"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)
Camille Paglia: The “strange magic” of JFK Jr.
BY JOAN WALSH
Camille Paglia seems to be one of the few female academics who
will call it like they see it, rather than orienting their opinions
within the framework of some movement or interest group. Nevertheless,
Paglia’s opinions on the death of JFK Jr. and on the history of his
storied family reveal once more that the academy’s (or, at least, the
public intellectual’s) fascination with pop culture is the product of a
subversive desire for the cult of celebrity that has become so widespread in America. How can Paglia so sternly disapprove of Kennedy’s yen for high-risk activities only minutes before breathlessly elaborating her own school-girlish fascination with his athleticism and physical charisma?
Paglia is right about at least one thing: Much of the tragedy that has
befallen the Kennedy clan seems to be related to a legacy less akin to
the Roosevelts than to the Corleones. JFK’s mythological status, as
well as that of his more talented but less universally adored brother
Robert, has done much to obscure not only his own, well-documented infidelities and improprieties, but also those of his
father, who seems possibly to have invested his sons with the tradition
of self-serving ruthlessness that has become typical of the modern
American politician. At the least, Joe Kennedy definitely fostered
the sort of fearlessness and sense of entitlement that is typical of
those spoiled with wealth and power.
I also agree that the ostentatious pretension to devout
Catholicism that we have grown so accustomed to seeing from the Kennedys
is a bit nauseating given their apparent predilection toward behavior
even the most faithful of Catholics would have a hard time sharing with
their parish priest. The false piety Paglia indicts here, however, is
not exclusive to the Kennedys, but has become characteristic of the
American Christian church, both Catholic and Protestant. Christians in
America have become quite good at perverting our own inherited beliefs
to accommodate our secular desires. The
Kennedys are not exceptional, but they are particularly public examples
of the incompatibility of a nation that advocates total personal freedom
and a religion that, in its true essence, demands obedience.
Ultimately, however, Paglia fails in her assessment of the Kennedy’s
tragic history for the same reason that she felt compelled to discuss it
in the first place: her own deep fascination and sense of connection
with people she has come to believe she knows as more than simulacra of
human beings that have flooded her senses through the very same media she
so readily sneers at. Though it’s possible that Paglia is right in suggesting
that Kennedy Jr. was irresponsible with the lives of his passengers,
it’s more likely that he had developed a confidence in himself and a
trust of his own abilities — which had been tested and proven many times
before — that was clearly shared by his wife and sister-in-law. Getting
on an airplane is in and of itself an activity with
risks, however infinitesimal they may be described to be. It’s not up to
the Camille Paglias of the world to assess the wisdom or foolishness of
anyone who has tragically lost their life after willingly and knowingly
putting that life at risk.
– Edward Tarkington
I just want to express my gratitude and admiration for Camille Paglia’s
insights on the Kennedy tragedy. Lately, as a librarian, I have felt very
frustrated by the tendency of Americans to mistake bathos and melodrama
for profundity. I see sad evidence of this every day in their choice of
reading matter. Paglia, by her absolute lack of sentimentality, offers a
truly astute analysis of the “Kennedy myth” and what lies behind it.
– Roberta Rood
Before his death, I had no strong opinions about John Jr. I liked his
magazine, and admired the luscious women on his arm through the years.
But Camille Paglia’s vicious smearing of
the entire Kennedy clan is simply too much to take. Is it really
necessary to rehash the entire “reckless behavior” angle when there is no
real information on why the plane went down? Paglia obviously hates JFK, but kicking his son after his tragic death is beneath her.
– Tim Fogle
Camille Paglia responds: In 1960, as a 13-year-old in conservative Syracuse, N.Y., I campaigned for
John F. Kennedy. It was my first political experience, and I reveled in it.
Photos of Kennedy and vice presidential nominee Lyndon B. Johnson hung on my
bedroom wall, and I wrote my first protest letter when Kennedy was attacked
by the Republican editors of the daily newspaper. The electricity of the
Kennedy campaign zapped my entire generation into action — a hectic energy
that would get out of control by the end of the decade.
I adored Kennedy throughout his presidency, and I loved the way Jackie
brought glamour, style and culture to the White House after the sleepy,
stultifyingly middle-class Eisenhower years. Even today, when I realize how
little Kennedy actually managed to accomplish as president, I thrill at
footage of his press conferences, where he showed that quick wit and graceful
command that no politician has been able to duplicate in the television age
that Kennedy helped create.
Robert F. Kennedy, however, always struck me as a slick weasel, long before
the revelations began to tumble out about the backstage, ward-heeling
ruthlessness as well as brazen sexual exploitativeness of the Kennedy
brothers. RFK’s reputation as a compassionate populist is wildly overblown.
