"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: School Violence
Massacre in suburban Denver
BY DAVE CULLEN
Once upon a time the emphasis of public education was socialization.
The whole purpose of kindergarten was explained as such, and we were
told it was necessary. But, from the time I left elementary school,
some 18 years ago, public schools have whittled away programs that were
Our focus on the three R’s seems to have obscured the goal of
introducing the humanities to growing minds. Philosophy, where large
ideas are introduced and discussed, seems to be left until after a
disaster hits. Perhaps if the young men of Littleton could have spoken
their ideas in a classroom, where other kids could have responded in a
vigorous discussion, they might have heard how extreme their ideas were –
how disrespectful towards humanity, how disrespectful towards their own
lives and their own self-worth.
Can we afford to leave civics to the last semester option of a senior’s
curriculum? Can we afford to eliminate “liberal” from our children’s
– Metis Black
Colorado Springs, Colo.
The violence in Littleton raises one question with me: When are you guys going to do something about your gun laws?
How can kids have access to the kind of guns that can create this havoc?
Is the money behind the National Rifle Association more important than the lives of innocent
men, women and children?
Wake up America, your children need you!
– Sue Moran
Oak Flats, Australia
Among the many disturbing things about this massacre is the
overwhelming and unspoken complicity between parents, students and
the media to deflect all responsibility for the attack onto the
killers, their families and gun lobbyists. By no means do I support
what these boys did, but it is frustrating to see interviews with
precisely the kind of kids the killers were supposed to be targeting
claiming that the killers were “freaks,” “weird,” etc., basically
reinforcing the kind of exclusionary attitudes the killers were
striking out against. I think it’s foolish and dangerous to be so
blinded by the criminality of the so-called Trench Coat Mafia’s
actions that we ignore what role students, or even faculty and staff,
at Columbine High School may have had in pushing these kids over the
As I watched the almost continuous coverage last night, I kept
wondering when we were going to hear an objective evaluation of what
these kids were like on every other day, what kind of students they
were. It turns out they weren’t a discipline problem and that they
were smart and computer savvy. They played fantasy baseball. They
were depressed. They kept to themselves. By several accounts they
felt they had been treated badly and used this as an excuse for their
rampage. But I never heard any student asked about what the
killers had (or hadn’t) suffered in terms of taunting, bullying, etc.
Before we train our students to be watchdogs, to report anyone who
doesn’t wear a Gap uniform or who doesn’t otherwise fit in, let’s
teach children to practice some self-restraint and to curb their
childish impulse to deride and denigrate their peers.
– Michael Mejia
I just read the piece on the shooting — it is tragic. And while my
complaint is not nearly as important as what those people are going
through, I am enraged by the use of the term “right-wing beliefs” in
your article. Though I do understand that those were words uttered by a small-town sheriff, Salon’s reporting it — twice — in its short article
was an outrage.
I consider myself a conservative Republican, on the right end of “right-wing
beliefs.” I am probably more moderate than some but I take serious
offense to the statement that these monsters who committed this crime,
were of the same beliefs as myself and many others.
What is “right-wing” about being armed to the teeth and murdering
innocent people? Your article felt compelled to mention it, but
failed to ever explain what was meant by it.
– Kristi Burgess
One of the distressing things about Tuesday’s school killings, as well
as in previous incidents, is that fellow students knew about the
perpetrators’ behaviors beforehand, but ignored the troubled youths and
went about their own business until those troubled students “snapped.”
As parents and concerned adults, we wonder why they didn’t say
something to somebody; maybe this could have been
We can all point fingers at who or
what in society is at fault for making kids act out this way. Yes, it
is most likely a mixture: lack of parenting, violence in film and
television, Gothic influences in music, drugs, child abuse — the
list goes on. But what can be done right now to help our children?
I’m a safety officer for a hospital in Palm Springs, Calif. The state mandates
that all employers with more than 250 employees create and implement a written safety program; one of the stipulations is that businesses must create a means of anonymous
communication for their employees to use without fear of reprisal. In my
hospital, we meet that by having a safety hot line, where employees can
report problems anonymously 24 hours a day.
Why doesn’t the federal government create emergency legislation
mandating that a 24-hour telephone hot line be installed in every junior
high and high school throughout the country, with which children can call
and report things anonymously? School administrators could monitor the
hot lines each day, so they can investigate these problems before they become another
tragedy. It’s time we did something constructive besides analyze.
