"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)
Topics: Entertainment News
Buffy had a moral crisis a few weeks ago. As she was offing vampires with Faith — a Rose McGowan-like compatriot on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — Faith accidentally offed the wrong vampire, which is to say someone who turned out to be not a vampire at all. Never especially enthusiastic about her work, and feeling complicit in the mistake, Buffy was tormented; Faith, liking her work too well, shrugged and moved on.
I wish I could claim I was hip enough to have caught on to “Buffy” from the beginning, but I wasn’t, though I remember liking the original movie some years back. I can’t even claim to be a true convert, since converts are by nature obsessive and I’m not obsessive about “Buffy” like I’ve become about “The Practice” or used to be about “Larry Sanders” and the brilliant British cop series “Cracker” (by all means not to be confused with its dreary and short-lived American counterpart). But “Buffy” is probably as witty as prime-time TV gets these days, and sly enough in its postmodernism to almost redeem postmodernism, in part because it sustains a narrow concept through its characters in a way that, for instance, “The X-Files” now routinely fails to do. Where Scully and Mulder, defying even the best efforts of their able actors, have been straitjacketed into types — more functionaries of the show’s tedious “conspiracy” than real people — the dynamics of the “Buffy” ensemble constantly evolve, led by Sarah Michelle Gellar in the title role. At first glance every inch the usual vacuous three-named TV blond, Gellar gains both personality and credibility with every episode; I have no problem believing she’s kicking the asses of vampires twice her size.
“Buffy” is the best and most currently prominent example of a cultural phenomenon I’ll call, for lack of something better, Teen Millennium, just as the new movie “Jawbreaker” is the worst. As a movement Teen Millennium may have begun in the mid-’70s with Brian De Palma’s “Carrie,” but it really coalesced 10 years ago with Winona Ryder in “Heathers” and David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” TV series, and more particularly the “Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me” film. In these shows and movies, teenage life is the millennium, with every kid born after 1981 his or her own walking apocalypse. In “escapist” fare like “Buffy” or “Scream,” in more serious efforts like Larry Clark’s “Kids” and somewhere between the two, as in Doug Linman’s upcoming “Go,” epic themes of cosmic judgment, moral retribution and spiritual redemption are as commonplace as the horrors that engender them: kids abused, violated, assaulted, overdosed, murdered, possessed and haunted as a matter of routine.
Lynch, in particular, has been fascinated with Teen Millennialism since “Blue Velvet” in 1986. But it was in his ’90s work, like “Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me” and “Lost Highway,” that Sheryl Lee and Patricia Arquette emerged as spectacularly depraved millennial icons of late adolescence. Whether writhing in a borderland whorehouse or strolling blithely naked into a flaming desert shack, Lee and Arquette tumble into the void, pulling us along in the vortex.
In terms of consequence and meaning, the Secret Millennium of the Children leaves in the dust the upcoming millennium of grown-ups, who have, in their usual fashion, rendered it a buzzword, a media commodity, an ever-emptier form of intellectual chic. And whereas in Lynch’s films innocence is still a holy grail, in the latest chapters of Teen Millennium innocence is no longer even an issue, having gone the way of diapers if not the birth canal. Buffy lost her moral virginity long ago, maybe before her sexual virginity, though the “Buffy” obsessives out there can no doubt set me straight on this one. For the kids of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Dec. 31 isn’t going to have any more significance than Memorial Day; the very notion of a millennium couldn’t be more square.
You would probably bolt completely if I suggested Teen Millennium was a religious phenomenon as much as a cultural one, so I’d better define “religious” in a hurry. The millennium itself is a religious invention, of course, a fact that gets lost in the current fevered rush to the Orgasm at the End of Time that 1999 has been promising ever since that little narcissist from Minneapolis made a song of it. As marked on the calendar of history written by Jesus, it implies the things that Jesus’ life has implied to so many over the centuries, rightly on occasion but wrongly most of the rest of the time. By now you probably also know that if you want to get nit-picky about it, the millennium doesn’t begin next year at all but already began several years ago, since it’s now fairly well-established historically that Jesus was born not in the Year One but around 4 B.C.
Be all that as it may: In a religious context, Teen Millennium couldn’t make more sense. After all, religion is an adolescent social device; it takes a serious and grown-up concern — spirituality — and by its very nature reduces it to both an adolescent sense of eternity and an adolescent moral scheme in which absolutely everything is cast in stark contrasts, in which whatever doubt and mystery can’t be bleached out of human experience is codified into ritual and myth. Adolescence itself is practically a religious experience, in which you’re relentlessly beset by buffeting forces of guilt and ecstasy until, buffeted enough, you finally emerge from it into adulthood, either a shambles of a human being like the rest of us or a Buffy, leading the forces of light against the forces of dark even when the forces of light are too dim to understand there’s a war going on, let alone a battle to be marched to. Similar to the way Buffy is constantly in the position of saving a human race of fools and ingrates, the subterranean logic of Christianity is that however much Jesus may have redeemed humanity through his sacrifice, he was really too good for us all along; when you get right down to it, the only one Jesus really redeemed was Jesus. You and I were just along for the ride.
