"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)
Waiting for tears in a Barbara Walters interview is like waiting for blood in a prizefight. Cry No. 1 in the Monica Lewinsky “20/20″ interview came at 9:51 p.m. EST. Cry No. 2 hit at 10:41, with the story of the FBI bust on Jan. 16. And then Babs moved in like Tyson, scoring No. 3 at 10:43 with a round of questions about Monica’s family.
Monica’s face reddened; her lip quivered. We all knew her history — the White House freak-outs, the wailing to Linda Tripp — and for a second it looked like our Mon might go to pieces. Would she lose control? Would her voice crack? Would there be mucus? There would be none of that. Composed and professional in a dark suit with her hair pulled back — and about a quart of Vaseline on the camera — Monica (or, at least, the Monica we saw in the final edit, which at times looked like it was spliced from file footage) lived her life in two hours and came out dry, smiling and ready for love.
What we all know about Walters’ interviews is that they’re about feelings, but that’s not quite true. They’re about the display of feelings, interspersed with that masterly control — the tight smile, the quick laugh — that separates the pros from the civilians. It’s not about being fake; it’s about being real in tightly controlled doses. Cue up “Sunrise, Sunset”: Monica Lewinsky, Person, made the transition Wednesday night to Monica Lewinsky, Persona.
Though we all guessed there wouldn’t be any real revelations — and except for Monica’s abortion admission and, maybe, her antidepressants, there weren’t — the build-up this past week was staggering. New York publicists complained they couldn’t get anyone to show for Monica-night events; people organized Monica parties; ABC garnered $800,000 for a 30-second commercial spot — half the rate of the Super Bowl, approaching Academy Awards numbers. (Did anyone else notice a disproportionate number of ads for Snackwell’s, the new diet drug wonder Meridia, herbal diet aids and Victoria’s Secret breaking up the talk with the zaftig, thong-wearing Lewinsky?) In its breathy promos, ABC showed Walters posing provocative questions and Monica biting her lip but — teasingly — never talking, investing her with sphinxlike power as though, were she finally to speak, your television would explode.
The problem is that by now Monica was just about the chattiest sphinx in American history, having surfeited us with the Starr Report, the Tripp tapes and the Senate deposition. The popular comparison of the broadcast was to the big game or Oscar night. But only if the Super Bowl had already been played last August, if the Oscars had already been given out and they were just rerunning the musical numbers. God knows we commentators stopped having anything new to say about Monica months ago, but it’s a comfort to us to know that she’s pretty much tapped out on the subject too.
What the interview did help clarify were some of those longstanding watercooler questions: the why-did-she, how-could-she questions. For instance, how could Monica not feel like she was being used? Why would she want a relationship with a man who took a congressman’s phone call in the middle of their first sexual encounter? As she answered — in not so many words — duh.
“There was a level of excitement,” she said. “A level of danger involved in the relationship.” I mean, damn! Nothing says, “You’re having sex with the president” like an intracoital congressional phone call.
And the why-did-he questions? The interview probably gave little material to Clinton biographers, but it was refreshing to hear Monica implicitly answer the question, “Why would he risk it?” — a childish query repeated by pundits and supporters who, as Mr. Mojo Nixon would put it, have no Elvis in them. “I would imagine it’s very difficult being president of the United States,” she said. “There’s tremendous pressure. Sometimes, you just need a piece of …”
“Ass!” volunteered 50 million Americans in the home audience.
We’ve heard a lot this past — what, 25? 50? — years about whether the Lewinsky scandal has “degraded” us. Monica Lewinsky, it would seem, has been improved by the scandal — turning from an apparent wreck into a confident, likable player. Most of the rest of us seem to be the same knuckle-draggers we’ve always happily been when it comes to pleasing public spectacle. But Barbara Walters, now there’s another story. The weirdly sexual buzz of hearing Walters, with her round table on “The View,” talking about the particulars of the first lovers’ relationship has been like reliving the primal scene over and over: “You were gratified,” Walters purred to Monica with perfect diction last night. “There were things that made you feel, as a woman, happy and content … The oral sex was not brought to completion for the president.” And then, “Did you ever try to have intercourse?” “Of course!” Monica replied. (At this point, paramedics administered electric shocks to William Bennett’s chest.)
