"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)
Greetings, Salon readers! My column returns after summer hiatus with a new format, which will allow greater flexibility as we move into
the 2000 political season. I will continue to respond to questions, however,
and the column will as usual cover the full range of contemporary issues,
from culture to politics.
My summer report begins with my enormous sense of satisfaction and relief
over the renewal of public attention to the Waco disaster, which was so foul
an affront to American civil liberties. The abortive investigation into the
1993 incident, in which more than 80 members of cult leader David Koresh’s Branch Davidian religious sect died in a fire at their Texas compound, is currently being blamed on the FBI’s
withholding of crucial information from Attorney General Janet Reno, who had
just assumed office.
But the major media, with their strongly liberal bias, are equally guilty,
for in trying to protect the new Democratic president, Bill Clinton, they let
Reno get away scot-free with her blatant mismanagement of the Waco standoff.
At the quickly convened congressional hearing into Waco in 1993, Reno’s
self-righteous invocation of the child-abuse card deserved to be derided and
rejected by the media, who were already in a state of collective amnesia over
the appalling spectacle of government tanks knocking down the buildings of a
Where were America’s leftists after Waco? Diddling their thumbs in their
urban and campus coteries, as usual. The shocking absence of protest about
this incident drove the issue underground. It reemerged two years later on
the lunatic far right, in Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the federal office
building in Oklahoma City on the anniversary of Waco, at the cost of 168
This is a good example of what I have described as the principle of rightward
drift in populist thought (a phenomenon also germane to the endless blunders
of insular gay activism). When authentic critique is silenced or censored by
the left, issues drift subliminally to the right, where they burst out again
full-formed as fascist violence.
Government authority was illegitimately used at Waco — and one fascism begot
another. A side effect has been the destruction of yet another female
professional reputation: Janet Reno’s mishandling of Waco, like Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright’s folly in leading us into a senseless, hideously expensive war over
Kosovo, shows that women, when placed in high office, can be just as
incompetent as men.
The summer’s major political news was the inability of anointed crown prince
Al Gore to get any traction in his campaign for next year’s Democratic
presidential nomination. Gore’s much-vaunted image makeover — a leaner
physique and casual polo shirts — has actually reduced his viability even
further. His old relaxed portliness gave him mass and authority, ` la
Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Now, with a hyped-up, barking manner and a
suspiciously freshened look around the eyes, Gore has lost his soft, slow
and Southern sensual appeal. He looks pasty and petty, like a shaved terrier.
Bill Bradley’s tiresome, phlegmatic monotone has begun to seem more and more
substantive, but his candidacy remains a blank slate to most people outside
of New Jersey, which he represented in the U.S. Senate for 18 years. I saw a striking sign of Bradley’s potential bipartisan appeal
at a family wedding in upstate New York in August: A recently televised
Bradley speech was being praised by my older Italian-American relatives — the
very voters whom the Democrats lost in the chaotic late 1960s, when Richard
Nixon rode the “law-and-order” issue into the White House.
presidential,” they approvingly remarked — implicitly acknowledging that the
untested Gov. George W. Bush, the likely Republican nominee, does not. If a
Bradley nomination can pull these long-disaffected FDR Democrats back to the
fold, the Democratic Party will have triumphantly revitalized itself at last.
Another news tidbit from the summer: the preposterous trial balloon of a Warren Beatty
presidential candidacy. Much as I adored Beatty in classic
films like “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), “The Parallax View” (1974) and
“Shampoo” (1975), his track record as a political analyst is pretty dismal,
and the evidence of his commitment to public service, or to any group outside
his Hollywood coterie, is nonexistent. “Bulworth” (1998), which Beatty
directed and starred in, is an awful film, clumsy and manipulative and
betraying a grotesquely condescending view of “the people” that is typical of
armchair leftism. Warren, please refocus! We need better movies, not
Hillary Clinton’s quixotic flirtation with a senatorial candidacy in New York
hogged press attention this summer, eclipsing the Gore campaign (perhaps
fatally) as well as the pioneering presidential run of Republican Elizabeth Dole
— who, despite her retchingly saccharine persona, deserves a lot more
credit for her gritty, sweaty, rumpled take-it-to-the-streets approach, a
marked contrast to the cloistered, royalist tour that Secret Service-pampered
Hillary is making at taxpayer expense.
As a now-disillusioned early admirer of the Clintons, I contributed a few
darts to the Hillary melee via a May interview
with Charlotte Hays, editor of
the Women’s Quarterly of the Independent Women’s Forum.
