flame out or fade away may have lessened any bitterness the band feels about watching other artists get rich off Blondie’s innovations. “I was really proud when I heard our style go on and influence other people,” says Destri. “But I also saw that people were having massively successful careers based on aspects of us, so there was a bit of jealousy there — but also a bit of gratification.”
“No Exit” is such a fantastic album that it carries with it the melancholy question of how many other great records the band could have made if it had gotten back together sooner. “Clem and I were discussing this once. Clem sees a lot of glasses as half empty, whereas I see them as half full,” says Destri. “Clem said, ‘Man, we could have went on into the mid-’80s, gotten paid and walked away hugely successful.’ I said to him that I believe if we had gone on, we would have made less and less inspired records and would have been left without such a great legacy. We would never have had the opportunity to come back as strong as we did.”
Says Harry, “I’m lucky. I’ve had an interesting life, a lot of success and an equal amount of failure. No matter how famous any of us are, we all probably have the same ups and downs, some things that are good and some things that really suck. I think I’m happier now than I was when I was younger. I know more about myself. I’ve had a lot of really cool experiences. The worst part is thinking that someday it’s going to be over.”
She won’t admit any resentment toward Madonna and her millions. “It’s very funny, but everybody asks me about Madonna. Just in asking that question you have the answer. Some of the fundamental things she used image-wise were directly influenced by me, that’s pretty obvious. In Madonna’s defense, she has worked extremely hard in her career and she’s done some incredible things. Some of her music is really great, and anyone who achieves that kind of success has of course worked her ass off for it.”
Ironically, with her keen business sense and genius for appropriation, Madonna has made it easier to see the shrewdness behind Harry’s persona and has illuminated Blondie’s brilliance. When the band first made it big, after all, many critics saw guitarist and co-founder Chris Stein (then Harry’s lover) as the brains behind the group. Harry’s parody of the bitchy blond bimbo was lost on many, and her contribution to Blondie’s music was written off. The women in rock who followed her, though, have made it impossible to condescend to Harry in the same way, and hopefully everyone who listens to “No Exit” will hear her influence.
“I think that people’s eyes have been opened a lot,” says Harry. “That sexist approach has changed, the industry has opened up a lot more, and it’s now apparent what my real contribution was. I worked on the music. I put my ideas into melody. I wrote a lot of the lyrics. I created the style and attitude of the band. I was holding my own, honey.”
Likewise, the rest of the band professes to have come to terms with the fact that for many people, Debbie Harry is Blondie — a misconception once so prevalent that the group adopted the blunt slogan “Blondie is a band.”
“When I was younger, there was a point where I was like, damn, here she is and the photographers are pushing me out of the way again,” says Destri. “But there are other things that I’ve always found worse than that — like digging ditches for a living, or having to do manual labor under a nasty boss. In the first incarnation of Blondie, I wrote a couple of great songs and I was very lucky to have this superstar sing them for me. Of course there’s a lot of times when people don’t recognize the members of Blondie for the creativity that they have, but at the same time it also hurt Debbie, because nobody looked past the image to her creativity.”
In 1999, those conflicts seem fabulously far away, and Blondie have nailed their place in both the music history books and on the contemporary pop charts. “If you asked me if I would do it all over again,” says Destri, “I’d say give me a beautiful blond chick with a voice.”
Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).More Michelle Goldberg.
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)