Kennedy propagandists, who swamped the TV screen for the week after JFK Jr.’s
death, have craftily altered RFK’s image from double-dealing bully-boy to lost
savior of mankind.
As for Ted Kennedy, who is still being sickeningly coddled by the sycophantic
major media, he deserved every single awful moment of misery as he
organized the funeral of his unlucky nephew. As far as I’m concerned, the
statute of limitations has not run out on Mary Jo Kopechne — who was left to
die in an air pocket in Kennedy’s submerged car as he ran off to save his
I’m sick of the Kennedys and their ever-thinning blood. The Democratic
Party, to which I belong, needs to revitalize itself with fresh leadership.
In the burst of emotion that most of us properly felt at the tragic loss of
so young and appealing a man as JFK Jr., I hope that the Kennedy saga is now
purged and ended as a long-running public drama.
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The Kennedy way of grief
BY JOAN WALSH
I enjoyed your Kennedy analysis, but really had to laugh at the
inferiority complex and the desperate fear Irish mothers had of being thought “shanty.”
My parents are just now allowing a mayonnaise jar at the table; until
recently, not transferring it into a little glass bowl for the three-step walk
from refrigerator to table was grounds for a fuss far beyond the gravity
of the etiquette offense. I was fixing a sandwich platter for them last
Sunday night, and I started putting mayo in a bowl. “Just bring the jar
over to the table,” my mother said. I was startled and asked why.
“Because it’s a lot easier,” she said. I’m still wondering if there’s something I
should be worried about …
– Pattie O’Donnell
I too am an Irish-American, not very far removed from Ireland.
There is a good reason that Irish families are stoic and dysfunctional. The
reason came to me while I was listening to a Native American
woman speak about the destruction of the Indian family pattern by the
white man’s practices. I suddenly realized that the role of the British,
especially from the 1600′s to the present, was probably the single most
important factor in present-day Irish psychological problems.
Before the British, there was no real poverty in Ireland; it was a
communal society that provided for its members. After Oliver Cromwell’s
army slaughtered one-quarter of the Catholic
population in the late 17th century, it would have been natural
and advisable to reveal little emotion to one’s enemy. (I can hear my
grandmother’s “I don’t want anyone knowing my business” ringing in my
ears as I write this.) When a million Irish people died (unnecessarily)
during the Great Hunger in the 1840s, another 2 million to 3 million got the hell out of Ireland in search of survival. Many of our forebears belong to this latter group, including most of my
father’s family, and I can vouch for an unhealthy sprinkling of
individuals therein affected by addiction and other dysfunctional and
codependent behaviors. Certainly there is a reluctance to talk about
these problems and a certain lack of emotion displayed in the face of
crisis — after all, you get used to it, don’t you?
I think that it is important to point out the cause of all this tragedy, to
understand the connection between treating whole cultures badly and the
subsequent dysfunctional behaviors they display. It helps us to
understand why many Indians, Irish, and African-Americans suffer
addiction, for example. And helps us to stop blaming them and calling
them weak when we realize that these are coping mechanisms passed down
through the generations.
– Veronica Fern
The great bad sex in “Eyes Wide Shut”
BY CHRIS COLIN
Philosophy of the bedroom
BY MARY GAITSKILL, GREIL MARCUS, DAVID GATES, LISA ZEIDNER AND A.M. HOLMES
Chris Colin’s article about Eyes Wide Shut would be more appropriately titled “Great Big Narcissists.” If Cruise and Kidman did indeed spend two years working with Kubrick to “get wooden,” then they really overdid it. The movie is nothing more than a vehicle for two supreme Hollywood egos — watching this famous couple prance and preen is almost as excruciating as reading their comments about the movie. Seems like Tom and Nicole were so blown away by their gorgeous, amber-lit selves that they missed the fact that the movie is an exercise in inflated pointlessness, a great pretty bubble of nothing that waits too long to pop.
– Leah Clarkson
I too am wondering where is the intriguing and dynamic
Stanley Kubrick film that took two years to make and was hyped to the hilt?
It certainly isn’t the “Eyes Wide Shut” I saw, which had
the suburban audience tittering in all the wrong places. This is one of the most
excruciating, mundane and disappointing movies I’ve seen in a very long time.
It is anti-erotic and misogynistic. The so-called orgy scenes
were as erotic as root canal. Where’s the acting ability of the Tom Cruise that was in “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Rain Man”? And that banging piano note was triggering a migraine!
This movie was so bad that I was hoping their daughter would get kidnapped
when they seemingly let her wander off in the toy store in that final scene. At least that would have
brought some excitement to the movie.