You could see, nonetheless, why Walters was the appropriate person to do this interview, in which feelings were really the only news. We saw Babs bust out all the tools. We saw the Barbara Walters lean: her way of leaning in toward her interview subjects as if she’s trying to talk them off a ledge. We saw the Barbara Walters squint: “It really hurts me to ask this question, but …” Most important, we saw the Barbara Walters shuffle: She can ask a question on two levels simultaneously, so that Middle America thinks she’s sharing their puzzlement and indignation, but the subject thinks she’s chatting up a celeb gal pal. (Walters, at one juncture, told us Monica isn’t allowed to discuss the FBI sting “with members of the news media. That includes me.” Thanks for clearing that up!)
But she’s paid to jerk tears, and Walters pulled every trick to elicit waterworks from Lewinsky short of clubbing a baby seal in the studio: having her watch video of Clinton calling her “that woman”; his cold reference to her in his Aug. 17 confession to the nation; playing the tape of her sobbing uncontrollably to Linda Tripp (an uncomfortable snippet in which Tripp claims sympathy but sounds like she’s doing her nails). Dr. Joyce Brothers said no man would ever marry you, Monica — how do you like them apples!
What was most striking about Monica was that not only did she not break down; she didn’t back down. Remembering her splendor on the carpet with Bill, there was a healthily unrepentant, almost lusty air about her. She refused, for instance, to categorically say she regretted the affair, and suggested she might do it again, despite Walters’ prompting. Monica Lewinsky got up before tens of millions of Americans and, essentially, told us she liked sex — and did we have a goddamn problem with that? She said about herself: “I’m a sensual person.” About phone sex: “It’s fun!” About intercourse: “To me, that completes a relationship.” (At which point, William Bennett was declared legally dead for two minutes before doctors revived him.)
Her overt message was: “I felt dirty, I felt used” — but that’s like a rock star telling kids never to take the drugs that made him a millionaire celebrity. The subtext was, we had fun. Fun? We had sex. Why the hell shouldn’t I have done it? Sure, she apologized to the nation. What she knows, and Linda Tripp apparently doesn’t, is the standard requirement for rehabilitation as a post-scandal figure is to apologize. It doesn’t matter if anyone wants an apology, or thinks you owe one. It’s just what you do. It’s good manners.
But what about us, the viewers (said the writer, deploying the first-person plural to deflect attention from his being paid to make these observations)? After a year of telling pollsters we were sick of the Monica Circus, Wednesday night we stood on each others’ shoulders to catch a glimpse of the elephants’ tails as they shambled out of town. The fascination, I think, confirms that the American people have nothing against a good tabloid-media story: They just don’t like to see it blown up into a matter of state. Watching Monica on “20/20,” we gave ourselves a treat: the human-interest scandal we should have had in the first place, rather than the legal-political battle we got. We have segued straight from Monica Mania to Monica Nostalgia — and we can probably thank Juanita Broaddrick, who took scant days to make the last 14 months seem like an innocent frolic. You can always count on American culture to make today’s excruciating embarrassment into tomorrow’s innocent memory. But who would have thought it would happen so fast?
And perhaps we were drawn to Monica’s interview because, alone among all the scandal’s figures, we could see ourselves in her place. We might not be as brazen as Bill, as stoic as Betty, as satanic as Linda or Ken or Sidney — but we could screw up our lives with this kind of poor decision. Like Monica, we saw what should have been a good time turned into a drawn-out legal nightmare. And we all wondered, I think, how we would do if we were in her place: Now, unlike ever before, we may actually believe it could happen. Thus the bizarre conceit behind this article: All of us reviewing the performance of a private citizen in a TV interview, assessing how she did, wondering what we might do should we be called to serve God and country on “20/20.” (For starters, destroy immediately any stray tapes of ourselves singing the theme from “Ice Castles” at our high school talent shows.)
Incidentally, I notice that throughout the above I refer to Barbara Walters as “Walters” and Monica Lewinsky as “Monica.” Maybe this demeans Monica, but really it’s a compliment. She cried Wednesday night that “Behind the name ‘Monica Lewinsky,’ there’s a person” — but that name isn’t really there anymore; it’s been replaced by a new uniname, the kind of singular moniker we give artists and saints. In a way, she’s our Mary: chosen by a higher power to be anointed, to bring forth great excitement and tribulation to the world through an act of union without copulation. Except this time, by 11 p.m. EST Wednesday, she was the one who became a god.
At this point, William Bennett begged doctors to kill him.
James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.More James Poniewozik.
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)