– Debbie Miller
“We called it ‘Littlefun’”
BY JEFF STARK
The mainstream television talking heads act like they’ve never been to
high school. Geeky and awkward kids have always been tormented by their
more popular classmates. I know because I was one of them. Though I had easy access to my parent’s firearms, I never
once thought of using them to kill my tormentors. As with Jeff’s friends
who listened to German metal, dressed weird and floated outside the
mainstream, something called a moral center was present inside of me to
prevent such a thing. The two kids in Colorado lacked that moral
center. All the laws against guns, video games, violent movies and the
Internet will ever fill that void.
– Brian Bingham
Like Jeff Stark, I spent many a day wandering the hills and fields
around the Columbine area in Colorado. I probably passed him several
times in Columbine’s halls before he graduated.
But unlike Stark, I stayed in Littleton. I married a 1994
Columbine graduate, and bought a house less than two miles from
Columbine to raise my two kids. While I would never call Columbine an
exciting place, I never felt the wanderlust that many people do. I
stayed precisely because of the quiet atmosphere and nearby amenities.
“Littlefun” maybe, but safe.
That safety was an illusion; the quiet atmosphere was shattered
Tuesday morning. I had no abstract feeling about “Wow, that’s my old
high school. Finally something has happened there.” My first thought
was “What do you mean that there’s shooting at the high school? That
can’t be happening.” While Stark may not care to call it home, for
thousands of families it is. I would have preferred
that the nation never know about Littleton and Columbine.
Maybe for Stark and the rest of the world this is a sad but
ultimately unimportant bit of news trivia, but for this community we
have to live with the scars for years to come. Every time I drive past
the school and my 4-year-old smiles and says, “That’s Mommy and
Daddy’s school,” I will remember the deaths of 12
young students, an extraordinary teacher and two boys who fell through
the cracks. Stark is probably right about us never knowing why it
happened, but that won’t stop me from trying to teach my kids that
violence is never the way to turn. They will know that even in a boring
suburban stain like Columbine, you can still learn something. The key
difference is they will learn about it from a killing ground — not through
smoked glass from 50 stories up.
– Dustin Duncan
BY JAMES PONIEWOZIK
I share Poniewozik’s belief that mainstream media have clumsily speculated on what
the Internet might have had to do with these killings. But there’s a
similar kneejerkism to his column. Every time the Internet
is mentioned in connection with anything evil, the online press (of which
I’m a part, as a longtime editor and contributor at Wired News) are quick
to mock their unsavvy brethren, noting that the Internet is “just another
communications medium,” or some such. But of course for years now the
online press has trumpeted the wonders of this mere medium, and not just
its commercial possibilities. We’ve talked endlessly about how it gives us
access to information previously unavailable or difficult to find; and about
what a glorious community-builder it is, how it allows people of like
interests to find each other — particularly people who are outside the
mainstream. Gays, geeks, goofs, nobody’s alone when they’ve got the Net.
But as wonderful as this development is — and I’ve shared in its wonders
– there may in fact be dangers that come along with it. The Internet isn’t
responsible for evil and never will be. But with the Internet, it probably
is easier for disturbed people — including troubled teens — to find
allies in evil, to find kinship in whatever thinking leads to this sort of
tragedy. And it probably is easier to find out how to find a gun, or make a
bomb. Can or will laws protect us from these dangers? I doubt it. But
denying the truth about the Internet sure won’t, either.
– Pete Danko
Applegate Valley, Ore.
Poniewozik’s thesis that reports are targeting the Internet as a
principal cause of this event is not supported even by the evidence he
cites. He is much more on target when he describes the “bizarre
potpourri of signifiers” the press has experimented with in its search
for an explanation. This time, at least, the Internet is pretty far
down the list.
Thanks to NBC we can now add the killers’ alleged obsession with the
computer game Doom. That hypothesis was used Wednesday evening to
justify showing Doom demons being blown to bits by automatic weapons,
all seen disturbingly from the shooter’s point of view.
What strikes me is the lack of superficial similarities between the
boys accused of the Colorado killings and the boys in Arkansas last
year (no Goths they), or the Kentucky boy before that. A search for
meaning to be found in dress or ideology or musical taste seems silly
when the details change so much from case to case.
Of course, the one true common thread that runs through all the school
rampage cases is the use of firearms. The arsenal in Littleton
included sawed-off shotguns and a semiautomatic rifle. The easy
availability of weapons to everyone, including children, is a
necessary condition for these killings. We should be worrying less about
the supposed deeper causes and do something about the obvious one.
– Paul Turner
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)