As with any cultural movement, sometimes Teen Millennium is just more dispiriting than disturbing or profound. Until we actually see the new “Cruel Intentions,” with its already famous scene of Gellar as the Antibuffy snorting cocaine off a crucifix and moaning for defilement, “Jawbreaker” will have to make the point. If it was a better movie you could call it ugly and vicious, because at least it would warrant adjectives that mean something. With the Donnas on the soundtrack, in the hands of a Russ Meyer “Jawbreaker” might have actually been subversive — “Faster Pussycat Kill Kill” with an extra “Kill” on the end, just to keep up with the times. In its first few minutes a young girl is dead in a car trunk, flesh turning blue and eyes frozen and a huge bulge in her throat — “perfection obliterated by perversion,” as someone puts it, which is as thoughtful as the movie gets — where the jawbreaker candy that was used to gag her has lodged itself.
That’s the hilarious part. It’s a prank gone wrong at the hands of Courtney, the reigning monster of Ronald Reagan High: the Rose McGowan-like amoralist of the recent “Buffy” episode has wandered into “Jawbreaker” only to become the real Rose McGowan, who as an actress is presumably playing to type, since this is the only type she ever plays. Cultivating her bad-girl image by trumping every stunt Shannen Doherty never had the imagination or audacity to think of, McGowan has been everywhere lately: on the cover of Maxim, bareass at the MTV Awards and now engaged to Marilyn Manson. As publicity stunts go these are all pretty garden-variety, so it must be something else, something more elusive, that accounts for why McGowan verges on the repellent — though I grant you my age may be talking now: in his 20s or 30s a guy is happily lured to his doom by such women, and then he passes 40 and just wants to get the fuck away from them as fast as possible. Compared to McGowan, Sheryl Lee and Patricia Arquette are tarnished angels, retaining a mystique McGowan purposely means to blast to smithereens.
In the process, of course, McGowan may also be Teen Millennium personified, at least until she and Gellar duke it out for the honor, in the battle of dark and light. Before you besiege me with letters, I do realize neither of these women is a teenager; both were born at least several years before the beginning of Teen Millennium — a date difficult to pinpoint, much like the birth of Jesus. But for the hell of it I’ll go with Dec. 8, 1980. That was the day the ’60s died, to which a whole unborn generation said to itself, Good riddance, and could you please mop up the blood as soon as possible, it’s so unstylish. And you can’t entirely blame the kids, given the way so much of the ’60s seems dated, given the way so much of it has been betrayed, given the way so much of it was a fraud to begin with. In films like “Jawbreaker” and “Cruel Intentions” there’s not a trace of any life that might have existed before 1980: The houses are empty of parents, and the one or two teachers who lumber through the campus hallways are like brontosaurs in the background of “Jurassic Park” stupidly strolling in the direction of a tree to nibble on.
In the very first issue of Grant Morrison’s “The Invisibles” — the best mainstream comic since Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” hit its stride around 1990 — Dane, a violent young English sociopath, lurks on the banks of the Thames one night in the early years of the 21st century. There he overhears a conversation between two ghosts. “The Invisibles” is a vision of Teen Millennium come and gone: Like Buffy, Dane is a nihilistic teenager about to get caught up in something that will not simply give his life meaning, but suggest that meaning is still even an option. Where the millennial conflict of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is the sort of battle between light and dark even William Bennett could endorse, Morrison has drawn his moral battle lines somewhat more exactingly, between control and sensual chaos, between order and psychic liberation, between authority and the pursuit of happiness. This is not just Teen Millennium but Punk Millennium — but then, the millennium is what punk was always about to begin with.
As it happens, the two ghosts Dane overhears on the banks of the Thames are a very young John Lennon arguing with a very young Stu Sutcliffe about why the latter shouldn’t leave the band. Decades after Lennon’s death at 40, and even longer after Sutcliffe’s at 22, Dane’s hallucination seems no less ancient history than Byron and Shelley arguing about life and art on the canals of Venice (which in fact also takes place in “The Invisibles,” a few issues later). It’s a time when ghosts, flung loose from meaning and all its bearings, are commonplace, and when the 1960s have plummeted so far through the glass darkly that lives and deaths like Lennon’s and Sutcliffe’s seem innocent and quaint, the last gasp of childhood before the blossoming adolescence of mankind. It’s a new millennium better defined by the assassination of its own John Lennon, who turned out be his own assassin, with a bigger gun that made a bigger mess. Come to think of it, Dane looks a lot like Kurt Cobain — before the gun, naturally. But after the mess.
Steve Erickson's new novel, "The Sea Came in at Midnight," will be published next spring by Bard/Avon.More Steve Erickson.
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)