The most unexpectedly popular of my remarks seems to
have been my description of Hillary’s shadowy male cabal — Harold Ickes, Ira
Magaziner, et al. — as “eunuch geeks,” a term Liz Smith seized on to lead off
her syndicated column. (With his satiric gift for capturing American speech
patterns, Rush Limbaugh did a great imitation of my Brenda
Vaccaro-on-a-rampage delivery as he read this extended passage from the
interview twice on his radio show.) My most serious charge against Hillary,
however, was that she is an “authoritarian” who does not understand how
democratic government works.
My favorite TV moment of the summer was philosopher-warrior Christina Hoff
Sommers telling the terminally vapid, chokingly mop-tressed rocker Sophie B.
Hawkins on the Aug. 16 “Politically Incorrect,” “Mother Nature is not a
feminist” — to which Cybele, Astarte and Kali undoubtedly sent up rousing
Mother Nature certainly spoke with a bang in Turkey, site of so much troubled
and glorious ancient history. It gave me the shivers when the first reports
about the inconceivably catastrophic Aug. 17 earthquake located it along
the “Anatolian fault” — since Anatolia was the provenance of the bloody cult
of the Great Mother, with her sacrificial, pretty-boy son-lover and her
castrated, transvestite priests. The Drudge Report flagged a fascinating
Aug. 20 account from the Times of London about a giant tidal wave that hit a coastal resort on the Sea of
Marmara in the quake’s aftermath, replaying a geologic scenario that may have
produced the biblical description of the parting of the Red Sea that drowned
Human vulnerability to nature’s caprices was also dramatized by this summer’s
severe drought, which affected many regions of the United States, including my own.
Safe in their affluent enclaves, members of the major media seem to have been
virtually untouched by this disaster, except as it hampered the watering of
their lawns and golf courses. The superb, invisible efficiency of our
capitalist distribution system (which I celebrated in my first book) ensured
that the food supply has remained uninterrupted in the Northeast, to which
produce is trucked from California.
But the horrifying absence of rain, week after week, should have unnerved
every sensible person. It showed how quickly famine struck in the
pre-industrial era — and how quickly climate can change, bringing down even
the proudest and most powerful of cultures. If you don’t believe me, go
ponder the desert map of Iraq — once-fertile Mesopotamia, where Babylon ruled.
Pop conundrum of the summer: Are Ricky Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow the same
person? Their tight, artificial, paper-doll smiles look like they were etched
by the same syrupy fantasist — Kathie Lee Gifford with PMS. God, I’m so sick of
that pair! The post-Tilberis, visually reinvigorated Harper’s Bazaar, with
its dynamite cover photo of a stylishly lounging Lauryn Hill, kicks Vogue’s
ass this month: Vogue’s stale September cover girl is the ever-awkward
Paltrow, all pointy elbows and empty smirks, as if she’s running for spindle
It was a tepid summer in music. Jennifer Lopez’s album, “On the 6,” with its
sophisticated blend of Madonna and Janet Jackson, had real staying power. My
partner Alison’s favorite song on the disc is the hit “If You Had My Love,”
while mine are “Waiting for Tonight” and the rhythmically complex “It’s Not
That Serious,” whose bouncing, thumping bass line reminds me of the raucous
Italian-American mass festivities of my youth. I don’t approve, however, of
Lopez’s increasingly bleached-out Anglo look or that shortsighted reduction
of her very ripe Latin booty.
My music study for the summer was devoted to three operas: the 1960 Teatro
alla Scala recording of Bellini’s “Norma,” starring Maria Callas (whose 1954
“Norma” is of course canonical); the 1952 RCA recording of Verdi’s “Il
Trovatore” with Jussi Bjoerling and Zinka Milanov (my late friend Jim
Fessenden’s favorite soprano after Callas); and the 1982-83 Decca recording
of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” with Luciano Pavarotti (as the “Governor of
Boston”!), Margaret Price, Christa Ludwig and Kathleen Battle, in fine voice
in her travesti role as Oscar.
Our valediction comes from “The Passion of Ayn Rand,” a 1998 Showtime program
that was just released on video and that stinks in many ways but hits the
mark in others. Confronting two tremulous visitors, Rand, played by the
surprisingly effective Helen Mirren (never a favorite of mine but here as
campy as Tallulah), demands, “Tell me your principles.” They dutifully
respond with Rand-speak that sounds like vintage Paglia: “To think for
myself. To reach my own conclusions. To seek truth wherever it might lead.”
See you in two weeks!
Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems." You can write her at this address.More Camille Paglia.
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)