– Pauline Graham Binder
The foreigner as fetish
BY CARRIE LA SEUR
Carrie La Seur’s “The Foreigner as Fetish” was a nice respite from some of
the lesser travel pieces that have appeared in Salon recently. While still
somewhat egocentric, La Seur actually manages to convey to the reader a
mood and sensibility of another culture, another place. I feel subtly
enriched by this article, and I especially welcome it after the recent deluge of
prurient and self-absorbed “the sexual mores of other cultures are really
weird” fluff. Please, more stuff like this.
– Keith M Ellis
So, Carrie LaSeur was traumatized when two Japanese males showed her
some pornography and she thinks this tells us something about the “real
Japan.” Yeah, I’m sure that bores like that don’t exist in any other
society — Italy or Mexico, for instance, or any American construction site for that
What sort of insight was this article supposed to offer about Japan?
“American Woman Eats Raw Fish!” Stop the presses! “U.S. Citizen
Taunted by Japanese Children!” We’d better call in Charlene Barshefsky
to impose the appropriate trade sanctions. Why do so many easy-going, seasoned travelers suddenly turn into prudish hot-house flowers when they step off the plane at Narita?
– Andrew Huston
BY NICOLE GRASSE
Before I worked in a strip club, I had the same sort of fantasies about
stripping that many other women have: I’d go up onstage, dance and sway to
the music, and slowly and tantalizingly remove my clothing to the obvious
admiration of a roomful of men. It would be empowering and sexy and a big
turn-on. That’s not what stripping’s about. Stripping’s about sitting on
the lap of a balding, fat, middle-aged, socially inept mouth-breather and
grinding on his dick for three and a half minutes — or worse. And, let me
tell you, where I worked it was the “or worse” that made a dancer the big
The men are cluelessly under the impression that what they’re experiencing
has to do with desire and sex. The dancers are an emotional mess — there is
no sorority of sisterhood. Everyone’s there to make as much money as
possible from the owner to the management to the waitresses to the dancers.
Make no mistake — this is a business. And it’s as cutthroat and bottom-line
oriented as any I’ve ever encountered.
Nicole Grasse is either being intentionally disingenuous and exceedingly
misleading in her article, or she worked in a stripping utopia totally unlike
the environment surrounding nude dancing everywhere else. I’m guessing that
the former is the case, and I truly hope that not one single woman — either
wanting to fulfill a longtime fantasy or in need of a well-paying job
requiring little to no useful skills — decides to start stripping because of
this article. Stripping isn’t at all a desirable way to pay the bills. I’d
rather clean toilets for a living; it’s a much more pleasant way to spend
the work day.
– S. Hooper
I am a mid-30s, attractive woman who just completed a B.A. from a
prestigious women’s institution in Massachusetts, and I don’t at all think stripping is the worst thing that can happen to a hard-working and class-challenged individual in the Ivy League setting.
The thing that happened to me was that a professor, a man of the established intellectual elite, whose approval I desperately sought to gain, took a subtle little fancy to me. I was taken and wowed, and the rest is one sad history. The place to which I paid dear and as-yet-unearned dollars is now frightening and inhospitable. I learned suddenly that this man (and several like him) enjoy the privilege of help-yourself sexual relationships on campus, knowing full well that little or no repercussion will result. What with tenure and all, the college community, despite complaint and protest, elects to do nothing about it. Congratulations to your author for choosing the higher, dancing ground.
– B. Anderson
The clincher is in the line, “Spin
wrote that, ‘by turning men into human ATM machines,’ stripping had become the
ultimate act of feminism.” That is exactly why I will never go to a strip
club. Men are not wallets. If women don’t want to be objectified, then
don’t behave the way you don’t want men to behave toward you.
– Peter Dudley
I find apologists for the sex industry as strange as its denouncers. It can be demeaning and exploitative for certain people, and it can be a source of power and freedom for others. The sex industry is just like any other industry; it can exploit its workers, and it can empower them. Can stripping help the girls who do not share her background and advantages? The vast majority of people in the sex business work there for money rather than a need to be liberated, or to feel sexy. Everyone knows that money is power, so why do some women who make the money still not have the power?
– Linus Chan
“Talk about demeaning: I had to wear a hair net, brew coffee and swallow the
bilious attitudes of crabby state workers at the crack of dawn,” Grasse
writes. Our hearts break for you. A mere 45 minutes east of Madison on Highway 12 sits the community of Fort Atkinson, where Grasse could have easily found employment at the
editorial department of one of the nation’s largest publishers of trade
magazines. But that would have meant Grasse might have to leave the
friendly confines of Madison’s college scene, where you are always within a
three-block walk of any number of health-code violating college bars and don’t have to live life with any sort of responsibility. I guess it’s better to take off your clothes than to take a stand and get a job and a living, and accept life beyond the conformable confines of a college community.
– Gabe Wollenburg
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)